‘What makes a show a flop?’ is basically the same question as ‘what makes a show successful?’ If we knew the answer there would only be shows making money and that, of course, is impossible. Mel Brook’s “The Producers” was a wise film and musical for it lampooned the concept of the making of a flop. No sane person in the world of theatre goes half-heartedly into producing a show – at the beginning there is an idea which appeals to a team of collaborators – a new piece of theatre that they hope will succeed in its appeal to the theatre going public.
What is difficult is how to define a flop. Any show not recouping its investment is a financial failure – a simple law of economics. But those shows sometimes run for over a year. If they do not re-appear then they are a true flop. But the economics of the theatre is such that a London flop could be a success on the road. A true flop is a show that closes quickly because it cannot sell tickets and then totally disappears.
When discussing a show that has not found its audience then it is all too easy to blame:
- The subject matter
- The book
- The score
- The director / choreographer
- The cold / hot / wet weather
- The cast
- The title
- The theatre
In truth it is generally a mixture of a number of reasons. The making of a musical is a collaborative thing that affects all the above except perhaps the weather. It’s like making a cocktail with too much or too little of one or all of the ingredients – it goes wrong. The making of a musical is a delicate thing and, unfortunately, one that relies on simple humans.
Imported shows that flop puzzle many. In New York it is a genuine hit so what goes wrong? Off-Broadway shows have a very bad record in this category. Perhaps it is simply that our West End has a Fringe and not a second tier of generally smaller theatres producing smaller budget pieces. But that does not cover shows like She Loves Me, Carnival, The Drowsy Chaperon and Fiorello! – surely it is not simply that they are too American (think Oklahoma!).
The old tried and trusted way of taking a show on the road before its London debut was a far better way of playing with the ingredients and making adjustments – a month of previews in London does not make up for this. It was also a way an astute producer could see that the mix was wrong and that planned London opening would not happen. Do you have flops on the road?
In revisiting a show that ‘flopped’ we have that wonderful thing called hindsight. It is all too easy to begin with the assumption that it was a bad idea to start with. I doubt if there is such a thing as a bad idea – only good ideas that go wrong. The problem is that the original idea has to be turned into a book (or libretto) that, at best, enhances the idea. The score must do the same. Then come the other ingredients: the actors, the sets, the costumes, the lighting and the director who has his or her view on how that original idea can be again enhanced. It’s more a case of what went wrong, not what went right.
Sometimes flops require a little more respect than we give them. One recent factor is the changing face of the London audience. With theatre prices outrageously high the traditional theatregoer from London and its hinterland has reduced and has been replaced by more and more tourists. Among recent ‘should have done better’ are a number of shows that will be hits on the road touring the vibrant provincial theatres – perhaps we are about to see a major change in direction in that we Londoners have to travel out of town to see a hit show that, if it first played London may well have been given that sad title of a flop.
RSB Illustrations from the Overtures Archive