The Biggest Theatrical Flops of All Time
In the world of theater, it’s not unusual to put a lot of money towards a project only to wind up with a total flop. Developing music and scripts takes a lot of work. Oftentimes, Broadway and West End musicals are spending millions of dollars just to make it to the stage. Once they’re onstage, these shows are subject to the whims of the audience, as well as critics.
Plenty of plays and musicals have been canceled even though their budgets hit the tens of millions. Let’s check out some of the biggest theatrical flops in history.
Way Upstream – The National Theatre, 1981
Ambitious theatrical devices are becoming more and more common as technology improves. Show creators are able to take advantage of unique show elements like animatronics to tell their stories in a whole new way.
In 1981, Way Upstream, which was written by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, opened at the National Theatre in London. The entire play was set on a boat, so the technicians built a giant tank capable of handling 6,000 gallons of water. However, the boat, weighed down with a large cast and crew, caused the water to overflow the tank, ruining millions of dollars of expensive theatrical machinery. The show was canceled soon after.
Mr. Bluebeard – Iroquois Theatre, 1903
The reason why there are so many stringent safety measures in place in theatrical buildings is primarily because of the lessons learned after the massive fire at Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre in 1903. Although it’s not technically the fault of the show, generations of Chicagoans have grown up with negative associations with Mr. Bluebeard. The show played to a packed house on December 30, 1903.
Sparks from a shorted fuse lit a curtain on fire. Soon, the whole stage was in flames. Actors who tried to escape out the back door let air in, creating a huge fireball. At least 602 people died.
Carrie: The Musical – Broadway, 1988
The horror film Carrie seems like unlikely fodder for a Broadway musical. However, in 1988, producers were determined to turn it into a song-and-dance spectacle called Carrie: The Musical.
The show itself was rumored to have been extremely poorly written. Plus, in the first British production, the actor playing Carrie’s mother Margaret resigned on opening night after she was almost decapitated by a set-piece. On opening night on Broadway, the crowd booed the actors as they came out for the curtain call.
Carrie: The Musical was just too ridiculous. People especially loved to poke fun at the pig slaughter song. This trainwreck closed after five performances.
Oscar – Shaw Theatre, 2004
One of the most legendary flops was Oscar. Written by British TV personality Mike Read, it was a musical about Oscar Wilde that closed after a single performance.
While Oscar was especially ridiculous to people who were fans of Wilde, it was truly loathed across the board. Every critic who saw the show wrote a scathing review. The combination of awful reviews and terrible ticket sales caused the show to fold after opening night.
The Lord of the Rings – Theatre Royal Drury Lane, 2006 2007
The Lord of the Rings musical was an example of what happens when you try and fit too much content into one evening of theater. Writers tried to condense Tolkien’s three massive books into a single production.
The result was a $33 million show that started out at over 3.5 hours long — and that’s when everything went off without a hitch. Unfortunately, it rarely did., and Even weeks into the show’s run, set pieces would stall. As such, performances were often stopped so technicians could make repairs.
The Lord of the Rings started out in Toronto, then moved to the West End in 2007. Unfortunately, a rewrite and cuts couldn’t save the show, which ran for 13 months before closing.
Bring Back Birdie – Broadway, 1981
Bye Bye Birdie was one of the most popular Broadway shows of the 1960s. The story follows a fictional rock star who’s forced to go off to war, much like Elvis in 1957. The soundtrack became an instant classic. Plus, the show made leads Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke household names.
In 1981, the original creators of Bye Bye Birdie decided to write a sequel. Unfortunately, Bring Back Birdie had none of the magic of the original. The constant rewrites confused the cast. For instance, during one performance, one of the leads came onstage to sing a song that had been re-written, got confused, stopped halfway through, and told the audience he never liked the song anyway.
Metropolis – Piccadilly Theatre, 1989
Metropolis was a musical based on a silent film of the same name from 1927. First staged in 1989, the show was a disaster from the very first rehearsal. Rumor has it that lead actor Brian Blessed got in so many fights with director Jerome Savary that Savary was eventually barred from the theater. Also, one of the other leads quit on opening night.
The concept of Metropolis was interesting, but most critics felt the execution was lacking. The show ran for six months at the Piccadilly Theatre in the West End before closing. The show’s closure washed millions of dollars in budget down the drain.
Kelly – Broadway, 1965
Kelly was a disaster from top to bottom. In fact, it’s one of the legendary Broadway flops that only survived one single performance.
The show, which opened and closed in 1965 was about a busboy who claims to have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and survived. The show was a labor of love written by three writer friends, then picked up by a group of Broadway producers who wanted it to succeed. Almost as soon as the papers were signed, there was tension between the two groups. At one point, the writers petitioned the New York Supreme Court to try and stop the producers from making changes to the show.
When the production was in its out-of-town tryouts — a Broadway tradition that uses smaller venues in towns like Chicago and Los Angeles to test out material — three major roles were cut. Kelly played one show on Broadway before it closed.
Moose Murders – Broadway, 1983
Another legendary show that opened and closed on Broadway in the same night is a ridiculously-named Moose Murders. The show was a murder mystery with an elaborate, multi-level set built into the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. There was real “rain” in the middle of the show and tons of slamming doors.
Even though Moose Murders was meant to be a farce, the plot was so ridiculous that it was truly impossible to follow. The name of the show came from the fact that the murderer wore a moose head. And somehow, he was still difficult to catch.
For years afterward, people who were in the audience of the show’s one performance told stories about their night as witnesses to Broadway history in the making.
Viva Forever! – Piccadilly Theatre, 2012
You’d never think that a musical put on by the same production company responsible for Mamma Mia! could be a disaster. However, neither fame nor money are guarantees of success in the theater industry.
Judy Craymer, one of the producers responsible for Mamma Mia’s successful 10-year run, decided to help with Viva Forever! The show was about an all-girl group set to the music of the Spice Girls.
Viva Forever! received some of the worst West End reviews in recent memory. It closed after only seven months on stage, draining investors of over $9 million. Even press conferences and regular appearances from the Spice Girls themselves couldn’t save the doomed show.
Gone with the Wind – New London Theatre, 2008
It seems unusual that a British theater company would choose such a uniquely American tale like Gone with the Wind as source material.
Directed by the legendary theater-maker Sir Trevor Nunn — who’s responsible for Cats and Les Miserables — Gone with the Wind was billed as a “play with music”. Somehow, the production team managed to turn the sweeping Civil War epic into a 4.5-hour show that one critic called “boring and dull.”
After the scathing reviews came out, people started buying tickets just to see how bad it really was. Gone with the Wind closed after 79 performances.