Have You Seen This Musical? Why Shows Like Houdini and King Kong Disappear
And how to get them back.
Remember Houdini? What about the Princess Bride musical or the stage version of King Kong (that's the one with a two-story animatronic gorilla)? Then there were Love Never Dies (the Coney Island-centered Phantom of the Opera sequel) and a musical version of The Honeymooners. Within the last 12 years, all of these shows have been announced as "Headed to Broadway" and yet, here we are, faced with a Great White Way that remains utterly free of escapologists, princesses, gorillas, Coney Island freaks, and bus drivers. So if all these musicals were once so close to the New York stage, where are they now? How did they disappear without so much as a whimper?
What happens to lost musicals?
Of course, not all lost musicals fade away quietly. The Ben Sprecher- and Louise Forlenza-produced Rebecca made quite a commotion in 2012 when its impending Broadway opening was canceled due to the
death non-existence of a principal investor and was still making noise this spring when its erstwhile publicist was found guilty of breach of contract for sending e-mails that caused a potential investor to pull millions of dollars from the production. It's also worth noting that musicals, once lost, can sometimes be found again: a musical version of Tuck Everlasting, which was first rumored for Broadway in 2011, is set to open at a Shubert theater next March.
But what about those musicals that, following a flashy announcement, slowly slide out of your consciousness, not to be thought of again until something (a lawsuit, for instance) jogs your memory, and you think, "Yeah, what ever happened with that?" Broadway's current poster child for the missing musical is Houdini, a much-discussed project that has had, at intervals, names like Aaron Sorkin, Hugh Jackman, and Stephen Schwartz attached.
In 2003, when Houdini was just a twinkle in the eye of designer David Rockwell, he began approaching his artist friends about producing a musical based on the life of the famous illusionist. However, despite huge publicity and a regular (if rotating) supply of top-tier talent, Houdini has yet to escape from the straightjacket of development, becoming probably the most publicized musical in history without so much as a composer — since Stephen Schwartz bowed out early last year.
The Princess Bride and Love Never Dies have similar stories. After first entering the public consciousness in 2006 and 2007, respectively, both musicals were lost to a carousel of constantly changing creative teams. Though Love Never Dies did see a 2010 West End debut and several subsequent international productions (all while cycling through multiple directors and book writers), it now appears to be as far away from the Broadway stage as The Princess Bride, which hit snags much earlier in its creative process. William Goldman, writer of both the book and the movie of The Princess Bride, has been struggling to find a composer with whom to collaborate since 2007 when he split ways with Light in the Piazza Tony winner Adam Guettel. Goldman apparently went on to petition both John Mayer and Randy Newman, but no new collaboration has been announced.
The Honeymooners and King Kong entered the game somewhat later (2011 and 2012), but they too had bright beginnings that quickly dulled amid creative changes and canceled runs. The Honeymooners' artistic struggles began when it came time to hiring a director, while King Kong's more pervasive issues have included replacing almost every top-level creative-team member, from book writer Craig Lucas to director Daniel Cramer (while also somehow managing a 2013 Melbourne world premiere).
When a new musical replaces members of its creative team, the change is rarely announced to the public, let alone discussed in detail, so no one outside of the core team is privy to the real reason for various splits and departures. Nevertheless, it seems clear that three of the most common themes in the stunted trajectories of lost musicals are unsatisfied artists, unhappy producers, and timing. At first glance, it appears that restless artists jump willy-nilly between projects, from Jerry Mitchell leaving Love Never Dies and beginning work on The Honeymooners to John Rando jumping from an interview with the King Kong team into Mitchell's vacated Honeymooners shoes after Mitchell left to shepherd Kinky Boots to Broadway. But there's more to the story.
Artists may look like they are the problem, but as the creators in the public eye, they're an easy target. Actually, many of the large-scale lost musicals in recent memory were producer-driven, meaning one or more people came up with an idea for what seemed like a commercially viable musical (likely based on existing source material with a built-in following and available rights) and then began amassing a creative team to flesh out their vision. In cases like this, it's likely that creatives are leaving projects because they prefer more artistic control, feel incompatible with the other artists they've been arbitrarily joined to, or predict (self-fulfillingly) that their efforts may never pay off in the form of a full-fledged musical.
As a result, perhaps the simplest way to recover these missing musicals (or, better yet, not lose them in the first place), might be handing artists the reins. Of course, from the producer's perspective, passing a musical into someone else's care is scary from both a monetary and creative perspective — an issue that can be exacerbated when the man behind the musical has a personal stake as well as a financial one, as with Goldman and The Princess Bride. And it's worth noting the possibility that producers often manage to release control of a musical only to have the project disappear so far up the pipeline the public never even becomes aware of its existence.
But in the end, producers who choose to relax their financial grip on a musical's development — or even to wait for it to come to them — are making the healthiest choice for every party involved, especially the musical itself.
As with anything else in life, it takes at least one person with both the guts to champion an enterprise and the presence of mind to hand it off when necessary in order to keep the best projects healthy and growing. As Andrew Lloyd Webber learned when his designer kitten erased the score of Love Never Dies by walking on his electric keyboard, making a musical requires vigilance — you can't turn your back for a minute. Essentially, when the creation of a Broadway musical becomes an every-man-for-himself proposition, there's no one looking out for the artistic integrity of the project itself. And when responsibility to the art isn't top priority, it's all too easy to lose track of a good story amid a chaos of opinions, egos, and dollar signs.