Troubled Production: Theatre

"If Hitler is alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical."
Larry Gelbart

  • Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, The Musical take on the comic book and the Sam Raimi movie adaptations, had a hard time just getting to its preview period on Broadway... whereupon things went From Bad to Worse due to seemingly endless injuries to its performers, inspiring parodies on Conan, snarky coverage by The Onion A.V. Club, endless snark in general from MAD, and a Ripped from the Headlines episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent — even Sesame Street got in on making fun of it. With a $65 million budget, it would have to sell out for three years to break even. The preview period kept getting extended, and finally theater critics had enough and wrote/ran reviews of the February 7, 2011 performance (which, had it not been pushed back again, was supposed to be the official opening date)... most of which were scathing. In response, the producers (finally!) panicked and brought in script doctors, along with having Bono and The Edge write new music. Director (and famous prima donna) Julie Taymor refused to go along with the changes and was either fired or quit. It finally opened in June 2011.
    • In January 2012, the producers suggested that the show might periodically add new scenes and songs to encourage repeat customers. The cautionary tale continued to unfold: Taymor has filed suit against the producers and Bono and The Edge, claiming that not only that she was unjustly fired but also that they used her rewrites afteward, without giving her credit.
    • In August 2013, yet another performer was seriously injured during a performance.
    • Then it was the ticket sales that fell to their doom; in November the show was confirmed to be closing in January 2014, with $60 million of the producers' investment due to be lost according to New York magazine. Initially intended to reopen in Las Vegas in 2015, the producers have since decided to launch an arena tour in 2015 or '16, but stay tuned...
  • In 1995, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman received a commission to write a musical about the lives of Wilson and Addison Mizner. By 2004, when the show's score was recorded under its third Working Title, Bounce, production had seemingly been abandoned. It finally made it to New York in 2008 as Road Show, but it didn't last long.
  • The 2015 Broadway production of David Mamet's China Doll seems to be this even in previews, according to Michael Riedel in The New York Post.
    • Al Pacino reportedly has difficulty remembering his lines and as a result, three teleprompters have had to be hidden in the set; he also gets them fed to him via Bluetooth on the headset he wears as a billionaire. This has had a detrimental effect on the play's blocking, since he often faces away from other characters who he would be more realistically facing so he can read his lines. One incident involved Pacino's headset going out and getting co-star Christopher Denham to replace it. In the middle of a performance.
    • When director Pam MacKinnon, who is apparently known for her inability to stand up to big stars, tried to give him a note, he told her "I'm not your fucking puppet!" and that was the end of that. Reportedly, he goes back to his dressing room looking despondent after every performance; she spends the whole show pacing around backstage.
    • Pacino apparently believes the script needs serious revisions, but knows that where Mamet is concerned, you don't do that without consulting him, but he's been in Los Angeles since the first night and hasn't responded to inquiries from New York, where audiences are reportedly walking out in great numbers during intermission. The producers may well push the opening back.
    • Which they did ... to a Friday, almost unheard of on Broadway. Despite the producers' responsible that they were just trying to avoid competing with the recently-opened musical adapation of School of Rock, everyone knew this was an attempt to make sure bad reviews would be buried since Saturday's newspapers are the least-read of any day of the week. Critics pounced right back by filing uniformly negative reviews in Friday's papers, based on the previews they had attended (again, a break with custom).
    • Riedel followed up with a longer article about the play's problems, mostly reiterating his earlier reporting in greater detail. He added that some investors admitted they should have thought twice when writing their checks as neither Mamet nor Pacino have had any major success on Broadway in years.
    • Another critic involved noted the rightward drift in Mamet's politics over the years, and said that the play, built around a billionaire's newly-purchased private jet, was basically Mamet's Author Tract against the IRS.
    • Which was Pacino's problem as well. He hadn't realized until rehearsals began just how much of the dialogue was his, and at his age it turned out to be more than he could handle. His requests to Mamet for revisions were primarily meant to address this problem. All Mamet ultimately did was make a few small changes.
    • The play also had Special Effects Failure to deal with as well. As originally written, at the end a model of the plane that's at the center of the plot was supposed to be used by Pacino as he murders his assistant. On one of the first preview shows, it did... and got dented by the actor's head, leading to much unintended laughter from the audience. Better work by the prop department and a rewrite of the scene took care of the problem.
