Bad theater is a gift. I genuinely believe that. I know plenty of people who only go to see shows that they're already pretty sure they're going to like, or that have received strong reviews. I suppose that makes sense. But I make it a point to see every new musical and revival that opens on Broadway, and as many Off-Broadway musicals as my schedule will allow. And when you see a lot of theater, you see a lot of bad theater. That's just the way it goes. As I've said many times, quality is always the exception.
So where's the gift part? Well, I firmly believe that you need to see what's bad in order to fully appreciate what's good. So seeing bad shows helps to maximize your enjoyment of truly great shows. That's a gift, right? Sure, sometimes I get a bit testy when I'm sitting through some godawful mess of a production, but I usually just remind myself that there have always been fewer great shows than mediocre-to-bad shows. And there always will be. Sure, there used to be more musicals in general, back in the '40s and '50s, because the economics of putting on shows was very different back then. But more shows means more crap. As a percentage, great musicals are always in the vast minority.
For me, whenever I see a bad musical, I see the experience as becoming part of my continuing education in musical theater. And let's just say that 2012 gave me ample opportunity to grow in this respect, but that's really no different from what happens in any other year. (Oh, and lest you think I'm dwelling on the negative, check out my my list of the Best Musicals of 2012.) To read my reviews, click on the names of the shows listed below.
10. Lysistrata Jones. Technically, I saw Lysistrata Jones in 2011, but I didn't include it on my 2011 Worst Musicals list because I had plenty of other candidates to write about. I include it on this year's list, partly because the show did technically play on Broadway in 2012 (albeit very briefly) and also because, the more I think about it, the more I see Lysistrata Jones as just plain bad. The book by Douglas Carter Beane is full of more one-liners than character-based humor. Beane also renders the anti-war message of Aristophanes' original Lysistrata utterly meaningless. And the score, by Beane's life partner Lewis Flinn, was just one unmemorable pop song after another. The production featured an appealing cast of fresh faces, including Patti Murin in the title role and Josh Segarra as her boyfriend. Director/choreographer Dan Knechtges created some very impressive and character-appropriate dances for the show. But, of course, those aren't the sort of things that make a show last beyond its Broadway run. I'm having a hard time seeing Lysistrata Jones catching on in regional theaters.
9. End of the Rainbow. OK, so, not technically a musical, I know. But I figured that, if I was going to include One Man, Two Guvnors on my list of the Best, I would be justified in slamming End of the Rainbow as one of the Worst. The only real reason to see End of the Rainbow was to witness Tracie Bennett's admittedly impressive, if not entirely accurate, impersonation of Judy Garland. (Although, Michael Cumpsty also had some fine moments as Garland's put-upon accompanist.) As for the play itself, by one Peter Quilter, End of the Rainbow was simply a straightforward, by-the-numbers representation of the events surrounding Garland's disastrous final concerts in London. There was no real point of view or artistry in Quilter's writing, and very little in director Terry Johnson's presentation of the play that was interesting or exciting. If you're interested in the waning years of Garland's career, you're better off watching the DVDs of "The Judy Garland Show" and reading Get Happy, Gerald Clarke's detailed and fascinating Garland biography.
8. Into the Woods. I think the Public Theater's production of Into the Woods last summer at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park was a victim of my high expectations. Word from London was strong regarding the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre production, which directors Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel were recreating for the Public run. The cast just seemed to get more and more exciting as the announcements kept coming: Donna Murphy as The Witch; Denis O'Hare as the Baker; Jessie Mueller as Cinderella; Oscar-nominee Amy Adams as the Baker's Wife. Yowza. But the production just fell flat. The emotional subtext of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's powerful show seemed to get lost in the enormous, multilevel set, and most of the actors seemed distracted by all the running around that the set required. A few of the lesser known cast members gave memorable performances, including Sarah Stiles as Little Red Riding Hood, Gideon Glick as Jack, and Ivan Hernandez as Cinderella's Prince/The Wolf. Once the reviews came out, few were surprised that the initial talk of a Broadway transfer quickly fizzled out.
7. Chaplin. I wanted to like Chaplin. Honestly I did. The show came out of the New York Musical Theater Festival, of which I'm a big fan. The cast featured some of my favorite theater performers, including Jenn Colella, Christiane Noll, and Erin Mackey, and the supremely talented Rob McClure in the title role. The show had impressive costume design by Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz, and scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. But, alas, the piece itself didn't come close to capturing the magic of Charlie Chaplin. The main problems were an instantly forgettable score by Christopher Curtis and over-reaching and rushed book by Curtis and Thomas Meehan. There was only so much that normally reliable director/choreographer Warren Carlyle could do with the uninspired material. Chaplin as a musical was unfortunately was as antiquated as silent film itself.
6. Something's Afoot. Here's another one that sort of pains me to include on this list. I'm an ardent supporter of the Goodspeed Opera House. I've not only seen many of their shows over the years, I'll also be attending their annual Festival of New Artists this weekend, which will be my third time attending this event. They not only put on top-notch productions of historic shows, they also actively cultivate new works, and give lots of young performers their first chance to break into the business. But, for some reason I can't quite comprehend, the good folks at the Goodspeed decided to dredge up and present Something's Afoot as part of their most recent season. Now, Something's Afoot is one of the many shows that Goodspeed has helped shepherd along the way to a New York run. It played the Goodspeed in 1973, and went on to an abbreviated Broadway run in 1976. But it's bad. Very bad. The book is as creaky as the staircase in the gloomy mansion that serves as the show's setting. And the songs are tuneless, formless, and generic. I remain a fervent fan of the Goodspeed, and look forward to attending their production for many seasons to come. As long as they don't include Something's Afoot.
