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Talking of Turkeys (Part II)

How to tell a legendary disaster from a simple flop.

This is part II of Michael Feingold's latest "Thinking About Theater" column.
Click here to read part I.

When I talk about classic theatrical turkeys, you naturally want to know about Moose Murders and Carrie, both of which have passed into Broadway legend — so much so that both have also been revived off-Broadway in the recent past. I witnessed both, first time around, and actually knew people involved with both. In fact, I had to recuse myself from reviewing Moose Murders — much to my relief — because I was attending its opening night as the date of one of the actresses involved. Hence I didn't rush, knowing what I would be in for, to catch its off-off-Broadway revival in 2013. (I noticed that its original star, Holland Taylor, who was in town at the time, playing her one-woman show Ann at Lincoln Center, also neither attended the revival nor commented on it.)

I did review the original Broadway production of Carrie — I occasionally pride myself on being the critic who described it as "the ultimate period musical" — and I also went to review its 2012 off-Broadway revisal, mainly to see if the authors' revisions could do anything to salvage the epically misguided mess that had given the show its you-won't-believe-this-is-happening stature on Broadway in 1988. I'm not sure what I was expecting, the second time around, but the flaccid results seemed sadly familiar.

The simple truth about both Carrie and Moose Murders is that legend, as so often, had sprayed a kind of myth-enhancing mist over them. To confront their actuality decades later, with the mist dissipated by time, meant seeing the shabby objects as they really were. Both had merely been bad ideas to start with, made worse — in Carrie's case, gigantically worse — by inept productions.

Linzi Hateley as the title character in Lawrence D. Cohen, Michael Gore, and Dean Pitchford's musical Carrie, directed by Terry Hands, at Broadway's Virginia Theatre in 1988.

The script of Moose Murders had started as a harmless, rather lame semi-spoof of old-fashioned stage murder mysteries, of the kind that used to be manufactured for the stock and amateur markets; the Samuel French and DPS catalogs contain literally hundreds of examples. Broadway's interest in such plays, if we allow for an occasional elegantly tailored exception, had gradually died out with the advent of talking pictures and then television; theatergoers were getting their cheap thrills more cheaply elsewhere.

But somebody — a pair of artistic wannabes from an oil-rich Texas family, if I'm not mistaken — had thought Moose Murders was cute and might give them a big-time rep on the order of Sleuth or Child's Play. No such luck. They didn't know what they were doing, and the cast of seasoned professionals they assembled all basically seemed to be floundering on their own. It was neither the first nor the last time an attempt at a Broadway thriller would turn gobbler.

Its predecessors included Murder Among Friends (1975, 8 previews, 17 performances), about which I remember only that I had to leave a rather jolly Christmas party early to review it. And long after Moose Murders there was Sleight of Hand (1987, 31 previews, 8 performances), on which at one crisis-laden preview moment I was nearly invited to serve as dramaturg, and shortly found myself in possession of three drafts with entirely different endings, not one of which made an ounce of sense. And then there was the would-be thriller — I can no longer remember its name — about the embittered upstate wives who plot to trap their abusive husbands in a walk-in meat freezer. Yes, that was on Broadway too.

Arthur Bicknell's Moose Murders, directed by John Roach, opened and closed on the same night at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre in 1983.

Carrie's existence as a musical was and remains a puzzlement to me, another specimen of the current flaky reasoning that says since Rodgers and Hammerstein musicalized serious topics, and Sondheim made a dark melodrama operatically transcendent in Sweeney Todd, any horror story is ripe for musicalizing. It isn't so, of course. Sadistic humiliation and telekinetic revenge may provide some good thrills on a flat surface like a movie screen or the page of a book, but living people in three dimensions need something less simplistic and a little more emotionally substantive to sing about, since the very act of singing stops the thriller action cold. The Broadway production of Carrie, created by British artists who had spent most of their lives working on Shakespeare (and virtually no time on contemporary musical theater), was imagined with a demented excessiveness that destroyed all hope of getting the audience involved with the story, and at the same time was too inept in its surreal excess to be taken as a camp joke. (I'll never forget the pig-killing scene, which required Charlotte d'Amboise to jump into the orchestra pit, from which pig noises emanated, and leap back onto the stage, now wearing red gloves.)

Stripping away the directorial excess, as the 2012 off-Broadway revival did, and snipping out the bits of text and music that had encouraged it, left Carrie revealed as what it was: just another musical recycling of a once-popular movie, with a wishy-washy score and no particular reason to exist. The first production's directorial dementia, it seemed, had been the only trait that gave the show a personality.

That strange colorlessness often plays a significant part in making a Broadway musical a turkey. Thinking back over five decades of duds, what startles me most is how little I recall of them. All I remember of The Story of My Life (2009, 19 previews, 5 performances) is that it was about two Canadian boys, one of whom wasn't gay. Nothing remains in my memory of The Prince of Central Park (1989, 19 previews, 4 performances) except the moment when Jo Anne Worley, shopping for a new dress, walked onto a department-store set and a sales clerk said, "Welcome to Bloomingdale's. How may I help you?" — which got the show's one and only, albeit unintentional, laugh. The only mental image I retain of Bring Back Birdie (1981, 31 previews, 4 performances) involves Chita Rivera holding up boxes of household products while singing a lyric that mentioned their brand names.

Malcolm Gets (l) as Alvin Kelby and Will Chase as Thomas Weaver in Brian Hill and Neil Bartram's musical The Story of My Life, directed by Richard Maltby, Jr., at Broadway's Booth Theatre in 2009.
(© Aaron Epstein)

Yet some turkeys do contain, like their betters, qualities that linger in recollection. Gower Champion's eccentric A Broadway Musical (1978, 14 previews, 1 performance) had, among its quirky strokes of wit, an extremely funny song called "Lawyers" (preserved on one of the Lost in Boston CDs). I happened to see I'm Solomon (1968, 9 previews, 7 performances) in its pre-Broadway tryout, when it was still called In Someone Else's Sandals — and its title song (a soft-shoe, of course) was a genuinely charmer. (Who could resist Dick Shawn and Carmen Mathews dancing a soft-shoe?) Even the almost entirely leaden Sophie (1963, 8 performances) had one good song — a slithery, triplet-bedecked tune called "When You Carry Your Own Suitcase."

So, as you sleepily digest the holiday's extra helping of tryptophan, remember that turkeys come in many varieties, and can be served up many different ways. Some contain so much tryptophan you may fall asleep while consuming them; others are seasoned with unexpected delights. For those who love schadenfreude, there's always the hope of seeing a master chef drop the turkey on the floor. But they don't include me: I come to the theater in thanks-giving mode, and my best hope is always for a satisfying meal.

Michael Feingold's next two-part "Thinking About Theater" column will appear on consecutive Fridays December 12 and December 19.