The Sixties had their share of disasters, too. The most notorious of all of them was probably Kelly, which received a ridiculous amount of media attention for a show that was obviously going to flop from day one, and wound up the first musical of the post-war era to close in a single night.
Kelly was pretty severely mauled on the way to Broadway by its producers, but it didn’t really have a chance on Broadway anyway (which is probably why its producers were trying so hard to “fix” it). Put simply, it was designed to never have a chance: this was one of the first examples of what I call a “hurt-the-audience” show on Broadway, and it left a legacy that would be picked up by such aggressively avant-garde composers as Elizabeth Swados and Michael John Lachiusa. Like those composers’ shows, Kelly was far from artistically worthless—heard today in its pre-Broadway form, the score features some genuinely haunting melodies and interesting, at times even dazzling lyrics.
The problem is that the show’s premise, about a guy who plans to jump off the Brooklyn bridge, and ultimately does so, is just a really bad idea for a show (no, he’s not suicidal, he’s just an idiot…he seems to think if he survives, he’ll be regarded as a local hero instead of the biggest idiot in town, and the show’s writers apparently agree). This off-putting premise, combined with the abrasiveness and inaccessibility of the score and the general unpleasantness of the show’s presentation, resulted in a fascinating and unique piece that absolutely no-one wanted to see. It bears a striking resemblance to another early “hurt-the-audience” show from a decade or so earlier, Marc Blitzstein’s Reuben Reuben, and indeed, may well have been specifically inspired by it, given that both shows feature the threat of jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge as a key plot point. That said, even Reuben Reuben had the sense not to make the hero go through with it (yes, Kelly ultimately survives, but this is still a musical about a pointless Jackass stunt).
Bob Merrill, after doing the best work of his career early in the Sixties with Take Me Along, Carnival, and his lyrics to Jule Styne’s score for Funny Girl, became involved in two massively disappointing shows later in the decade. Henry, Sweet Henry, the better of the two (comparatively speaking, at least), has become the all-time byword for Broadway mediocrity.
Based on the movie The Secret World of Henry Orient, Henry, Sweet Henry was little more than a mediocre cosplay of the movie. The intention was for the music to deepen the film’s feelings, but the score added nothing, varying between the pleasant but undistinguished and the downright embarrassing. The former category includes some sweet but cheesy ballads for the heroine and her sidekick (“In Some Little World”, “Here I Am”, “I Wonder How It Is”, “Do You Ever Go to Boston?”), and two belted showstoppers for a young firespitter named Alice Playten, who played a kind of small-time villain and wound up stealing the show. Examples of the latter category would be the vulgar “Pillar to Post”, the cheesy Hippie production number “Weary Near to Dyin’” (especially inadequate given that this was the same season in which Hair debuted), and a stupid comedy duet called “To Be Artistic”. This last song is notable only for one clever line referencing then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, a line that has only become funnier in the decades since it was written.
The other of Merrill’s two Sixties bombs, the musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, started out as merely an obnoxious, unfunny failed recreation of a hit movie…not any good, certainly, but the kind of failure that’s a dime a dozen in musical theater both then and now. It was when Edward Albee was brought in to rewrite the book that it truly turned into a disaster.
The original draft of the musical had been based on the movie, rather than Truman Capote’s original novella, but Albee’s approach bore virtually no resemblance to either the novel or the film. Albee basically turned the plot into a story-within-a-story being improvised by a writer (played by Richard Chamberlein). Holly Golightly, the female lead of the book and movie (played here by Mary Tyler Moore), is thus turned into a fictional character created by Chamberlein who winds up rebelling against his control and taking on a will of her own.
There are ways to make this kind of idea work, but the result in this case was an insufferably pretentious piece of metafiction that made no sense and strangled any plot suspense or emotional involvement it might have risked producing. To make matters worse, Merrill’s score was only slightly better than his work on Henry, Sweet Henry and couldn’t begin to compete with the film’s famous theme song, “Moon River”.
