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The Flops of All Seasons

January 13, 2011 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

I remember how, in 1963, my father decided that my sports-mad older brother needed to be introduced to some culture. What was his proposed cure for this young teen's basketball monomania? The old man had purchased a clutch of tickets for a musical then trying out in Center City before it headed for Broadway. As I recall it, the entire experience, with a meal at a downtown restaurant beforehand, was to be a guy's night out; we were meant to drink it all in, experience it together, discuss and digest it. My father didn't have to convince me or my younger brother to attend (nor would he have had to resort to pressure tactics with my sister, if she'd been old enough). We other children were all theater- and movie-mad, and would jump at any opportunity to see a show.

My father, though, really had to strong-arm my older brother. He wanted no part of any of it and he bulched(that was the Yiddish term my father used for his incessant complaining) well in advance of the evening, as well as throughout the performance and long afterward.

Unfortunately for my father, he'd chosen a doozy of a musical for us to see. It was calledHot Spot and, though on paper it seemed an interesting prospect, in reality, it was a howler -- I even knew it, and I was all of 14 years old. Part of the attraction for my father must have been that it starred the legendary comedienne (as they were called back then) Judy Holliday, famous for her starring role in the stage and film versions of Garson Kanin's comedy with political overtones, Born Yesterday. She'd won an Academy Award for the movie performance and a Tony for another starring role in the Broadway musicalBells Are Ringing.

The piece had other possible attractions: Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers' daughter and the author of the Carol Burnett hit Once Upon a Mattress, wrote the music, and the lyrics were by Martin Charnin, who would go on to write a little charmer called Annie.

But Hot Spot was a disaster and a bore, and so ineptly put together that not even Holliday could salvage it -- and my brother let my father know exactly how he felt about it all, in typical teenage fashion.

"I knew it, I knew it!" he said as we left the theater. "Culture." He very nearly spat the word out. "I hate this crap. Don't ever think you're getting me into another theater ever again. At least when you go to a basketball game, you know somebody's got a ball and he's got to put that ball in a basket, and the guys who do that the most -- they're the ones who win! What the hell was all that crap we just watched? What was it? That you call culture?" He delivered his little harangue with obvious disgust.

The problem was that none of us could defend it, though we had somehow stayed to the bitter end. My brother, in typical fashion, bulched all the way home.

I thought about that memorable evening in the theater as I read, with considerable pleasure, Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season 1959 to 2009, written by longtime drama critic Peter Filichia and published by the great Applause Books.Hot Spot, not surprisingly, was the author's choice for the low point of 1963. It lasted all of 43 performances once it left Philly for New York, most likely making it that far on Holliday's name alone (it couldn't have been the reviews). Sadly, it wasn't long after this very public fiasco that the talented star succumbed to cancer.

Lots of useful trivia and a healthy dose of nostalgia are the major ingredients that make Filichia's book such a kick to read. This is not actually a history or any sort of comparative study; what you have here are a fan's notes, clean and simple, all of it delivered with appropriate gusto. People looking for deep analysis or social criticism should look elsewhere (if, in fact, you're in the mood for something along those lines, definitely search out Larry Stempel's massive, complete compilation Showtime, published by W.W. Norton). Filichia, for his part, is the kind of guy who gets just as big a thrill out of detailing what went into making those flops flop as he does describing the classic works that triumphed, at least financially, throughout the 50-year period his book covers.

Devoted fans of the form can get reacquainted with such long lost musicals as Stephen Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle; the Frank Loesser and Bob Fosse fiascoPleasures and Palaces; and Mary Tyler Moore's post-Dick Van Dyke Show stinker Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Without question, what's most satisfying aboutBroadway Musicals is all the great trivia you can now extract from its pages and make part of your repertoire of theatrical anecdotes. Back to Hot Spot, as an example, which was a musical about, of all things, the Peace Corps. Lyricist Charnin recalled for Filichia that things began getting shaky for the musical almost right from the start, and that was because of Holliday's romantic involvement right about then with the great jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.

"I'll never forget being at a rehearsal where Tec [Morton DaCosta's nickname] was directing, and Gerry was in the house," Charnin said. "Tec told Judy to move in a certain way, and she looked right through him and looked to see what Gerry was thinking. Gerry shook his head no, and Judy said, no, she wouldn't do as he asked. It wasn't too much longer that Gerry was our new director and Tec was literally taken out on a stretcher."

Sheila Smith, an actress who had a featured role in the production and kept a journal of the experience, reported that, all told, there were nine different directors involved in Hot Spot in its protracted out-of-town tryout period leading up to the New York opening. They included such luminaries as Bob Fosse, the producer Cy Feuer, Charnin himself and Arthur Laurents.

Other directors came and went -- one was Herb Ross, who eventually went on to do the ballet movie The Turning Point -- and the libretto was tinkered with repeatedly. Finally, producer Robert Fryer opened the show, and the critics were left to mop up the disaster.

Interestingly, before Filichia gets to discussing Hot Spot, he suggests that the biggest flop of that season may actually have been Mr. President, even though it ran for seven months. The problem was the intense disappointment that greeted this work -- one that appeared, again on paper, to promise so much. It was written by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, who penned Life With Father, which still holds the record for the longest-running non-musical in Broadway history. The music was by the inimitable Irving Berlin, whose credits are too numerous to mention. The director was Joshua Logan, who had already had hits with Mister Roberts, South Pacific and Annie Get Your Gun. The stars were Robert Ryan and Nanette Fabray, two Broadway stalwarts. Mr. President even had a mammoth advance sale.

It proved to be a clunker. Still, against all logic, it ran for months. That's why the mantle has fallen to Hot Spot among Filichia's numerous rankings.

What was the biggest hit of 1963? England's Oliver, which played 774 performances. That's probably the number Mr. President racked up. Go figure.

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