MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org

Flops: when good theater goes bad

Broadway is a magical place. Through the dreams, combined talents, and sheer luck of a group of people, audiences are transported into another world brought to life right before them. At least that’s the plan. Sometimes things go horribly, splendidly wrong. While cataloging images of the theater production files at the Museum of the City of New York, a project generously funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services, we have come across some productions that have truly earned the moniker of “flop”.

In 1929, a young unknown actor was cast in the pre-Broadway tour of Blind Window, produced by the legendary David Belasco.  The Baltimore Sun had this to say about the actor who played one half of a murderously and madly in love convict couple: “Clark Gabel [sic] does excellent work as convict No. 27.” The misspelling of Clark Gable’s name, both in the newspaper and more embarrassingly in the Playbill, was only the first of many clues as to why this production closed after only 24 shows before even reaching Broadway. (Six years later Clark Gable won the Oscar for It Happened One Night.)

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). Clark Gable and Beth Merrill in "Blind Window". 1929. Museum of the City of New York. 37.399.764.

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). Clark Gable and Beth Merrill in “Blind Window”. 1929. Museum of the City of New York. 37.399.764.

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). [Clark Gable and Beth Merrill in "Blind Window".]. 1929. Museum of the City of New York. 37.399.778

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). [Clark Gable and Beth Merrill in “Blind Window“.]. 1929. Museum of the City of New York. 37.399.778.

Clark Gable isn’t the only (now) celebrated actor to find himself in this position. In 1962, a young Stephen Sondheim – fresh on the heels of the success of West Side Story and Gypsy, was having some trouble with his newest musical – Anyone Can Whistle (previously called The Natives are Restless then Side Show). Backers were hard to find, the story wasn’t quite working, and the lead actress, Angela Lansbury, had misgivings about the whole thing.  Despite delaying the opening several weeks to try to fix the problems, Anyone Can Whistle played only 12 previews and 9 performances.

 

Friedman-Abeles. ["Anyone Can Whistle" theater still.] 1964. Museum of the City of New York. 68.80.4120.

Friedman-Abeles. [“Anyone Can Whistle” theater still.] 1964. Museum of the City of New York. 68.80.4120.

 In what sounds like a recipe for a palpable hit (to borrow a phrase from Sondheim), in 1966 the beloved Truman Capote novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s was turned into a musical. Riding on the wave of popularity from the Audrey Hepburn film version of it just a few years earlier, and with a book by Edward Albee (!) and featuring Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain – stars at the top of their games- what could possibly go wrong?

Unknown. Richard Chamberlain and Mary Tyler Moore during a rehearsal for "Breakfast at Tiffany's". 1966. Museum of the City of New York. 81.54.3968.

United Press International. Richard Chamberlain and Mary Tyler Moore during a rehearsal for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. 1966. Museum of the City of New York. 81.54.3968.

 

United Press International. [Mary Tyler Moore during a rehearsal for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.]. 1966. Museum of the City of New York. 81.54.3969.

Apparently so many things. The score and script were under constant revision, audiences and critics hated seeing Mary Tyler Moore in a darker version of Holly Golightly, and things got so bad that the producer, David Merrick, took the drastic step of closing the show after only 4 previews (his words) “rather than subject the drama critics and the public to an excruciatingly boring evening.”

Friedman-Abeles. [Richard Chamberlain as Jeff Claypool and Mary Tyler Moore as Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.] 1966. Museum of the City of New York. 81.54.3946

Friedman-Abeles. [Richard Chamberlain as Jeff Claypool in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.] 1966. Museum of the City of New York. 81.54.3952.

In 1982, the hit songwriting duo of Betty Comden and Adolph Green (On the Town, The Band Wagon and many, many others) answered the question that was burning on no one’s mind – what happened to Nora after the end of Henrik Ibsen’s classic A Doll’s House? A musical sequel to A Doll’s House, creatively entitled A Doll’s Life: what could possibly go wrong? Again, a whole lot. Jokingly called A Doll’s Death, the show played only 18 previews and five performances. However, despite the short run, the musical still managed to receive three Tony nominations.

Unknown. Betsy Joslyn as Nora and Peter Gallagher as Otto in "A Doll's Life".] 1982. Museum of the City of New York. 92.52.39.97

Unknown photographer. Betsy Joslyn as Nora and Peter Gallagher as Otto in “A Doll’s Life”.] 1982. Museum of the City of New York. 92.52.39.97

So next time you find yourself judging the creative teams behind this season’s under-performing shows, remember: the next Clark Gable may be in the cast! To look at all the theatrical productions we’ve digitized so far, including both huge hits and more flops, please visit our Collections Portal here.

 

About Susannah Broyles

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