If it was a smash on screen, why wouldn’t it be a smash on stage? The answer to this question seems to have evaded many a musical theatre producer, including the team that brought one of the greatest movie musicals, Singin’ in the Rain, to the stage for its Broadway debut 37 years ago today in 1985. Happy anniversary! Let’s take a look at a couple of the biggest screen-to-stage floparoos of the 1980s, three from Broadway and one from the touring circuit.
Let’s start with the show that flopped on tour. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Gigi had already flopped on Broadway in 1973 and was destined to flop again in 2015. It would also fail on the West End in 1985, a year after this revival with the original film’s Gaston, Louis Jourdan, lip-syncing his way through the role of Honoré. Let’s face it: Gigi is not destined to be a stage success. Whatever charm was perceived in the tale of the titular teenage girl being trained up as a high-society courtesan in the 1950s had already become creepy by the 1970s. For discerning contemporary audiences, it is all just too much to bear, not because – as those who defend this sort of thing will attest – the world is too politically correct, but because Gigi, as it stands, has little to say to the world today.
3. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
The first attempt to bring Seven Brides for Seven Brothers to Broadway stalled on tour. It was 1978 and Howard Keel and Jane Powell reprised the roles they had played on film almost a quarter-century earlier. Creative differences between the stars and the production team shut down the production and it would be another four years before the show would have its chance to flop on Broadway too. Lawrence Kasha and David Landay wrote the book for the show, with Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn augmenting Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer’s song score from the film. When the show closed after five performances, critic Frank Rich (who called the show a ‘threadbare touring package that [was] mistakenly unpacked on Broadway’ with additions to the film’s score that ‘might benefit by being left unmiked’) was blamed by the company, who staged a protest outside the offices of The New York Times. Their objections didn’t make the show any better.
2. Meet Me in St Louis
Meet Me in St Louis closed out the decade with a 252-performance run. Very few people, it seems, wanted to meet the Smith family at the fair. Although ties to the film that inspired the show were strong, with Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin still around to augment their score, which of course owed a great deal to the work that Roger Edens had done back in the 1940s, Hugh Wheeler did not succeed in his attempts to focus the book more on the entire family instead of mostly on Esther and, one supposes, dilute memories of Judy Garland’s iconic performances of “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s as though he was handed a fool’s errand instead of a contract. Despite considerable polish in the aesthetic and staging, the show never caught fire and wrestled, as many shows of this kind do, with the feeling of being a copy of a copy of a copy.
1. Singin’ in the Rain
Singin’ in the Rain has had a fair deal of international success in newer touring productions, but this was not something written in the stars for the original Broadway production, which followed a West End bow two years earlier. The approach of the stage show was to mimic the film as closely as possible, thus we see a book credited to Betty Comden and Adolph Green and the expected score by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. Twyla Tharp reproduced the film’s choreography for the stage. All of the key moments from the film were brought to life in three dimensions. And while everything had a professional sheen to it, there was, by all accounts, no spark to speak of. Live theatre needs more than a mock show popping out of a mock cake. In the words of Frank Rich, ‘what is most likely to be remembered about this Singin’ in the Rain is the rain.’
Of the splashy adaptations of movie musicals to hit Broadway in that decade, only one was a success: 42nd Street. Why? Perhaps it was just that bit farther back in the public’s memory. More likely, it was because the show retold the film’s story in its own way rather than simply trying to capture something of what made the original so magical in the first place.
Do you have any special memories of the shows we’ve listed today? Head on to the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.