Hit Movies That Became Broadway Flops

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The 1988 Broadway adaptation of Carrie — based on Stephen King’s book and Brian DePalma’s subsequent film — was such a notorious turkey that it became shorthand for ill-advised stage productions; a compendium book of them even bears the title Not Since “Carrie”. But somehow, the show still has its supporters, and it seems that a few of them have convinced investors that it deserves a second shot. Thus, Carrie will return to the New York stage early next year, albeit this time in an off-Broadway setting.

Carrie’s return may have as much to do with the current cautious atmosphere in the New York theatrical world as it does with the quality of the much-maligned production — with costs (and ticket prices) ballooning, Broadway producers seem only interested in sure things: revivals, big stars, so-called “jukebox musicals.” The theory is that the tourists who keep the New York stage solvent will only part with Broadway dollars if they’re spending them on a brand they’re familiar with; hence the Spider-Man musical, say, or The Million Dollar Quartet. And then, of course, there is the movie-to-stage adaptation — why not come see a live production of something you’ve already seen on film? Movie-to-musical shows have popped up sporadically for decades, but after the smash success of The Producers a decade ago, we’ve seen an onslaught; this season saw the debuts of Catch Me If You Can, Sister Act, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, in addition to long-running hits like The Lion King and Billy Elliot. But successfully staging a beloved movie is harder than it looks; it’s important to remember that for every Hairspray or Little Shop of Horrors, there’s an Urban Cowboy or High Fidelity. After the jump, we’ll take a look at ten popular movies that tanked on the boards.

(First, a quick side note: Yes, yes, some of these films were based on books, which technically makes them adaptations of the books, not the films. But in those cases, we’ve selected examples where the film was generally more beloved and well-known, and thus presumably the impetus for the Broadway production; other cases where the book was as esteemed — Frankenstein or The Vampire Lestat, for example — were left out.)

Carrie

BROADWAY OPENING: May 12, 1998 BROADWAY CLOSING: May 15, 1998 TOTAL PREVIEWS: 16 TOTAL PERFORMANCES: 5 TOTAL LOSS: $7 million

It took over seven years and over seven million dollars to get this much-maligned production to the New York stage, and less than a week of performances for it to go down in flames. Originated at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where it had a four-week run before moving to Broadway in April of 1998, the production was plagued by casting troubles, technical difficulties (Carrie’s dousing in blood, the film’s most iconographic image, had to be reduced to a splatter to prevent her microphone from shorting out), internal struggles at the RSC, and script overhauls. And then the reviews came in. “Those who have the time and money to waste on only one Anglo-American musical wreck on Broadway this year might well choose Carrie,” wrote The New York Times’ Frank Rich, in a notorious pan. “If Chess slides to its final scene as solemnly and pompously as the Titanic, then Carrie expires with fireworks like the Hindenburg.”

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

BROADWAY OPENING: Never officially opened; previews began December 12, 1966 TOTAL PREVIEWS: 4 TOTAL PERFORMANCES: none TOTAL LOSS: $1 million

Broadway legend David Merrick assembled an all-star cast of collaborators for this adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella and Blake Edwards’s 1961 film: the book was by Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), music and lyrics were by Bob Merrill (Funny Girl), the director was Joseph Anthony (The Rainmaker) and the cast included Richard Chamberlain, Sally Kellerman, and Mary Tyler Moore as Holly Golightly. But the out-of-town tryouts (under the original title, Holly Golightly) were a disaster; Merrick scrapped the entire book (which was originally written by Guys and Dolls scribe Abe Burrows), cast members frequently got rewrites mere hours before curtain, and the show often ran nearly four hours. The production never even made it to opening night; after four New York previews, Merrick unceremoniously pulled the plug, taking out an ad in the Times to explain that he didn’t want to “subject the drama critics and the public to an excruciating, boring evening.”

High Fidelity

BROADWAY OPENING: December 7, 2006 BROADWAY CLOSING: December 17, 2006 TOTAL PREVIEWS: 19 TOTAL PERFORMANCES: 13

Nick Hornby’s original 1995 novel was set in London; Stephen Frears’s 2000 film adaptation moved it to Chicago; the 2006 musical made yet another move, to Brooklyn. Whether it was an attempt to localize or to plug in to a vinyl-friendly hipster scene is debatable; what is not up for discussion is that audiences weren’t eager to see Hornby’s bittersweet ode to pop fanaticism transformed into a singing, dancing, musical extravaganza. Reviews were brutal — The New York Times‘s Ben Brantley dubbed it “a show that erases itself from your memory even as you watch it” — and the show closed in less than two weeks.

The Red Shoes

BROADWAY OPENING: December 16, 1993 BROADWAY CLOSING: December 19, 1993 TOTAL PREVIEWS: 51 TOTAL PERFORMANCES: 5 TOTAL LOSS: $8 million

Bob Merrill strikes again! Teamed with composer Jule Styne and co-lyricist/book writer Marsha Norman (‘night, Mother; The Secret Garden) for this adaptation of the 1948 Powell and Pressburger classic (itself based on a Hans Christian Andersen story), Merrill was one of the few people who didn’t get fired by producer Martin Starger on the way to the Great White Way — the director, production manager, male lead, and several featured players were all dumped during the extended preview period. Though Stanley Donan (the famed director of Singin’ in the Rain) eventually took over directorial duties, the show was dead in the water; it closed at the end of its first weekend.

