I love bad musicals. Not necessarily when I'm sitting through them, of course, but I cherish having the chance to relate the gory details to my friends, students, and readers. I can't count the number of times that I've dined out on Into the Light, an atrocious show whose creators chose to musicalize the process of scientifically verifying the Shroud of Turin. I always say that there's no such thing as a bad idea for a musical, only poor execution, but without question there are some show creators who are biting off more than they can chew. Into the Light contained the following immortal line: "Science with the data is like Christ without the stigmata." You don't soon forget a lyric that heinous.
Lately, one of my favorite topics for bad-musical discussions has been the song "Lice" from Kristina, in which two characters accuse each other of infesting a boat full of immigrants with the creepy crawlies. Charming. Then, in an attempt to quell the argument, one character intervenes by discussing how you can take the lice and put them between two slices of bread and feed them to your children. "It tastes like toffee," she exclaims.
The following shows were full of such what-were-they-thinking moments. Which is why I've come to almost treasure them, in a perverse sort of way. I tell my students that it's important to see bad shows to fully understand what makes good shows good. If that's true, then the creators of the shows listed here have provided me with quite an education indeed. And for that, I thank them.
The Worst Musicals of the 2000s
15. Ordinary Days: The Roundabout Theater has not exactly had a stellar track record of late. (Bye Bye Birdie? Pal Joey? The Ritz? Oy oy oy.) Lately, it's gotten to the point where I automatically assume that something put forth by the Roundabout Theater will be dreadful until I'm proven otherwise. But I'd like to think that I approached Ordinary Days with a relatively open mind. The show was the first musical presented as part of the Roundabout Underground series, and for the most part it was fairly innocuous. (Read my review.) But for one reason and one reason alone I chose to include the show on this list: because of the cheap, manipulative, and clumsy way that author Adam Gwon used 9/11 for dramatic effect at the end of the show. One of the female characters has trouble committing to a relationship, and in justification she sings about a whirlwind romance she had a few years earlier. Everything was going fine...and then first tower fell. I'm not saying 9/11 is off limits. But it needs to be consistent with the tone of the rest of the show, and in Ordinary Days, a would-be quirky romantic comedy, it decidedly was not.
14. The Boy From Oz: This was the sorriest excuse for a star show since Happy Hunting. Had it not been for the involvement of Hugh Jackman, this lame bio/jukebox musical would never have made it out of Australia. The life and songbook of Peter Allen just weren't enough to hang an entire show on. What's more, the producers knew that, so they crafted the show in such a way that Jackman was rarely off-stage, to the point where he actually changed costumes in full view of the audience. Now, I'll certainly pay good money to see Hugh Jackman with his shirt off, especially if he's kissing Jarrod Emmick as part of the deal. But in terms of compelling and interesting musical theater, The Boy From Oz was mere window dressing and nothing more.
13. The Tin Pan Alley Rag: I have to admit, including The Tin Pan Alley Rag on this list was just a wee bit vindictive. After publishing my negative review of the show, I received an email from the show's librettist, one Mark Saltzman. He said that, after reading my review, he wondered whether he should give back all the money he's made from the show, and return all the awards that he's won. But he ultimately decided not to. I didn't answer him directly, but I did publish an open reply on my blog: Dear Bad Writer: Are you sending hate mail to everyone who panned your show? You must be very busy. Regards, Chris. At the time, I didn't mention Saltzman by name, nor did I specify the show, lest I come off as overly petty. But now his show has closed, and I feel better now about addressing his snark directly. If Tin Pan Alley Rag had been half as entertaining as Saltzman's email, he might have had a winner on his hands. But the show was a turgid history lesson, frequently didactic but rarely entertaining. So hold onto those awards, Mr. Saltzman. They may be the last you'll ever see.
12. Vanities: Another yawnfest. Vanities is the musical version of an amiable and popular Off-Broadway play of the same name by Jack Heifner. Heifner also wrote the libretto for the musical, and the result was rather one-dimensional and dramatically unsatisfying. The characters lost any shred of believability in the transition from play to musical. And the score by David Kirshenbaum was more than merely forgettable. The songs seemed to add nothing to the plot, the characters, or even help establish the time and place. You could remove any or all of them and still be able to follow the story. That's a sign of a poorly integrated musical. Vanities was supposed to have landed on Broadway, but financing fell through in the bad economy. Which is probably a good thing: instead of a high-profile death on the main stem, the show was able to fail quietly in the relative shelter of the non-profit world.