5. Carrie. Carrie? Bad? The devil you say. Yeah, well, go figure. One of the most legendary bad musicals of all time got a complete makeover and turned out to be...a bad musical. For years, Carrie, based on the novel by Stephen King, has stood as sort of a low watermark for musical-theater dreck. And, for years, the authors have been thinking that their show got a bad rap the first time around. So Lawrence D. Cohen (librettist), Dean Pitchford (lyricist) and Michael Gore (composer) teamed up with the MCC Theater and director Stafford Arima to the give the old girl another go. But here's the thing: they removed the stuff that made the show legendary in the first place, the hilariously miscalculated stuff that made the original Carrie so-bad-it-was-good. And they replaced it with treacle, new numbers so earnest that they were eye-rollingly dull. But, at the heart of Carrie remain a handful of songs that are genuinely strong -- "And Eve Was Weak," "I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance," and "When There's No One" -- and the second time around those songs were just as out-of-place as they were the first time. The production did provide some top-notch performers a chance to shine, including the marvelous Marin Mazzie, and collectors finally got a professional cast recording to suuplement their...er...shall we say "private" recordings of the original.
4. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (with Nick Jonas). What a difference a lead makes. When I saw the recent revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with Daniel Radcliffe, I was charmed. (Read my review). But when I went back to catch the show again with Nick Jonas in the lead, the production seemed to have fallen apart. Apparently, director Rob Ashford had moved on to other projects, because the production had gotten really sloppy. Significant members of the original cast had taken their performances and made them broad beyond reason in an apparent attempt to curry cheap laughter from the audience of Jonas Brothers groupies and tourists. And the new cast members -- Mr. Jonas and Hollywood veteran Beau Bridges -- seemed to be leading the way, mugging up a storm, pushing for laughs, and abandoning all sense of moderation and dramatic integrity. Thankfully, the production closed shortly thereafter, sparing us all the indignity of witnessing Joey Fatone or Jonathan Knight running the production further into the ground.
3. Evita. When I saw Michael Grandage's revival of Evita in London, I genuinely enjoyed the production, and was very eager to see the show when it transferred to Broadway. Elena Roger was a veritable spitfire in the title role, and I was hoping to see her again. (Read my review of the London production.) However, I mistakenly bought a ticket for a show in which Roger's New York alternate, Christine DiCicco, played the role. Something definitely got lost in the import process, because the New York production was lifeless, despite the admittedly eye-pleasing presence of Ricky Martin in the role of Che. But Martin just smiled inanely throughout the entire show, seemingly oblivious to the meaning of the words he was singing, and the rest of the production lacked the vibrancy of the London staging. I thought perhaps it might have been the absence of Elena Roger that made the difference, but I'm told that the show played pretty much the same even when Roger was in it. The show has been playing to pretty strong houses based on Ricky Martin's presence, but the producers have opted to close the show rather than attempt to replace Martin. Again, one shudders to think of who they might have replaced Martin with, but it seems doubtful that anyone short of Mandy Patinkin himself could have raised this production out of the doldrums.
2. Scandalous. If only Scandalous had lived up to its name, it might have been at least somewhat entertaining. But it wasn't. Dear Lord, it wasn't. Other than the presence of Carolee Carmello and George Hearn in the cast, Scandalous had practically nothing going for it. First, it's hard to imagine that a musical about evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson would have any drawing power. I mean, does anyone under the age of seventy five know who she is? Sure, one of the authors has some name recognition: Kathie Lee Gifford, who wrote the book and the lyrics. (The music was by David Pomeranz and David Friedman.) But Kathie Lee's fame wasn't sufficient to draw enough people to the theater to keep the show afloat. And the show itself was an amateurish mishmash of leaden dialog, inconsistent characterizations, and bland gospel anthems. After I published my review of the show, a reader contacted me accusing me of being overly harsh on the show because of its religious subject matter. Trust me, the subject matter had nothing to do with my reaction: the show itself was mortal sin enough.
1. Ghost. And then there's Ghost, a show that reflected everything wrong with modern musical theater: an over-reliance on technical production values; an under-reliance on quality songwriting and storytelling; the presence of pop-music dilettantes who assumed that writing popular songs is the same as writing cohesive musical theater scores; cast members forced to belt fortissimo over the over-amplified orchestra. Thankfully, Ghost didn't last very long, and didn't win any awards, which gives me hope that producers will think twice the next time they underestimate the ticket-buying public by bringing in another seemingly pre-sold brand name (here, the 1990 film "Ghost") with a high-profile but inexperienced writing team (Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame, record producer Glen Ballard, and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin), and hire an otherwise talented director (Tony-Award winner Matthew Warchus) for the thankless task of making it all work. Warchus will hopefully bounce back with the upcoming Broadway bow of Matilda. But I get the feeling that Ghost isn't going to stop producers from scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to turning safe-but-tired Hollywood properties into Broadway musicals. (See Flashdance.)