This 2004 Broadway flop has a very interesting and frankly rather inspirational story behind its creation that can best be described as a real-life cross between Once and The Fisher King. Sadly, that inspirational quality is undercut by the fact that this backstory is a hundred times more interesting than the story of the actual musical. The authors claim to have based this story on their own experiences, but frankly they would have been better off simply writing a straightforward stage memoir about the musical’s own writing process.
For the record, the show was by no means wholly without merit. The visual designs were extremely creative, with sets and costumes literally made out of trash, and the original Broadway cast featured some very strong and emotive singers, particularly Eden Espinosa as the title character and Ramona Keller as the villain.
There was a lot of pre-Broadway buzz about how interesting the music was supposed to be, but when the show actually reached Broadway, the critics unanimously dismissed the score. In reality, the score is a fine one, with lovely melodies that show off the singers’ voices beautifully, surprisingly penetrating lyrics, and a subtly unusual sound rather reminiscent of the more accessible portions of Elizabeth Swados’ scores.
Especially interesting is “Raven” for the show’s villainous diva Miss Paradice, which offers perhaps the most insightful look at how it feels to be the villain since The Who recorded “Behind Blue Eyes” (the chorus runs “I’ll fly like a raven/in a sky full of doves/I’ll make you love to hate me/but that’s still love, that’s still love”).
But because its relentless belting and overwrought emotionalism bore a superficial resemblance to the standard, American Idol-influenced ballad-pop of the early 2000s, the critics rejected it almost violently, a move that only really makes sense if you fully grasp how paranoid Broadway was at the time about being taken over by the Pop world.
But the show’s poor reception as a whole can’t really be blamed on the critics’ reaction to the score. Unfortunately, all these strong elements I’ve described are completely destroyed by the show’s actual story. The show was apparently supposed to be a modern commentary on fairy tales, but it wound up playing more like a very depressing version of a children’s bedtime story.
The plot is a hoary old ‘orphan looking for her real father’ cliché, and even uses the ‘unfinished melody’ device most famously associated with Naughty Marietta…a plot device that was already shorthand for uninspired and outdated writing when Anya used it back in the Sixties. This problem is worsened by the treacly, preachy book, which is written almost entirely in platitudinous would-be aphorisms.
Due to its Cinderella-esque backstory, everyone, critics and audiences alike, wanted to like this show, but in spite of that estimable advantage, the show disappeared forever in record time after gaining a reputation as a monotonous exercise is soulless, saccharine sentimentality. And while I’m not entirely sure if that out-of-hand dismissal was entirely deserved, I can’t really argue the show deserved to succeed either.
Every potentially interesting element of the show was rendered irrelevant by the insularity of the story, and even the score, while it is the show’s biggest asset, isn’t on the level of the great Cult Flops scores. This probably deserved to be treated as a more interesting failure than anyone seemed to realize it was, but it is still unquestionably a failure, and the inspirational circumstances of its creation can’t really change that fact.