I like to think that nobody deliberately sets out to write a bad musical. Every composer, lyricist, and librettist who has ever set pen to paper, hands to piano keys, or fingers to computer keyboard has had it in his or her mind to craft something of quality.
But, as I'm fond of telling my students, quality is always the exception. In any art form, there will always be a bell curve of artistic achievement. The factors that contribute to the creation of the works in the top percentiles are just as numerous and ineffable as those that drive the works at the bottom. And there's really no predicting which ideas will lead straight to artistic success, nor which ideas will lead to disappointment.
In my previous post, I listed what I considered to be the Best Musicals of 2011. Now, let's focus on the worst. The following list comprises the disasters, the defeats, the debacles, the downfalls, the drubbings of the year, with comments from me as to why, at least for me, the shows came up short. I think some of you will be surprised by some of the omissions: Bonnie & Clyde, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Lysistrata Jones, Queen of the Mist, The Legend of Julie, Lucky Guy, Silence - The Musical. All are shows that I wrote negative reviews about (or am about to, in the case of Bonnie and Clyde and On a Clear Day), and that could easily have made the list. But I found the following ten musicals, for a variety of reasons, more egregious than any of those. And it's my list, so there.
Click on the initial mention of the title of each show to read my original reviews.
10. Yeast Nation - The follow-up show from Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, the creators of Urinetown, had been a long time aborning when it finally made it to NYC under the auspices of the New York Fringe Festival, which, not coincidentally, was where Urinetown received its breakthrough production. Yeast Nation was the runaway hit of the Festival this year, selling out all of its performances before the Festival even got under way, based solely on the Urinetown pedigree. So expectations were high, but unfortunately Yeast Nation most decidedly failed to meet those expectations. The main problem for me was that Kotis and Hollmann didn't seem to have anything to say that they hadn't already said, and in a far more effective way, in Urinetown. Yeast Nation played like an uninspired retread, both in terms of conception and execution. Because of my deep respect for Urinetown, I remain open to the possibility that Kotis and Hollmann might some day create another groundbreaking, smart, and/or entertaining musical. Yeast Nation, alas, seems extremely unlikely to develop in any of those directions.
9. Catch Me if You Can - Another major disappointment with a world-class pedigree. With all the talent involved in Catch Me If You Can, both behind the scenes and on-stage, you'd think we'd get something even half as good as Hairspray, the previous effort of most of the creative staff. No such luck. Despite the presence of composer Marc Shaiman, lyricist Scott Wittman, director Jack O'Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell, and librettist Terrence McNally - all Broadway veterans with more than a century of Broadway experience among them - Catch Me If You Can was an irritating and depressing affair. The entire evening suffered from a lack of purpose and focus, leaving high and dry some of Broadway's most experienced and talented performers (including Aaron Tveit, Norbert Leo Butz, Tom Wopat and Kerry Butler). Here's yet another example of the supreme challenge of creating a show around an antihero, in this case convicted swindler and forger Frank Abagnale, Jr. The labored framing device of the 1960s television variety show did nothing to illuminate why we were supposed to care about a man who put other people's lives in danger in search of personal gratification. I'm not saying that it couldn't have worked. It just didn't.
8. Sister Act - It's funny, but a lot of people I talk to love Sister Act. What's also funny is that even when we compare notes and even agree upon the manifold flaws in the show, they still hold steadfastly onto their admiration and enjoyment. Go figure. For me, the score, from composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, is inoffensive but unmemorable. The book by TV veterans Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, is bland and jokey, despite the efforts of Douglas Carter Beane, who was brought in to punch things up. There are a number genuine jaw-dropping miscalculations in the show, including one involving a trio of hoodlums planning on sexing up some nuns, and another involving a backup chorus of homeless people. Such choices, as well as the general lack of inspiration, must inevitably fall at the feet of director Jerry Zaks. Even the presence of supposed rising star Patina Miller in the Whoopi Goldberg role, and reliable stage pros Victoria Clark and Fred Applegate, failed to lift Sister Act above its uninspired material.
7. Wonderland - Composer Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde) had two productions on Broadway in 2011: Wonderland and Bonnie & Clyde. Both were financial and critical disasters, but, although Bonnie & Clyde had problems aplenty, Wonderland was much, much worse. At the end of act one of Wonderland, I turned to my theater companion and said, "Wow. That wasn't awful." But at the end of act two, I said, "Wow. That was awful." Wonderland was a gross miscalculation on so many levels, but the first half was moderately entertaining. Sure, the character numbers were plodding, and a listen or two to the cast recording reveals that there wasn't nearly as much there there as it seemed during the performance, but there was a fun sense of activity and it seemed as though the show was building toward something promising. And then came act two, which was an utter mess, veering off into the land of bland power ballads and lame deus ex machina. It was great to see Jose Llana and Karen Mason on Broadway, which is where they belong, but I look forward to the day when I see them again in shows more worthy of their talents.