Dance of the Vampires

BROADWAY OPENING: December 9, 2002 BROADWAY CLOSING: January 25, 2003 TOTAL PREVIEWS: 61 TOTAL PERFORMANCES: 56 TOTAL LOSS: $12 million

This 2002 flop was inspired by The Fearless Vampire Killers, Roman Polanski’s 1967 horror/comedy that is mainly remembered nowadays as the film on which he met his ill-fated wife, Sharon Tate. Originated on the German stage (where Polanski directed the inaugural production himself), the show’s New York debut was first planned for the late ‘90s, until it became clear that Polanski couldn’t transfer with it. The show eventually settled on a pair of rather inexperienced directors (composer Jim Steinman and book author David Ives) and an October 2001 opening, which was pushed back after 9/11. Rehearsals and previews were reportedly nightmarish — demanding star Michael Crawford had few fans among the cast and crew, a new director was brought in, script changes were made by the handful, and the balance between bawdy humor and big Broadway production numbers was frequently askew. By the time it opened in December 2002, Steinman had all but disowned it, refusing to attend opening night and calling the show “UTTER SHIT!” on his blog (quite a sentiment, coming from the composer of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” — which was shamelessly recycled in the score). Reviews were less blunt, but the sentiment was the same.

Nick & Nora

BROADWAY OPENING: December 8, 1991 BROADWAY CLOSING: December 15, 1991 TOTAL PREVIEWS: 71 TOTAL PERFORMANCES: 9

Until Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark came along, the record-holder for longest Broadway preview period was this 1991 musical, adapted from the Thin Man films (as inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novel). The creative personnel were top-notch — composer Charles Strouse did Bye Bye Birdie and Annie, lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. was hot off Miss Saigon, and the book was by the great Arthur Laurents (West Side Story, Gypsy). Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason were cast in the title roles, but in retrospect, Laurents wasn’t sure anyone could have played them; in his book Original Story by he admitted not fully grasping how thoroughly the roles had become irrevocably identified with William Powell and Myrna Loy. He also surmised that the lengthy preview period set the New York gossip machine against the play — a complaint also made by Spider-Man’s producers. The reviews were similarly vicious: Time’s William A. Henry III called it “a crashing bore — cranky and arbitrary as a love story, tedious and pointless as a murder mystery, ham-handed as comedy, clubfooted as dance, at best wanly pleasant as music.”

Urban Cowboy

BROADWAY OPENING: March 27, 2003 BROADWAY CLOSING: May 18, 2003 TOTAL PREVIEWS: 26 TOTAL PERFORMANCES: 60

After the success of the 2000 Broadway adaptation of Saturday Night Fever, the powers-that-be apparently said to each other, “Well, what other John Travolta movie can we turn into a show?” They settled on his 1980 film Urban Cowboy, not realizing that — unlike Fever, which was a cultural and musical phenomenon on its own, without Travolta — Urban Cowboy was basically just a Travolta vehicle, with little else memorable about it. You certainly couldn’t blame to show for not trying, though; by the time it opened, no less than thirty composers and lyricists were credited for the show’s mixture of new songs and standards, including Charlie Daniels and Clint Black. Though it was nominated for two Tonys, it closed after less than two months.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

BROADWAY OPENING: July 8, 1982 BROADWAY CLOSING: July 11, 1982 TOTAL PREVIEWS: 15 TOTAL PERFORMANCES: 5

Surprised? Me too. Yes, Seven Brides was a film first, in 1954 (helmed by eventual Red Shoes director Stanley Donen); it didn’t make it to the Great White Way until 1982, and when it did, it tanked. Again, a blast from the Times was a death blow (“How does one begin to describe Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the threadbare touring package that mistakenly unpacked on Broadway last night?” asked Frank Rich); the production was also ill-timed, landing in the midst of a season notable for its many failures (Rich noted that Seven Brides was “the fifth musical bomb to be planted in the Alvin in 10 months”). Subsequent productions — in the West End in 1985 and 2006, as well as an American tour in 2007 — have fared far better.

9 to 5

BROADWAY OPENING: April 30, 2009 BROADWAY CLOSING: September 6, 2009 TOTAL PREVIEWS: 24 TOTAL PERFORMANCES: 148

The 1980 film 9 to 5 marked the film debut of Dolly Parton, who had one of her biggest pop hits with the film’s title track. She was engaged to compose new songs for the 2009 Broadway musical adaptation, with a book by the film’s co-writer, Patricia Resnick; The West Wing’s Allison Janney was among the cast. Though the film met with mostly respectful reviews and garnered 15 Drama Desk nominations (and four Tony nominations), it closed after four months due to slow ticket sales.

Big

BROADWAY OPENING: April 28, 1996 BROADWAY CLOSING: October 13, 1996 TOTAL PREVIEWS: 22 TOTAL PERFORMANCES: 193 TOTAL LOSS: $10.3 million

As with Nick & Nora and Urban Cowboy, the producers of Big clearly underestimated the public’s identification with the film’s star in its leading role; for all of its charms (and they are many), Big is a Tom Hanks movie, and Big without Tom Hanks ain’t Big at all. Nick & Nora lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. and composer David Shire (best known, by your author anyway, for his score to the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three) provided the music, while frequent Sondheim collaborator John Weidman did the book; Susan Stroman, five years from the success of The Producers, was choreographer. The show netted five Tony nominations, but critics were divided and ticket sales were underwhelming; the five months of performances were nowhere near enough to cover the show’s considerable costs.