In the expensive realm of musical comedy, it’s impossible to predict what will take off and what will crash and burn. Oliver! ran for 2,618 performances, but no other Dickens adaptation has succeeded— and Oliver! had to overcome a reluctant producer who’d suggested it could be much improved with an ‘all-black cast’. And would Lionel Bart’s plan to cast Elizabeth Taylor as Nancy, Richard Burton as Bill Sikes, and Spike Milligan as Fagin have helped or hindered the longevity of his show?
Flops provide rich subject matter —lovingly explored in Must Close Saturday — and it is easy with the benefit of hindsight to scoff at the bizarre notions that have been set to music: the electric chair; Dr Crippen; Scapa Flow (‘Earl Mountbatten inspected a cast line-up’); the match girls at the Bryant & May factory; Francis Drake (‘randy sailors pillaging Portsmouth in search of the city’s whores’); Hoxton Babies’ Home; premature ejaculation (referred to as ‘an impatient groin’, with Roy Castle); Christmas crackers (Pull Both Ends — it opened and closed in July); highwaymen; and Barnado’s orphanages.
There was a musical about Victoria and Albert, but Albert died at the end of Act One. Act Two had Disraeli as a magician ‘trained by Ali Bongo’. The team behind Bar Mitzvah Boy must have suspected trouble early on when Jule Styne announced: ‘To some extent, we have to de-Jew it.’ Gyles Brandreth’s Five Go to Illyria, based on Twelfth Night, had Shakespeare collaborate with Enid Blyton, and never got further than Guildford. Murderous Instincts, ‘a hit in 2002 in Puerto Rico’, suffered a blow when the director, Mickey Rooney’s son as it happens, was barred by Equity — he had to continue directing by telephone from Paris.
Despite worldwide acclaim for Les Miserables, literary adaptations can be trouble. Goodness knows what Howard Keel was like in Henry James’s The Ambassadors, but Surtees’s Jorrocks! with Joss Ackland sounds fun, as does H.G. Wells’s Anne Veronica with Arthur Lowe. The latter, with lyrics by David Croft, closed after 44 performances because Dorothy Tutin couldn’t actually sing.
Not that incompetence deters managements. Trevor Peacock ‘couldn’t read or write music’, yet he was involved with Passion Flower Hotel, ‘a daringly modern musical about the sexual attitudes and hormonal ups and downs of modern-day adolescents’, played (this was in 1965) by Pauline Collins, Jane Birkin and Francesca Annis.
Where, hitherto, the Lord Chamberlain had stepped in to ban all mention of ‘male bestiality’ (homosexuality) or biblical jokes, with the 1960s a new permissiveness led to surprising lyrical experiment. ‘I hope I can cope/ With my urge to grope,’ sang Roy Kinnear in a forgotten show. ‘Your morals may be iffy/ But you’ve given me a stiffy,’ vouchsafed the hero of Money to Burn, which closed after two performances.
Burning up money is the way with a flop. To keep the Robin Hood musical Twang! going, Lionel Bart pumped in £4,150 a week from his own pocket, leading, inevitably, to bankruptcy. The director Joan Littlewood kept walking out of her own rehearsals. There were numerous competing scripts, one by Denis Norden. Alfie Bass, as Will Scarlett, vanished in Manchester. Ronnie Corbett went to the lavatory, came back, and found his song had been cut. ‘A good job I didn’t go for a shit,’ said Ronnie, in a story not in Adrian Wright’s compendium. ‘I’d have come back and my entire role would have been cut.’ When audiences booed, they were booed right back by Barbara Windsor.
Bernadette, about the visionary lass in Lourdes, lost its entire £1,550,000 investment, despite the script having been blessed by the Pope. The producers ended up selling their house and ‘living in rented accommodation in Windsor while working as teachers in Epsom’. Yet the dialogue had hardly helped. How did the Pope manage to miss the following priceless exchange: ‘Where is this Lady, I don’t see her?’ — ‘Please, Monsignor, you’re standing on the Holy Mother’s bush.’
Though King Harald and Queen Sonja flew from Oslo to see Which Witch?, based on Norwegian fairytales, the production still lost the £1 million given by the Norwegian government. An Oscar Wilde musical, devised by Mike Read, lost £80,000 when it managed to close on opening night — nobody could believe that when Wilde departed for France, in 1897, he did so to the strains of ‘La Vie en Rose’, composed in 1945. A James Dean show was doomed when the actor playing James Dean was ‘paid off during rehearsals with a settlement of £15,000’. One musical fell on such hard times at the Cambridge Theatre, the heating was turned off.
Long-cherished projects can flop as easily as a hastily mounted production
(e.g. Pocahontas, with its scenery ‘a succession of quivering backdrops and plywood conifers’): Ron Moody spent 17 years yearning to play Joseph Grimaldi, which he did for a scant 23 nights. Robert Hardy’s own script for a Churchill show, disastrously entitled Winnie, managed to rhyme ‘factotum’ with ‘grab Hitler by the scrotum’.Willie Rushton’s musical about a Lambeth maternity ward elicited this sort of thing from the critics: ‘That perennially ailing patient, the British musical, last night suffered a severe relapse.’ The composer of a Houdini entertainment was so disenchanted, he went off to work for Crossroads and contributed to the screenplay of Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate.
Can any conclusions be drawn? Adrian Wright is caustic about Leslie Bricusse, who in a Henry VIII musical was capable of rhyming shrewder, lewder, wooed her, viewed her, ruder, cruder, pursued her, and poo-pooed her. I personally think that Oliver! had a baleful repercussion — an infestation of jolly Cockneys and ‘juvenile warblers’ having a knees-up, whether in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Sherlock Holmes musicals, even Les Mis, where I know that’s Paris technically but the atmosphere of the chorus is still East End. The involvement of the pompous Wolf Mankowitz was always a bad sign, and the absolute kiss of death was a positive review from Sheridan Morley.
A particular delight with a flop is spotting an erstwhile star or obscure television personality in the cast — Rita Webb, Michael Robbins, Irene Handl, Mel Smith or Hylda Baker, who stole the show (Mr and Mrs) from Honor Blackman by ‘coming down a long flight of steps in ill-fitting high heels’. I’d love to have seen Bernard Cribbins as a St Bernard dog in a doomed musical about Antarctica. I did see Harry Secombe (and a young Simon Callow) in a dire musical about a plumber. I remember to this day the sharp intake of breath from his fans when Harry was required by the script to say ‘Piss off !’
It’s all subjective anyway. I myself enjoyed Trevor Nunn’s Gone With the Wind, James Villiers in The Baker’s Wife and the flying sequences in The Witches of Eastwick — yet these were officially flops. I hated Book of Mormon and Jerry Springer: The Opera, which were showered with awards. Sondheim I’ve always resisted.
But I confess I know nothing really. Years ago I met a young playwright called Lee Hall, now a multi-millionaire. ‘What are you working on now, Lee?’ I asked in a friendly fashion. ‘A script about a boy ballet dancer in County Durham, set during the miners’ strike.’ Billy Elliot sounded like the worst idea I’d ever heard.