6. Spider-Man 1.0 - You knew this one was coming. Yeah, Spider-Man is an easy target, but it was also genuinely bad, in both of its versions. But they were each bad in different ways, so I'm treating them separately on this list. Leaving aside all of the bad press, the infighting, the injuries, the lawsuits, I'm focusing here on the show itself. I'm listing Spidey 1.0 as slightly less awful than Spidey 2.0 simply because under the ministrations of Julie Taymor, the show may have been utterly incomprehensible and woefully misguided, but it was never boring. That might be because you had to keep on your toes simply to figure out what was going on on-stage. And I will always cherish the jaw-dropping hilarity of "Getting Furious," the now legendary second act number about Spidey's spirit guide (Nemesis? Love interest? Dental hygienist?) Arachne and her obsession with shoes. Yes, shoes. Trust me, if you didn't get to see it, it was an absolute hoot, although it clearly wasn't intended as such.
5. Spider-Man 2.0 - Once Julie Taymor got the boot, "creative consultant" Philip William McKinley and book doctor Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa set about making Spider-Man somewhat comprehensible. They succeeded in that respect, which only served to highlight what was still wrong with the show: that awful score. Bono and The Edge seem to have unfairly singled out Taymor as the main source of the show's troubles, neglecting to notice that they hadn't produced any decent songs. The up-tempo numbers are incomprehensible, and the ballads are beyond tedious. What we're left with is a streamlined and efficient series of circus acts pretending to be a musical. I'd say it was a waste of a Broadway theater, but our main consolation in this respect is that the Ford...er, Hilton...er, Foxwoods Theatre is a useless impersonal barn, and any show that would be likely to take Spider-Man's place would probably be another mindless, overblown, crowd-pleasing, lowest-common-denominator seeking spectacle.
4. Prometheus Bound - There were a lot of advocates for Prometheus Bound when it played the American Repertory Theater. And in truth, what was there on the stage had a lot going for it. My problem with the show was mostly based on what was not on the stage: a plot. Yes, I know, Prometheus Bound followed almost to the letter the Aeschylus play upon which it is based. But when was the last time a great, or even a good musical adhered strictly to its source material? Why adapt something if you have nothing to add? Director Diane Paulus certainly gave the show a lively and dynamic treatment. The cast, including Gavin Creel in the title role and the awe-inspiring Uzo Aduba as Io, was outstanding. But librettist/lyricist Steven Sater (Spring Awakening) didn't really give them anything inspiring to do. Composer Serj Tankian, lead vocalist for System of a Down, provided some hard-driving and even tuneful music. I would respectfully suggest that Sater enroll in the BMI Workshop, or a similar program, if he plans on continuing with musical theater. Maybe he'll get the support and feedback he needs to create more integrated songs and more cohesive libretti.
3. The People in the Picture - Many of the shows on this list have genuinely noble intentions, and none more so than The People in the Picture, presented last spring by the Roundabout Theatre Company. The show focused on the members of a Yiddish theater troupe in Poland during World War II and used their experiences as a lens through which to focus on the plight and treatment of the Jews during the Holocaust. I mean, how much more noble can you get? But, as I said in my review, the only thing that matters is what ends up on the stage, and in that sense The People in the Picture was a terrible mess. The book and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart (Beaches) were riddled with clichés and schmaltz. The production's only redeeming value was Donna Murphy in the lead role, but the indignities foisted upon her - including a number in which she played a tap-dancing rabbi - were beyond even Ms. Murphy's ability to render effective or entertaining. The show produced a cast recording, but I can't imagine it catching on in regional theaters, except perhaps among the most earnest of Jewish performance ensembles.
2. The Blue Flower - Regular readers might recall that The Blue Flower was also on my list of the Worst Musicals of 2010. That listing was based on the show's 2010 run at the American Repertory Theater. (Read my original review.) The show then received a production at the Second Stage Theatre (2ST) in New York this past fall, and I list it again here based on revisiting the show at the 2ST. The Blue Flower seemed to change very little between its Cambridge and New York runs, at least not in any way that addressed or fixed what I considered to be the central flaws of the show: an egregious amount of narration and overly oblique lyrics. In fact, I disliked The Blue Flower even more in New York because the production was less visually interesting than the show had been at the ART. Here's another show with noble intentions: showing the effects of the two World Wars on the lives of a group of artists and intellectuals. But what frustrated me most about the show is how librettist/lyricist Jim Bauer seemed to be going out of his way to create a distance between the characters and the audience, turning what could have been a very moving show into a dull, enervating slog.
1. Baby It's You - The most lazy, cynical, and venal musical I've seen in many a year. Baby It's You has the ignoble distinction of being the absolute nadir of the songbook/jukebox/Boomer-pleasing concoctions. Not so much a musical as a marketing ploy, Baby It's You was a bald-faced attempt on the part of Warner Brothers and Universal Music Group to cash in on the monumental success of Jersey Boys using the songbook of The Shirelles. They might as well have just called it Jersey Girls: that at least would have tipped ticket-buyers off to the derivative and calculated nature of the show. Baby It's You was written and directed by Floyd Mutrux, who performed the same tasks on the marginally more entertaining Million Dollar Quartet. But whereas MDQ had the benefit of a long run in Chicago to work out an kinks in the material, Baby It's You played more like a slapdash, desperate rush job. Playing the central character Florence Greenberg, the stalwart Beth Leavel attempted to rise above the drivel, but as with Donna Murphy In The People in the PIcture, there's only so much even the most talented people can do when surrounded by such drek.