September 12, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
In an on-line article published last week, Playbill listed twenty-two Broadway musicals that closed in one night over a period of the past fifty years. Of the twenty-two mentioned, I saw six of them — and all were at the height of my teenage theatre going years between 1969 and 1973, the period covered by my book Up in the Cheap Seats. This was a time when it was a far more common occurrence for shows to close after one performance. Sad as it must have been for everyone involved in shows that meet such premature ends, famous failures like these are fun to discuss for those who saw them. I should know — I’ve been talking about them for decades.
The ignominious distinction of seeing a show that opens and closes in this manner can only be done in one of two ways: attend the opening night or see the show in previews. As much fun as it would have been for me, being a child with no theatrical connections didn’t allow for my name to appear on any opening night lists. That is how all the one-night bombs that rained down on me back in the day were ones I paid for and saw in previews.
Which beings me to the subject of this column: that even rarer occasion when a show is so troubled that its plug is pulled by producers in no mood for allowing things go any further. My first exposure to even finding out such a thing existed was when I read The Season, an essential theatre book by the author and screenwriter William Goldman. In an intensive study of reporting and editorializing, Goldman chronicled every show during the 1966–67 Broadway season (a particularly bad one as it turned out, though Goldman had no way of knowing that going in). In one chapter, he writes of a disaster of singular horror titled Leda Had a Little Swan, which Goldman describes as “a comedy about bestiality set in the future where educators give children animals as substitute sex objects to ease them through puberty.” The playwright was Bamber Gascoigne, a Brit who went on to considerable renown as an academic and television personality in his native England, but who must still be embarrassed fifty years later by Leda, since his rather long Wikipedia page doesn’t list it.
Goldman states Leda was an eighty-page play that, under ordinary circumstances, should have translated to eighty minutes of stage time. Claiming that it took one hundred and eighty minutes to perform it is probably an exaggeration on Goldman’s part, but I’m sure it felt like it.
“I became obsessed with the thought that I was actually going to die right there in the Cort Theatre, dulled to death by [the actors] Severn Darden and Michael J. Pollard. I said to my wife, ‘I think I’m going to die,’ and she said, ‘I’m having trouble breathing,’ so we fled.”
It’s rare for Broadway shows to throw in the towel during previews before judgment can be passed by the critics. One of the most infamous of these was Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a musical based on Truman Capote’s famed novella. The leads were Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain, both then at the height of television stardom (Laura Petrie and Dr. Kildare), and therefore selling a lot of tickets. But in a highly unusual move, its fabled producer, David Merrick, abruptly put an end to the show while it was still in previews at the Majestic Theatre. After troubled tryouts in Philadelphia and Boston, it was even more of a mess in New York. “Rather than subject the drama critics and the theatregoing public — who invested one million dollars in advance sales — to an excruciatingly boring evening, I have decided to close,” Merrick proudly told the press. Never one to go off gently into that good night, for years thereafter, Merrick referred to Breakfast at Tiffany’s as “my Bay of Pigs.”
Another was Bobbi Boland, by Nancy Hasty, an unfortunate play about a former beauty queen that closed before it opened in 2003. It starred the television and poster icon Farrah Fawcett, who had but one previous experience appearing on stage, replacing Susan Sarandon in a 1983 Off-Broadway production of William Mastrosimone’s drama Extremities. She actually garnered reviews good enough to ensure it was she (and not Sarandon) who was asked to repeat the part in its 1986 film version. As for what made the producer of Bobbi Boland shut it down after a week of previews, either from embarrassment or from lack of funds, is something we will never know. In a New York Times interview with Fawcett days after its closing, the actress appeared to be clueless: “Is there a money issue? I don’t really know. Just that morning, she [the producer] had sent her decorator to paint my dressing room a different color. She had gotten me a hot water bottle.”
And what are the odds that both Leda Had a Little Swan and Bobbi Boland, played the Cort Theatre? Well, would it surprise you that my research unearthed a third play at the Cort that died in previews? In 1993, David Henry Hwang’s Face Value closed after a week’s worth of performances, ending the playwright’s hopes of having a successful follow-up to his previous hit, M. Butterfly, the 1988 Tony winner for Best Play that ran for two years. Currently, a new production of M. Butterfly, starring Clive Owen and directed by Julie Taymor, is scheduled to begin previews later this month.
It is playing the Cort.
If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.