Because of the source material and the stars, people had largely ignored the horror stories from the out-of-town tryouts and bought tickets anyway, and the show had enough advance sales to run over a year. But David Merrick, the show’s producer and one of Broadway’s biggest (and most hated) producing moguls, actually decided this show might be bad enough to ruin his career, and cancelled it three days before the scheduled opening, refunding all the ticket money and ensuring the show’s status as a legendary disaster. I mean, what other show with an advance that big has ever had to be withdrawn just to evade the potential public backlash?
Probably the two most notorious flops of the Sixties in terms of theatrical legend were Kelly and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but if you ask a serious theatre historian (especially one that was alive at the time) what the actual worst musical of the Sixties was, the answers you’re most likely to get are either Ilya, Darling or How Now, Dow Jones.
The former, based on the classic film Never on Sunday, was conceived as a stage vehicle for that film’s star, Melina Mercouri, by her husband, Jules Dassin, who had directed the original film. Mercouri was by all accounts a capable leading lady, even singing well, but almost everything else about the show was rock-bottom horrible.
The book was by all accounts unutterably stupid, and while composer Milos Hadjidakis, who had composed the iconic score for the source film, managed to come up with a few good melodies, Joe Darion’s lyrics were appalling, with song titles like “Heaven Help the Sailors on a Night Like This” and “I’ll Never Lay Down Anymore”. I don’t know what happened to Darion…his two other major efforts, Man of La Mancha and the beloved cult flop Shinbone Alley, featured marvelous lyrics, but he seems to have abruptly lost his mind here.
Truth to tell, films with iconic scores rarely make for successful musical adaptations, even if this show attempted the now-common tactic of interpolating its famous theme song into the stage show. And frankly, even the few good numbers in this score pale in comparison to the other Bouzuki-influenced Broadway score that season, Kander and Ebb’s Zorba. Like a number of terrible shows in that era, Ilya Darling managed to eke out a surprisingly long run due to theater parties booking it on the strength of the source material and cast, somehow managing to make the 300-performance mark before finally shutting down.
Probably the absolute worst Broadway Musical of the Sixties, though, is How Now Dow Jones. First of all, the plot is so absurd, idiotic and utterly detached from reality that it makes the rest of the shows in this section look credible. Basically, the announcer of stock market averages is engaged to a wealthy stockbroker who says he won’t marry her until the Dow Jones industrial average hits 1,000 (which it had never yet done at the time this show was written). After she gets pregnant by another man, she makes a false announcement in order to get her fiancee to marry her, almost causes a stock market crash, gets saved by a nonsensical deus ex machina, and suffers no repercussions whatsoever for her actions.
On top of that, the score is the most laughably terrible collection of songs heard on Broadway since Ankles Aweigh and Whoop-Up, with even the showstoppers, “He’s Here” and “Step to the Rear”, being embarrassing. Given this combination of a terrible story and a terrible score, why did David Merrick (who was also the producer behind this show) let it come into town and run a wildly undeserved eight months on the advance sale, while cancelling Breakfast at Tiffany’s at the last minute? Simple—Breakfast at Tiffany’s, because of the source material and the glamorous television stars playing the leads, was by definition a high-profile disaster that was likely to attract undue media attention.
How Now, Dow Jones, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of turd that easily slips under the media’s radar. Its score was by a film composer (an acclaimed one, admittedly…Elmer Bernstein had written the scores to The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Ten Commandments, among others…but the general public rarely knows the names of film composers). Carolyn Leigh was the lyricist and had apparently come up with the whole stupid idea in the first place, but as much as I hate to agree with William Goldman, lyricists don’t matter that much in terms of publicity unless they’re living legends like Hammerstein or Lerner, and Leigh never quite reached that tier (possibly because she was involved in too many shows like this one). As for the cast, only one name (Tony Roberts) means anything today, and even he wasn’t famous yet when the show came out (he was still being billed as ‘Anthony Roberts’ at the time). So in any case, this show didn’t get withdrawn, and ran eight months almost entirely on the advance sale, which itself was based on little more than Merrick’s name and a catchy title.