    • It's expected as of the beginning of 2016 that the producers will close the play by early February, offering what discounts they can to cut their losses.
  • Trouble with Chess in London started when its original director had to drop out before just before rehearsals, then went on to include trouble with the show's highly technical sets that threatened its ability to open on time. Then the Broadway rewrite (which ended up torn apart by critics and flopped) had enough behind-the-scenes drama that Vanity Fair wrote a feature on it, including claims of a director was nearly unreachable, an ill producer, and a rush to open the show in time to compete with Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera.
  • The Phantom of the Opera itself underwent much upheaval during its development and preview days — numerous cast changes, backstage bickering over such changes, props and equipment frequently breaking down, and massive overhauling of nearly all the lyrics. Then, just as the show finally debuted, both of its lead actors took ill (Michael Crawford suffered a hiatal hernia owing to the demanding score, and Steve Barton — cast as Raoul — suffered a fall after he replaced him as the Phantom) and then the understudies were knocked out of commission as well.
    • After Webber began work in earnest on the sequel Love Never Dies after years in Development Hell, his cat climbed on his digital piano and accidentally deleted the score. Plans to open the show in three different countries (England, the U.S., and China) at once fell through due to logisitics. That was probably for the best: The London production was so poorly received, particularly by the Phantom fanbase, that by the end of 2010 it was extensively retooled. But the highly-unpopular underlying plot and changes to the characters were mostly intact, and it ultimately ran less than two years. Despite attempts to drum up interest by filming a better-received Australian staging for video release, only Denmark and Japan have taken the bait so far, with the Broadway production that was supposed to follow on from London's in Fall 2010 indefinitely postponed — not for a lack of effort on Lloyd Webber's part.
  • The now-canceled Broadway production of the musical adapation of Rebecca, as detailed here. After a successful run in continental Europe, producer Ben Sprecher canceled the London production as too costly. Even so, he decided it was ready for Broadway. A mysterious British investor, supposedly named "Paul Abrams", then put $4.5 million into the play... more than 10 times what the biggest-rolling investors usually throw into a Broadway musical, even one that's been wildly successful in London. But no one had ever heard of Abrams, and the producers later claimed they never met him in person. In September 2012, Abrams supposedly died of malaria. Yet there had been no obituaries for a wealthy man who died of malaria in the British newspapers, and no death certificates listed malaria as a cause. A spokesman for the estate refused to take phone calls, and used an email address that had been created a month earlier. Sprecher (who had never been lead producer on a Broadway musical) had already built the sets, so he lost millions when the production was canceled the following month. The FBI arrested a stockbroker on Long Island for his attempt to defraud the producers by fabricating the foreign investors who were prepared to put the $4.5 million in.
  • Dance of the Vampires, the Broadway version of Tanz Der Vampire, was probably doomed from the start. To summarize from the Other Wiki: It was supposed to open in 1998 but didn't until 2002, for reasons that ranged from having to find a new director (owing to the original, Roman Polanski, being unable to return to the U.S. without facing arrest on infamous rape charges) to the 9-11 attacks! As the ball got rolling, the script received an extensive, jokier rewrite to appeal to American audiences who no longer cared for European "megamusicals", and the changes kept on coming with the casting of Michael Crawford as Krolock; he had creative control over his dialogue, costumes, etc. Composer Jim Steinman was ultimately fired from his own show over not showing up to rehearsals. The director and choreographer, both fresh from Urinetown, proved unable to handle a production of this size and style, especially with so many dueling ideas and egos about. The result lasted only 56 performances and its reputation has so far discouraged other English-language productions.
  • The popular Broadway musical RENT underwent some large production troubles. The idea was originally thought up by Billy Aronson. He teamed up with 29-year old composer Jonathan Larson and started writing the songs in 1989. Busy with other personal commitments, Aronson dropped the project and Larson picked it back up a couple of years later. In 1993 it had its first on-stage reading which resulted in some criticism against the musical's over-complexity and length. A workshop version was penned and performed in 1994, which resulted in even more tweaks needing to be made to the story, and Larson again having to rework the songs to fit the changes. Funding started to become an issue as many investors feared the musical's then-controversial subject matter, causing Larson to have to turn to other sources for money. When he finally got a steady cast together and the show was scheduled to make its debut in early 1996, Larson died from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm. His death caused the first preview of the musical to be canceled and the play was performed in front of a private audience in his memory. Ultimately it made its off-Broadway premiere on time and has since become one of the most beloved musicals of the 1990s.
