One thing I like to tell my students is that quality is always the exception. Good times, bum times, there's always a paucity of true quality, almost by definition. Sure, there have been times when the economics allowed for more productions, which seemed to give rise to more great shows. But that's partly because there were simply more shows being written and produced. It's not as though there was a higher percentage of great shows in the '40s and '50s. There was plenty of crap, too.
This, of course, is a major oversimplification. The show-development process was very different in the '40s and '50s, and there were more people who were able to make a living doing nothing but writing shows. Today, these folks are few and far between.
But that doesn't mean that people aren't writing new musicals. As I type this, I'm looking at two large boxes of scripts and CDs that I recently received from The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. This year, I'm a reader for the O'Neill's annual National Music Theater Conference, and for the past week and most of next week, I'm reading through the scripts and listening to the CDs and making recommendations for which shows should move on in the selection process. And you know what? Most of them aren't very good, at least in their current form. But every once in a while, there's a script that shows a glimmer of promise. And that's probably the way it should be.
Why am I telling you all this? Because this post is ostensibly about the worst musicals that I personally encountered in 2010, and I thought it was important to set the context: there will always be bad musical theater, as long as there's musical theater. I applaud anyone who sets about the task of putting together a new musical. But that doesn't mean I have to applaud the results. Musicals don't get an "A" for effort. What matters is what ends up on the stage and whether it works artistically.
Anyway, here's my list of the worst productions I saw in 2010. Click on the show titles to read my original reviews.
1. Come Fly Away - Quite possibly the most tedious show I've ever seen. Not because there wasn't a single line of dialog, or that there wasn't an original score. I'm not one of these purists who says that shows need to have X, Y, and Z to be considered true musicals. I'm completely open to the possibility that a show that's 100% dance could be compelling, moving, and entertaining. Come Fly Away wasn't. Part of the problem was the characterizations: I had no idea who these people were individually. But the main problem was that nothing really much happened to them. It was just a 90-minute morass of undifferentiated people and meaningless dance. There were a few times when Twyla Tharp's choreography rose above the pedestrian, but these moments were few, and not frequent enough to hold my attention. Tharp has apparently reworked the show and brought it to Las Vegas under the name Sinatra: Dance With Me. If you happen to be in Vegas, I say resist the invitation.
2. The Addams Family - As bad as The Addams Family is, I have to admit it was never boring. The credit here should probably go to the sturdy cast of Broadway stalwarts, including Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth. My main issue was that no one in the creative department seemed to be even passingly familiar with The Addams Family. Would Morticia be afraid of growing old? No, she'd throw a party to celebrate her first crow's foot. Would Wednesday come home one day and announce that she expected "One Normal Night" from her family? No. The Addamses haven't the slightest idea that they *aren't* normal. That's part of the humor. Would Uncle Fester proclaim, after the Addams ancestors have risen from the dead, that no one would return to the grave until true love prevailed? Puh-lease. The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice produced a few choice, if nonspecific, one liners, but Andrew Lippa score was embarrassingly flat and generic. The show, however, has become a money-maker, at least until Nathan Lane leaves in March. Will the show continue to sell out under the helm of the redoubtable Roger Rees? Stay tuned.
3. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown - I hated this show. Hated, hated, hated it. But, as often happens when shows get either really bad or really good word of mouth, the second wave of public reaction has gone in the other direction. "Geez, it's not *that* bad," people seem to be saying now. Well, yes it is. The book was flat, the score didn't contain a single memorable number, the dance was superfluous, and the mechanized set overshadowed the proceedings to a distracting degree. You know a show isn't working when you have Sherie Rene Scott, Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Danny Burstein on stage in front of you and you can't quite shake the feeling that you'd really rather be someplace else. That said, I was going to give the show a second chance. As a newly appointed member of the Outer Critics Circle, I was invited to the see the show next Wednesday. But, as you may have heard, the show will be closing this weekend, three weeks earlier than previously announced. All that star power, and the show couldn't even manage to sell above 50% during Christmas week. Ouch.
4. Promises, Promises - Easily my biggest personal disappointment of the season. I'm not really that big a fan of the show itself, but the cast (Kristin Chenoweth, Sean Hayes, Tony Goldwyn) and crew (director/choreographer Rob Ashford) had me practically giddy with anticipation. What happened? Well, Chenoweth was simply miscast in the role of a suicidal schlub. Hayes never let me forget for a minute that he was performing: he never quite made the transition past the mannerisms into playing the whole person. Goldwyn was stuck in the role of an underwritten, cardboard bad guy. And Ashford seemed to be too focused on the choreography - which was undistinguished - and gave the characterizations and pacing of the show short shrift. If it weren't for the scintillating Katie Finneran in an all-too-brief appearance in the second act, Promises, Promises would have been a complete washout. The show has sold rather well based on the presence of the stars, but clearly the producers understand that the show itself is a bit of a dog, since they're simply closing the show at the end of the stars' contracts.
5. The Blue Flower - The only regional entry on my list this year, The Blue Flower is currently playing at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. While I applaud the ART for including such an adventurous show in its season (especially after recent charges that the venerable ART is becoming too populist), I really wish the show itself had been less of a pretentious bore. Neophyte creators Jim and Ruth Bauer have put together a show in which the main characters rarely if ever speak, but rather express their thoughts and emotions through painfully oblique song lyrics. The show relies on lazy narration and projections to tell the actual story. The result is an admittedly ambitious but ultimately frustrating attempt at exploring and illuminating the dynamic of art and war, and the lives of the people caught in between.
