Roger Lewis

Broken dreams | 19 October 2017

They’re all subjects of British musical flops, as Adrian Wright reveals in his hugely entertaining Must Close Saturday

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.

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