  • Cirque du Soleil productions have their ups and downs on the way to opening night, but Banana Shpeel was truly troubled. The original concept — a fusion of Cirque's "house style", Vaudeville, and The Musical — proved to be too much for one coherent show, so the major characters who were going to handle the songs were dropped and new composers hired AFTER the 2008 America's Got Talent finale featured the singers in question in a preview segment. Now a Slapstick-heavy show with only two acrobatic setpieces, it bombed with critics in its Chicago tryout at the end of 2009. A second revision with more acrobatics and a third score took so long to put together (with two comic principals being fired and rehired over the period) that its New York City debut was delayed by months. This ran into another problem — Cirque's grand plan for 2010 was for Shpeel to debut in late winter and run indefinitely at the Beacon Theatre, while the tent tour OVO had a springtime engagement and Wintuk a holiday season one. The delays meant that OVO arrived first... and Shpeel, with reviews far worse than OVO's, was stuck in its shadow. The show closed in two months. Cirque tried to take it on the road afterward, but it closed permanently after one month in Toronto — the company's first complete failure amongst its live shows.
  • Before Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark hit Broadway, 1983's Merlin was a fantasy musical (presenting the famous Arthurian character in his younger days) that had its own overlong preview period. Its official opening was postponed three times to the annoyance of critics, and much like what happened with the Spidey show, The New York Times formally reviewed it before it formally opened. The spectacle wasn't the problem this time — leading man Doug Henning was a Stage Magician legend who'd previously had a hit with The Magic Show in The '70s and his tricks for this show were equally impressive. But he didn't have to do much singing in the older show (Stephen Schwartz gave the tunes to his supporting cast), and in this one he did... at least initially, as by the end of previews all his singing was cut. The original director was cut too, replaced by co-producer Ivan Reitman, and a second choreographer was added. Making matters worse, the Broadway production of Cats opened just months before and monopolized the attention of theatergoers — particularly the families which Merlin obviously hoped to court. The producers pressed on ("It was the musical that wouldn't disappear" according to Nathan Lane, who played a bumbling villain), and it managed five Tony nominations in a weak season, but it won none and closed after 199 regular performances.
  • Funny Girl went on to be a hit, but its pre-Broadway tryout suffered serious troubles. The opening performance in Boston was practically a fiasco. Feuds arose between Barbra Streisand and Sydney Chaplin, and between everyone and the notoriously temperamental Jerome Robbins when he took over from credited director Garson Kanin. Ghostwriters struggled to keep up with rewrites demanded by Streisand and the Arnstein family (the show's producer was Nick Arnstein's son-in-law). Chaplin's part became equal to Streisand's in billing only; a secondary female role played by Allyn Ann McLerie was written out entirely. Dozens of Cut Songs were thrown out, and dance routines were in a constant state of flux. The final scene was rewritten 42 times, and its final version was being rehearsed immediately prior to the Broadway opening, which had been repeatedly postponed.
  • Richard Wagner's second opera, Das Liebesverbot (based on Measure for Measure), was his first opera to be staged, albeit with severe cuts. The Magdeburg company's opening night performance was ruined by underrehearsed singers and orchestra. Their second performance never even started, due to a feud breaking out among the cast. The opera was not performed again until 1923.
  • Hot Spot, a musical burlesque of the Peace Corps that flopped on Broadway in 1963 with an ailing Judy Holliday in her final starring role, had more than its share of troubles. Four days before rehearsals started, orchestrator Robert Ginzler (Gypsy, Bye Bye Birdie and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) suffered a fatal heart attack. The preview period was repeatedly extended for numerous ghostwriters (including Stephen Sondheim, who helped write a new opening number) to improve the book and lyrics. By one account, the show went through nine directors. Herbert Ross ultimately took over both direction and choreography, but the program credited nobody for either.