Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & The Biggest Flop Of The Season – 1959 to 2009
If you can identify the three photos on the left side of the cover as being from Camelot, Cats and Hairspray, you will enjoy this book. If you can identify the three photos on the right side of the cover as being from Nick and Nora, Sunset Boulevard and Capeman, you don’t need me to suggest you buy the book. Chances are you are so devoted to even the arcane aspects of Broadway musicals that you have already ordered it.
Peter Filichia — the well known, well liked and well respected reviewer and writer about musical theatre — is famous for his eye for detail, fascination for trivia, love of the genre and the generosity of his coverage. That’s not to say he never says a negative word about anything. Shows, performances and recordings that don’t measure up are in for a drubbing, but it is almost always a generous one. He never seems to let the negatives in a mixed bag obscure the positives, and he gives both credit and criticism where it is due. For example, he finds very little nice to say about the original production of Big River (see pages 143 to146). He doesn’t pull his punches with his positive opinions, either. He flat out says of Peter Stone’s book for 1776 that it is “the best libretto that the musical theater has ever seen.”
As the title says, the book consists of a discussion of 100 shows, the biggest hit and the biggest flop in each of the 50 seasons from 1959/1960 to 2008/2009. His choice for “the biggest hit” is almost always the obvious choice, although it isn’t always the single show that had the longest run. He applies some personal criteria to the selection. He has much more leeway in selecting “the biggest flop,” and he takes full advantage of it to write about the shows that fascinated him the most or that have the most interesting story. Some are shows that were slated to open on Broadway and never even made it there, having been canceled during out of town tryouts. Others managed to begin previews or even opened and ran a few nights. Flops from 1959‘s The Pink Jungle to 2009‘s 9 to 5, all give Filichia a chance to spin an intriguing tale.
For most of the hits, he assumes his readers are sufficiently familiar with the show that he can write about its strengths and weaknesses, its history and its place in the careers of its cast and creators without spending much time on a synopsis. For the flops, however, he often has to provide a summary of the on stage events. Just reading his precis of Lolita, My Love is disturbing – the musical having been based on the pedophilial novel “Lolita.”
At times Filichia’s discussion of flops sounds like he’s auditioning for a job as a show doctor – telling us not so much what the show was like, but what he saw as its problems and by extension how he’d fix them. His article on Bob Merrill’s 1978 musical for Robert Preston, The Prince of Grand Street, lists the eleven fatal flaws of the show and, in the process, gets a bit tiresome. But the great thing about this book is that whenever you start to get a bit frustrated at one aspect of a write up, there’s another write up just a page or two away that will redeem the entire volume. It is not a book you will read from cover to cover. Instead, for greatest enjoyment, pick it up and read a couple of entries before putting it aside for a while.
No matter how extensive your store of obscure trivia about Broadway might be, I’ll wager that you will learn something you didn’t already know about each of the 100 shows and that you will be glad to know most of them.
The book is replete with Filichia’s trademark stretching to make connections. The stretches are almost always fun and the connections often illuminating. Plus he peppers the book with tabulations or details on the business of show business. For example, in discussing1963’s season he mentions that Irving Berlin’s last musical, Mr. President, opened with a $1 million advance, meaning that the box office had taken in that huge sum even before the show opened. But just how “huge” was $1 million 47 years ago and how can you compare it to today’s Broadway? Filichia calculated that at the price of tickets then, $1 million was the equivalent of 150 sold out performances. “Today, a show with a $1 million advance can’t sell out a week” he says.
He’s also checked and reported that “Since September 10, 1979 when Evita began previews at the Broadway Theater (sic), there hasn’t been a day that Andrew Lloyd Webber hasn’t been represented on Broadway.” That’s classic Peter Filichia.
In addition to assuming his readers already know a great deal about Broadway, Filichia seems to assume they are familiar with New York as well. He’s got stories about events at Joe Allen’s and does not bother to explain that Joe Allen’s is a restaurant on 46th Street. But he includes some out-of-town stories of interest as well. For example, he tells of the 1967 opening night of the flop spy musical, Mata Hari at Washington’s National Theatre when the leading lady, having been shot by firing squad, nonetheless reaches up to fix an errant eyelash garnering what Filichia reports was “the biggest laugh” of the night.
It is a shame that the publisher, Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, didn’t chose to illustrate the book with production photos. While most of us know full well what The Phantom of the Opera or A Chorus Line looked like, it would have been fun to see some samples of Frank Loesser’s Pleasures and Palaces that failed to reach Broadway in 1965, Alan Jay Lerner and Charles Strouse’s 1983 Dance a Little Closer, or of Marvin Hamlisch and Howard Ashman’s 1986 Smile.
While they were at it, Applause could have included an index for the book … any volume this full of interesting tiny details and asides requires one … and even a map of the theatre district in New York with symbols for which shows played where. Many of the theatres mentioned have been renamed. You may find yourself checking other volumes to find out just where a particular story was set because, after all, Peter Filichia tells fascinating stories!