Theater Book of the Week #2

Broadway Musical: The Biggest Hit and the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009

By Peter Filichia. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2010. Trade paperback, $19.99.

Besides Ethan Mordden, Peter Filichia’s just about the only Broadway-focused theater writer I can stand. He talks the showtalk and dishes the gossip, but doesn’t buy in too baldly. He writes the way theatergoers chat when they’re leaving the theater: in bold, general strokes, interrupted by telling details that prove he knows what he’s talking about. The best Broadway writers assess that type of theater as if it’s a major league sports, complete with stats-trading and fantasy teams. Filicia’s great at putting shows in their cultural and historical contexts, and great at imagining what else might have happened.

The odd, seemingly extreme format he’s taken for this latest trip down the Great White memory lane is to assess each Broadway season by highlighting its greatest success and its suckiest mistake. The middle ground is immaterial. Since books about Broadway flops have become an established genre, there’s a ready audience for Filicia’s appraisal of four decades of worsts. Playing them against the acknowledged hits turns out to be a brilliant gambit.

In some chapters, you see theater history being transformed before your very eyes. Filicia’s pick-hit for 1973 is Stephen Schwartz’s The Magic Show, a newfangled yet nonethless old-fashioned stage revue starring mustachioed magician Doug Henning. The pick-flop of the same year is Paul Jabara’s ill-fated disco musical Rachael Lily Rosenbloom (and Don’t You Ever Forget It). Filicia makes the useful point that glam/camp disco silliness became a prevalent style of Broadway in the ’90s and ’00s. Extending his point, if you revived both Magic Show and Rachael Lily Rosenbloom in the current theater climate, their fortunes might well be reversed.

I’m not in a position to concur with Filicia’s feelings regarding the opening night excitement at these shows He’s the longtime theater critic for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, and a prolific online Broadway-gossip columnist, so he personally witnessed many of the triumphs and disasters he chronicles here. His scholarship, however, is excellent, so even if you suspect he’s exaggerating the wonderments of some shows, you feel grounded by the basic data.

There are a few shows on his hit and miss lists which I did see, however, like Civil War, which is justifiably deemed the biggest flop of 1999 not just for its own qualities but for how it stalled the career of rising golden boy composer Frank Wildhorn. That show had a frenzied out-of-town try-out at the Shubert in New Haven. Other shows where I can validate Filicia’s astute analysis include Sweet Smell of Success, his choice for the biggest flop of 2001, a section he subtitles “What people don’t need after 9/11.”

I realize that I’m just as familiar with the flops in this book as I am with most of the hits, a weird realization since of course the hits have lasted much longer and made it into the regional theater territories where I do most of my theatergoing. This is what makes this book so fascinating: A lot of us who try to find things to see on Broadway will make a beeline for a show like Sweet Smell of Success, even though we’ve heard it sucks, just because we want to know what compelled John Guare and Marvin Hamlisch to make a musical out of a downbeat Tony Curtis/Burt Lancaster movie. It’s a stronger urge than the one that draws us to a see a show we know will be touring for years, or made into a movie, or be seen on high school and college and community stages ad nauseam.

Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit and the Biggest Flop of the Season 1959-2009 gives you the whole story. It respects the process of musical-making while acknowledging commercial and critical realities. It’s full of flukes and flashes-in-pans and happenstance, working in useful anecdotes at the drop of a brickbat. Ultimately, it shows you how many different workable historical perspectives can be applied to Broadway. As Filicia says in his coda, while Stephen Sondheim is widely thought to be the greatest Broadway name of the exact 50-year period the book covers, only three of his shows are among the 100 discussed. And all of them are in the “flop” category.

This revelation would seem to undermine Filichia’s method, but it merely demonstrates how written-in-stone the conventional Broadway hit histories are, and how we need more alternate histories like this one in order to truly see where theater has gone and where it’s going.