11. Kristina: Ah, Kristina. I couldn't possibly finish up my list of the worst of the 2000s without making mention of Kristina. I received more hate mail in response to my review of the Carnegie Hall concert presentation of Kristina than in my entire three-and-a-half years of writing reviews for this blog combined. The entire nation of Sweden, it seemed, wanted to rip me a new one. I have never before been subjected to such vitriol, such discourtesy, such childish whining than in the comments to my Kristina review. That experience alone might have justified my placing the show at the top of my worst list. But I ranked it relatively low on my list because it's still a show under development. I must repeat, however, that the show I saw at Carnegie Hall didn't show a tremendous amount of promise. The drama was manufactured, the plot was detrimentally episodic, and the lyrics were replete with cliches and banalities. So, even without the ad homenem attack, Kristina would still have made this list. And quite handily so.
10. Saved: Not so much bad as bland, Saved suffered from a complete lack of focus. The creators couldn't seem to decide whether they were making a fluffy musical comedy, a trenchant social satire, or a serious musical about religion. (Read my original review.) The source material was pretty strong: the 2004 movie "Saved" starring Macaulay Culkin. But the show never established a consistent tone, veering from upbeat kitsch to ponderous introspection, all the while wasting a truly sensational cast of Broadway pros, including Aaron Tveit, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Julia Murney, Curtis Holbrook, and John Dossett. The show has since disappeared entirely - no cast recording, no regional productions, no developmental workshops - and I would be very surprised to see it resurface. There just wasn't enough there to make it salvageable. [Must resist urge to include "salvation" pun. Must...resist...]
9. 9 to 5: The movie "Nine to Five" has always been a sentimental favorite for me. I keenly recall sitting in the now-defunct Sack Cheri Theater in Boston watching the movie with my fellow drama nerds from high school, all of us convulsed with laughter, particularly during the fantasy/revenge sequence. I was genuinely rooting for this show to be a well-crafted hit. Alas, the show was neither well-crafted nor a hit. (Read my review.) Director Joe Mantello has officially lost whatever capital he may have accrued for his previous successes. The otherwise talented choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler was easily the worst possible choice for this show. His pop-and-lock style may have worked for In the Heights and The Wiz, but here it was woefully anachronistic. Librettist Patricia Resnick seemed to have no idea how to craft a musical, which forced Mantello and Blankenbeuhler to cover the clumsy transitions with pointless business and dance sequences. And Dolly Parton's score was awkward, tuneless, and unmemorable, save for the insanely catchy title tune from the movie. The only reason to sit through this show was to witness three terrific actresses at their best: Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block, and Megan Hilty. Otherwise, 9 to 5 was an utter washout.
8. Happy Days: Easily the worst of the nostalgia-motivated musical adaptations, Happy Days was an affront to the eyes and ears. (Read my review.) I don't think it was such a bad idea to make the classic TV show "Happy Days" into a musical. Unfortunately, the show's creator, Garry Marshall, decided that he was the right person to write the libretto. Oh, how wrong he was. And Paul Williams' insipid songs didn't exactly enhance the show's prospects for success. I caught the show at the Goodspeed in Connecticut, where it apparently was very popular. Unfortunately, popularity at the esteemed Goodspeed isn't always an accurate indicator of quality or future success. (cf. The Story of My Life, 13, Little Johnny Jones, Harrigan 'n' Hart, All Shook Up, etc.) But I'd sooner sit through any of those shows again before deigning to revisit [shudder] Happy Days.
7. Evil Dead: Intentional camp is very difficult to pull off. Of course, it helps if you start with a cheesy classic like Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead." Then you need the chops to craft material that's simultaneously true to the source but also genuinely solid in its own right. The creators of Evil Dead seemed to think that the script and score didn't need to be any good because the show wasn't meant to be taken seriously. (Read my review.) But anyone familiar with Little Shop of Horrors or Bat Boy or even Xanadu knows that precisely the opposite is true: campy shows need to be even better than serious shows. Any actor or playwright can tell you that comedy is much harder to execute than drama. Apart from the hysterical denouement of Evil Dead -- a veritable ballet of blood -- the show was almost completely forgettable and without merit.
6. The Pirate Queen: Oh, the bloated, listing, foundering mess that was The Pirate Queen, the latest attempt by the creators of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon to get back on the boards. Bad word of mouth dogged the production based on its poorly received 2006 Chicago tryout, so the producers brought in director Richard Maltby, Jr. to help right the ship. But then Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil refused to make changes based on Maltby's advice, and the show that arrived on Broadway was slightly different from how it had been in Chicago, but not much better. Among The Pirate Queen's crimes were cardboard characters, bland power ballads, incomprehensible staging, and turgid, unbelievable drama. (Read my full review.) With the ignominious failure of The Pirate Queen, along with the taint of the pair's two London failures, Martin Guerre and Marguerite, one wonders if we'll see a new show from Boublil and Schönberg any time soon -- on either side of the pond.