Speaking of shows that ran longer than they had any business doing, Jule Styne and the team of Comden and Green contributed one of Sixties Broadway’s most persistent annoyances, Subways Are For Sleeping. In its original draft, this show was transparently an attempt at a royalty-free adaptation of the classic early film musical Hallelujah, I’m a Bum with a new title and score but virtually the same story. This is harder to discern from the version that actually made it to Broadway, primarily because the show’s two leads (Sydney Chaplin and Carol Lawrence) hated each other so much and were so bad at hiding that animosity in their stage performances that the show had to be completely rewritten to emphasize the secondary couple, played by Phyllis Newman and Orson Bean.
The show takes the romanticization of the dropout lifestyle seen in Hallelujah, I’m a Bum and ratchets it up to patently absurd levels, portraying its homeless people as incongruously well-dressed free spirits who seem quite happy living from odd job to odd job and never knowing where their next meal is coming from. At least Hallelujah, I’m a Bum had some degree of connection with reality: this show’s portrayal of the experience of being homeless is so sugar-coated that it would be extremely offensive today (and I have to assume would have been in poor taste even at the time).
The score has two or three superb numbers: a fairly enduring hit tune in the extremely catchy “Comes Once in a Lifetime”, a hysterically funny comic narrative for Newman’s character called “I Was a Shoo-In”, and a title-song that ranks as one of the most ambitious and fascinating things Styne ever wrote.
But the rest of the score, while for the most part capable and tuneful, was conventional and not really all that interesting: a generic ballad of yearning for Lawrence, “Girls Like Me”, formulaic love songs like “Who Knows What Might Have Been”, “I Said It and I’m Glad”, and “How Can You Describe a Face?”, lively but empty production numbers in “Ride Through the Night” and “Be a Santa”, and an amusing but fairly obvious comedy number for Bean, “I Just Can’t Wait”. And “Swing Your Projects”, Chaplin’s narrative on how he ruined his own career in finance, is a complete dud, bizarre and embarrassing.
Like I said, thanks to a series of increasingly asinine publicity stunts by David Merrick (yeah, he was responsible for this one too), this show managed to stick around for six months, but even cult flop enthusiasts tend to all but ignore its existence these days, and save for an occasional echo of “Comes Once in a Lifetime”, it’s pretty much vanished into the ether.
Another terrible show that hung around like a bad rash was Skyscraper. An adaptation of Elmer Rice’s play Dream Girl (albeit one so loose that it was almost unrecognizable by the time it actually opened), the show featured exactly three good songs (“Everybody Has the Right to be Wrong”, “More Than One Way”, and “I’ll Only Miss Her When I Think of Her”), all of which were transparently written to be Frank Sinatra singles (the score had been written by Frank’s in-house songwriting team, Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn), and didn’t have a damn thing to do with the actual story. The rest of the score consisted of labored, embarrassing and bizarre comic set pieces, featuring the worst lyrics of Sammy Cahn’s career (and remember, this is the guy who wrote “What Makes the Red Man Red?”), and the plot was a dull, go-nowhere romantic comedy padded out with a bunch of utterly irrelevant dream sequences.
Why did this turd manage to last six months when frankly better shows from that era sometimes closed in a week? Two reasons. The first is that it starred Julie Harris, a genuine star of the dramatic stage (though she never did another musical), and a lot of people (especially the theater parties that made up a huge chunk of Broadway’s business at the time) bought tickets purely because of her presence. The second is that a gossip columnist made an off-hand remark in her column about how terrible the show was during the out-of-town tryout: the Broadways critics, seeing this as an infringement on their turf, proceeded to pretend the show was better than it actually was in a misguided attempt at getting their own back. Given how rank garbage like this, Ilya Darling, Subways Are For Sleeping and How Now, Dow Jones were able to eke out runs of half a year or more, one almost wonders if Merrick was being too cautious when he withdrew Breakfast at Tiffany’s.