6. A Little Night Music - Let me be excruciatingly clear here: I'm specifically referring to the Broadway production of A Little Night Music when Catherine Zeta-Jones was the star of the show. I must admit, in my review, I said that CZJ was "perfectly presentable, if uninspired" as Desiree. But then she won the Tony. The frickin' Tony. And why? Because she's a star, and the Tony voters wanted to congratulate themselves on being able to attract stars to Broadway. And then I saw A Little Night Music again, this time with Bernadette Peters as Desiree. What a transformation. (Read my re-review.) The production was virtually the same, but Peters, through the sheer force of her talent, professionalism, and genuine star presence, brought the entire production into focus and transformed the rest of the cast along with her. It was an amazing feat to witness, and the comparison brought into unflattering relief exactly how wanting CZJ's performance really was. The producers did themselves a favor by bringing in Peters: the show ran for another 6 months and probably brought them a lot closer to solvency. But they weren't doing CZJ any favors. In retrospect, I'll bet she wishes she could have simply paid the producers off to have closed the show on her departure.
7. The Burnt Part Boys - It seems unfair to pick on The Burnt Part Boys, simply because the show meant so well. It was a very serious musical about two young men who lost their father in a mining accident ten years before, and their efforts to restore honor to their father's memory. Pretty worthy stuff. Unfortunately the show itself didn't do its ambitious subject matter full justice. The bluegrass score by Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen scored points for authenticity, but the songs themselves didn't differentiate themselves from each other, and the result was idiomatic but dull. The cast was game, particularly Al Calderon and Charlie Brady as the central pair of brothers, but the book by Mariana Elder didn't really give them anywhere to go. Plus, the final plot complication was unconvincingly resolved, which left the entire show with a sort of "Why?" kind of feeling at the end. The characters and conceit for The Burnt Part Boys were more than worthy. Unfortunately, the score and the book didn't live up to the promise.
8. American Idiot - Another show that fell considerably short of its admittedly worthy ambitions. The best parts of American Idiot were the hard-rocking but melodic Green Day songs, the cast of energetic young performers, and a spectacular visual style. Where the show fell down was the story. (That really seems to be the theme of this list overall: these shows are long on concept but short on actual narrative.) Once director Michael Mayer came up with a scenario to hold the Green Day songs together, he seemed to just let it go at that and not give the characters anything to do except brood. American Idiot has been playing to really anemic houses, except for the week when Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong stepped into the part of St. Jimmy. So, rather than close a show that simply isn't catching on, the producers have persuaded Armstrong to join the show for an additional 50 performances, to help the show survive the winter. My prediction: the show will do extremely well with Armstrong, but once he leaves it will be back to business as usual.
9. Freckleface Strawberry - Just because you're writing a show for kids doesn't mean you get a pass with regard to dramatic structure and genuine inspiration. The show is based on the children's book FreckleFace Strawberry by the luminous Julianne Moore. But in bringing the story to the stage, the creators have failed to provide a cohesive story or a decent score. The show seems thrown together rather randomly, without thought for any kind of unity among the various elements. The energetic cast members give it their all, but ultimately they can't overcome what is essentially a hodgepodge of inferior songs and a book that's about as watertight as a colander.
10. The Roar of the Greasepaint/The Smell of the Crowd - I truly love the York Theater, and I genuinely support their efforts to both rediscover musical gems from the past as well as hone and burnish the jewels of the future. So I don't mean this to be a reflection at all on the valiant efforts of the good people at the York. I'm sure they meant well when they selected The Roar of the Greasepaint/The Smell of the Crowd as part of their fall Musicals in Mufti series. The score has plenty of catchy songs, including "Where Would You Be Without Me?," "Nothing Can Stop Me Now," "Who Can I Turn To?" and "A Wonderful Day Like Today." Listening to the cast recording, it's easy to wonder why the show has slipped into relative obscurity. But then there's that book. That pretentious, self-important, irritatingly allegorical book. I'm genuinely glad that I had a chance to experience the show, if only to give me a stronger sense of just how ponderous and annoying the shows from the 1960s could get. But otherwise I won't be in any great hurry to re-experience TROTGTSOTC any time soon.
DISHONORABLE MENTION: Million Dollar Quartet - MDQ wasn't all that awful as a show, but it does represent the increasing trend toward safe choices that give Baby Boomers exactly what they want, and nothing more. I have to admit that there's a little streak of vindictiveness lurking here. I originally hadn't planned on mentioning the show at all until last week, when I made a snide comment on Twitter about Stray Cats bassist Lee Rocker joining the cast for 12 performances in January. In the context of the show's growing list of one-night-only guest artists, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Darlene Love, Ray Benson, and Melissa Etheridge, I remarked that MDQ was becoming the next Chicago, in terms of stunt casting, and that I didn't mean that as praise. Well, a couple of my followers (no names, but we're talking really highly placed people here) took me to task for criticizing a producer's efforts to keep a show running. The implication seemed to be that, as an increasingly well known member of the theatrical community myself, I should be more positive and supportive. I bristled. My tweeted responses were as follows: "If I had liked the show, I might applaud it. But I didn't, so I don't. My $0.02," "I reserve the right to praise efforts that prolong shows I like and criticize efforts to attenuate shows I detest," and finally "And I happen to think that Broadway needs my cynicism in the face of shameless hucksterism. I'm on nobody's payroll."
Whaddya think, dear reader? Do I owe it to the Broadway community to be more supportive (i.e. mindless), or is considered criticism the best support of all?