5. Young Frankenstein: No sooner had The Pirate Queen sunk than another bloated monster of a show took its place at the cavernous Hilton Theatre. Young Frankenstein may have been damned before it ever started performances in New York. The production team committed a number of PR blunders leading up to the show's opening, including some rather tacky behavior on the part of Mel Brooks, as well as an obscenely high top ticket price of $450. (Read a full account in my review.) But all would have been forgiven if the show had been any good. It wasn't. It was one of the laziest, most unimaginative productions I've witnessed in more than 30 years of theater going. Brooks seemed to think that, based on the phenomenal success of The Producers, all he had to do was throw the original "Young Frankenstein" movie on stage with a bunch of random, generic songs, pump it all up with Susan Stroman stagecraft, and the watch the money pour in. The show closed after little more than a year, and although Brooks famously didn't make the show's numbers public, there ain't no way in hell that a run that short could pay back on production costs that easily exceeded $20 million. Boo hoo.
4. Dirty Dancing: As cynical as Young Frankenstein was, it couldn't hold a candle to the staged abomination that was Dirty Dancing. The show has been running for years in cities across the world, which just goes to show that popularity and artistic quality are at best vague acquaintances. I caught the show during its Boston stint, and it was every bit as bad as I expected. And quite a bit more. (Read my full review.) Whatever its flaws, Young Frankenstein at least made a feint attempt at putting songs into the mouths of its characters. Not Dirty Dancing. The lead characters never sang a note. The songs from the best-selling soundtrack of what I guess is now considered a "classic" movie were sung by pool boys and chamber maids drifting along in the background. In other words, there was no creativity in evidence whatsoever. The dance was generic. The set was hideous. There were some decent performers in the cast, but the guy I saw play Johnny had all the charisma of cinder block. So far, Dirty Dancing hasn't made it to Broadway. (Perhaps the garlic and holy water that I secreted under the TKTS booth are working...) If you're ever faced with the option of seeing the show, stay home and throw in the DVD. It's the least you can do to honor the memory of the late Patrick Swayze.
3. A Tale of Two Cities: Every once in a while, a show makes it to Broadway to a collective cry of "WTF?!" A Tale of Two Cities was one of those shows. (Read my review.) It's hard to imagine that anyone could have seen this raw material and thought it was ready for a New York stage. It's also hard to conceive of producers who genuinely thought that the public would be crying out to see Les Miserables all over again, except this time without the decent score and credible human drama. Nonetheless, A Tale of Two Cities played an inexplicable 60 performances at the Al Hirschfeld Theater, then seemingly disappeared. Ah, but not so fast. Like many other unworthy properties, A Tale of Two Cities has found an international fan base, and will receive a studio cast recording and a PBS concert broadcast, which will reportedly be released on DVD. I say catch it on TV when it plays in your area. Don't take my word for it: witness for yourself the muddled, amateurish horror that is A Tale of Two Cities.
2. Frankenstein: Most bad musicals are tedious. But then there's the occasional misstep that becomes a bastion of unintentional comedy. Frankenstein was one of those shows. Not to be confused with Young Frankenstein, this show was a sober attempt at setting the tale of the Modern Prometheus to music. And while Young Frankenstein was trying unsuccessfully to be funny, Frankenstein fought a losing battle to be taken seriously. (Read my review.) The real fun started when the monster himself made his first appearance. Eschewing the green-skinned, bolt-necked Hollywood cliche, the creators came up with the idea of making the monster look like a gay porn star/speed-metal bass player. (Click here to see a picture of the horrible hottie.) The show pretty much went downhill from there.
1. Lestat: If the 2000s taught us one thing, it's that creating a musical about monsters (Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein) or vampires (Dracula, Dance of the Vampires) is fraught with peril. I didn't have a chance to see the latter two shows, but I have a feeling that if I had, they would have placed prominently on this list. I did, however, get to see Lestat. In fact, my review for Lestat was my very first post ever on this blog. Such an auspicious debut. The show has since become my low-water mark against which to measure bad shows. ("Was it worse than Lestat? Could anything ever be?") The main problem with Lestat was that it was mind-crushingly dull. The show moved at a positively glacial pace, and when it wasn't putting me to sleep, it was setting my nerves on edge with its shrill, unlikable characters, and Bernie Taupin's puerile lyrics. Elton John has since gone on to greater acclaim with the overrated Billy Elliot, on top of his phenomenal success with The Lion King. I get the feeling he would rather we just forgot about Lestat. The cast went into the recording studio before the show closed, but as yet the CD hasn't been released. But cast recording or no, I will never forget Lestat, Sir Elton. Never.