When a dramatic production fails or flops it’s called a turkey, although that vernacular is mainly confined to the U.S. and Canada. In Britain, when a show is a bomb, they call it… a bomb.
But in honor of Thanksgiving (and turkeys), I thought it would be fun to highlight a failure or two I saw between 1969 and 1973 when, as a teenager, I attended practically everything that opened on Broadway (the ones I missed folded too quickly). The top ticket was $9.90 (which no way in the WORLD I could have afforded) and the cheapest was $2 bucks (which I easily did). Everything being less expensive in those days made it possible for a producer to bring something in on a very low budget, Broadway quality or not, provided they had investors and an available theatre. And with turnover being what it was, theatres were more commonly available than today, as behemoths like Phantom and Lion King didn’t occupy West 44th and West 45th Streets for decades. In 1976, for example, five different plays and musicals were at the Lyceum Theatre over the course of one season. Shows came and went as quickly as pigeons in Times Square.
My book about that time, Up in the Cheap Seats, goes into detail about one disaster from 1972 that was so remarkable it became synonymous with the word bomb: Dude, the Highway Life, a misguided missile of a musical. It sought to duplicate the success of Hair (its guiding force, Gerome Ragni, was part of the creative team of that milestone event). Sadly, it missed Hair’s phenomenal four-year run by about four years. You can read more about it as well as similar non-triumphs in my book, but for a complete Turkey Trot, nothing is as good as Not Since Carrie, Ken Mandelbaum’s wonderful book on failed Broadway musicals. Mind you, Carrie wasn’t the worst disaster of all time by a long shot (though it did only run a weekend), but it was a notorious one. Chosen to be representative of what the book’s subtitle calls 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops, my guess is that Mandelbaum and his publisher couldn’t pass up the opportunity to highlight Carrie on the cover, as having a smiling young woman covered in pig’s blood is a pretty good way to gather some attention (yes, it’s a musical of Brian DePalma’s 1976 horror classic). By the way, twenty-four years after Carrie’s quick closing, a revised version opened Off-Broadway to far better reviews than in 1988, though ultimately it couldn’t find an audience and closed in a month.
During those impressionable days as a young kid in love with theatre, when I saw a new Broadway play every weekend, I can’t tell you how much fun it was forming my own opinions seeing something in previews before critics had their say. And I was no pushover. I was tough and took a bad two hours invested as a betrayal. Even as a neophyte, I would often say to myself “who’s idea was it to produce that?”
As for what to write about today, I figured that with the election still in the news almost every day (is it over yet?) and with two Senatorial run-offs coming up in January, we’re all going to have Georgia on our minds for a while. Which brings me to a main character of a musical that made for an unlikely subject: A southern racist restauranteur in Atlanta who managed to get elected to the Governor’s mansion. His name was Lester Maddox, and he was a real son-of-a-bitch.
In February 1969, the month before I turned twelve, I knew all-too-well who Lester Maddox was, which is why I had an interest in purchasing tickets to see a new satirical musical entitled Red White and Maddox,which set him up like a piñata to be smacked around. Yes, THIS was the first show I ever picked out for myself to come into Manhattan and see without adult supervision (my next choice, Hello, Dolly! with Pearl Bailey made a bit more sense). My Red, White and Maddox ticket was $3.00 for the top of the balcony at the Cort Theatre, paid for myself with money earned from my paper route delivering Newsday to my Great Neck neighbors (cost 5 cents a paper). I know… I sound like I’m a hundred years old, but I was only born in 1957. You do the math.
I know. It’s hard to believe that a race-baiting, shallow, egomaniacal businessman with no political experience could get himself elected to office, but Maddox did it upon winning the governorship of Georgia in 1967. His national notoriety was due entirely to his decision to close the Pickrick, a restaurant he owned, rather than serve African Americans after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed into law. Personally, standing out in front of his establishment, he wielded an ax if the color line was crossed. This was all the publicity Maddox needed for a launch into politics, eventually leading him to the Governor’s mansion. His style of racism rebranded as “populism” (sound familiar?) made his name and face synonymous with the kind of politics that had made it possible for his fellow southerner, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace, to receive 13.5% of the popular vote in the 1968 Presidential election, in which Wallace ran as a third-party candidate.
A dark imagining of what “might” happen if Lester Maddox were elected President, Red White and Maddox (billed as “A Thing with Music”) was the creation of Jay Broad and Don Tucker. Debuting at Theatre Atlanta, a small regional company, no one could have predicted it would make a quick move to Broadway. This came courtesy of the Tony Award winning producer Edward Padula (Bye Bye Birdie), who must have felt with the war in Vietnam still raging and civil unrest in the streets, bold satire had a chance to succeed. When I told my dad of my intention to see it, his response was, “Go quickly. That’s not gonna run long.” And he was right. Red White and Maddox closed after forty-one performances, though it wasn’t out-and-out panned. So, was it a bomb? A turkey, even?
Judging from my review below, it appears I didn’t think so. It entertained me. I wrote this after the show was already gone for a bit, so perhaps it was more of an elegy. Or maybe it had something to do with it being the very first thing I saw all on my own (a “Thing with Music,” as it turned out). Who knows? Maybe a turkey is in the eye of the beholder:
While doing researching for this column, to my great surprise, I found a clip of Red White and Maddox on YouTube. Wow. Not only had I not laid eyes on it in over fifty years, I didn’t believe it even existed. Nor had I ever seen it in color. My folks were probably the last holdouts on our block to own a black and white TV back in the late ’60s. Check out below in all its glory is a little bit of Jay Garner (who after making his Broadway debut as Lester wound up creating roles in musicals like The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (the dancing Governor) and the potential father-in-law politician in La Cage Aux Folles. Here he is singing “Hip-Hooray for Washington” as the end credits roll:
“Turn all your clocks back to B.C., we’re comin’ to D.C.” is a pretty decent lyric (I guess). And as I mentioned in my review, it did sport a pretty powerful (if ridiculous) ending with Maddox detonating a nuclear bomb and leaving him the planet’s sole survivor. I was eleven when I saw it and Jay Garner swinging out past the proscenium on a giant swing and cackling like a maniac was something I’ve never forgotten in over half a century.
And by the way, make sure you watch this clip past the closing credits, as there is the added bonus of Jay Garner, sans bald cap and glasses, telling the home audience that what they had just seen “does not necessarily represent the views of this station,” and that it was “part fantasy.”
Glad he cleared THAT up!
And Happy Thanksgiving.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. And please feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.