With the exception of Bialystock and Bloom, the scheming backstage team in Mel Brooks' The Producers, nobody on Broadway wants their work to be a flop. Each composer, lyricist, director, cast and production team that works on a new musical is striving for success, creatively, critically and financially.
So how do flops happen? What went wrong? And with the possibility of catastrophe looming large, why do creative teams keep trying? The original revue You're The Flop by Music Theatre of Madison (through June 14 at the Bartell Theatre) attempts to answer these questions through tunes straight from the source: musicals that failed.
By stitching together songs from a dozen obscure, sometimes infamous productions, executive director Meghan Randolph, associate director Catie O'Donnell and collaborator Robby Sandler tell a new story: how a show comes to life through the heroic, sometimes desperate efforts of actors (Rylie Butzbaugh-Patrick and Ryan McDowell), a director (Kelsey Yudice), a writer (Cody Luck) and a producer (Karen Moeller). Since the subject is flops, when the fledgling show inevitably receives crushing reviews, the players despair, then rally, then re-dedicate themselves to making art. In between musical interludes, the cast recites snippets of theater lore about famous opening and closing nights.
With the outline of the New York skyline painted on the back wall of the Bartell's Evjue Theatre and a street sign that reads "Broadway" tacked to a post, the stage is set. Projected slides give audiences the title -- and the fate -- of each musical featured in the show, including how thoroughly it flopped, and how many performances it struggled through before getting the ax.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the hour-long production is how well all the music flows together to tell a coherent story. The tuneful numbers, from such diverse composers as Marvin Hamlisch, Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, Leonard Bernstein, and Boy George, seem perfectly chosen for the slight narrative and work together as a harmonious score.
In performance, "Until Tomorrow Night," from Smile, "Come on In From the Outside," from Taboo, and "Nine People's Favorite Thing," from [title of show] were particularly affecting, showing off the choral strength of the ensemble. It's easy to speculate that these songs were either the best thing about a bad score, or part of a strong musical foundation in an otherwise doomed production. Either way, it's a pleasure to hear them in this context.
As the writer, Cody Luck stood out in a cast that is generally strong. He created a memorable character, a struggling author filled with equal parts excitement and self-doubt as his play was brought to life onstage. His lovely singing voice easily supported the role, where others in the production were occasionally stretched to the edge of their vocal ranges.
With uncomplicated, minimal choreography, few set pieces and little plot, the audience and performers can focus on the music featured in the revue, all surprisingly good songs from shows with terrible production histories. At the end of the show, we're no closer to determining the elusive X-factor that separates success from failure on Broadway, but it's easy to see that You're the Flop is anything but.