Flop shows aren’t born; they are made. And mad as well as bad. But often truly unforgettable, in a way in which the merely mediocre erase themselves gently from the memory bank. No one who ever saw it, for instance, will ever forget The Fields of Ambrosia, and its immortal corresponding lyric, “Where everyone knows ya”.
But my favourite moment, quite possibly of any musical ever, was the song sung by the travelling executioner’s assistant after he’s been gang-raped in prison: “If it ain’t one thing, it’s another.” No wonder that Paul Taylor, reviewing its short run in 1996, dubbed it “a reprehensibly enjoyable new musical”.
He also wrote, “The second half of the show left this critic weak with bliss as it trampled over good taste and political correctness like a herd of bullocks.” What’s amazing about The Fields of Ambrosia isn’t just that it found a home at London’s Aldwych Theatre, but that it had a prior production before it reached London in the US; so it can’t have been a shock to anyone just how bad it was. But showbusiness is always a triumph of hope over experience. Last night a new musical opened on Broadway called Chaplin, and though by no means in the same league of triumphant awfulness as The Fields of Ambrosia, you do wonder just how and why it got this far to the world’s most merciless crucible for new musicals.
Michael Riedel, the New York Post’s tireless theatre reporter, recently told us the how: its debutant lead producers are the Rich Entertainment Group and John and Claire Caudwell. As Riedel found out informs us, the Rich Entertainment Group is “a subsidiary of Rich’s, a family-owned company in Buffalo that makes frozen food, from pasta to pastries. Annual sales: $3 billion. Bob Rich Jr. (was a man more aptly named?) runs the company and, with his wife, Mindy, is a major backer of Chaplin, the Musical. This may be the first time in theater history that a Broadway show was financed by frozen pizzas. As for the Caudwells, they’re billionaires, too! John Caudwell made his fortune selling mobile phones in England. He sold his company to Vodafone several years ago for something like $500 million. The Sunday Times of London puts his net worth at about $2.5 billion.”
OK, they’ve got the cash; but how did they get involved with producing a Broadway show for the first time? Here the story gets even more interesting: “Christopher Curtis, who wrote the score, used to play the piano at Chez Josephine, a restaurant on West 42nd Street. Curtis has been working on Chaplin for years, and whenever his boss, Jean Claude Baker, wasn’t paying attention, he’d play some of his Chaplin songs. The Riches and the Caudwells came to New York often to see shows and would dine at Chez Josephine. Both couples fell in love with Curtis and his songs and — voilà! — Chaplin, the Musical is on Broadway.”
Actually, it’s not quite as simple as that — it has actually had two prior incarnations, originally premiering as Behind the Limelight at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2006; then re-written, with Thomas Meehan (whose most famous show Annie is being revived this season) joining as book writer, for a full production at La Jolla Playhouse near San Diego in 2010, where it was now called Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin.
It wasn’t exactly warmly embraced there; Charles McNulty’s review for the LA Times concluded, “The score hurtles us along with sufficient cheer and generic good will. Yet what an elaborate trifle! If Limelight honors Chaplin, it does so by reminding us how much more he was able to convey with only a fraction of the panoply.”
So we’ve got the how; but what about the why? Why has so much effort been expended on continuing to try to fix it, yet it has still turned out to be so flat, earnest and dull? Maybe it is simply all that effort has drained the life out of it. Not that its embarrassing; it is perfectly proficient. But just why you need to watch this biography-by-numbers (which is full of a different kind of numbers) is never justified; you’ll find out just as much about Chaplin reading his Wikipedia entry.
And are there, I wonder aloud (and maybe controversially), enough people who really care who Chaplin was anymore? Ben Brantley may, in his review today for The New York TImes, have declared, “He was one of the most significant and influential artists in both the history of film and of international stardom.”
But I was struck reading an interview in the Washington Post the other day with Roger Rees, en route to meet him myself in New York to talk to him about his London-bound one-man Shakespeare tribute show What You Will, by this comment: “Now, when I talk about Shakespeare, I can’t talk too much about Gielgud or Olivier. Because nobody knows who I’m talking about.”
Rees, who was coincidentally also sitting two rows behind me at Chaplin with his partner Rick Elice (who co-wrote the book for the Broadway musicals Jersey Boys and The Addams Family, as well as the play Peter and the Starcatcher that Rees co-directed), was talking about lecturing to American college students, and as his interviewer Peter Marks, the Washington Post’s perceptive theatre critic, remarks, “Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that memories of great classical actors fade, and quickly. The more important constant surely is the classics themselves, and the enthusiasm of fresh crops of acting talent to tackle the plays and try to make them their own.”
I suppose that film careers are slightly different, in that the films of Chaplin are still available to watch today in a way that the theatre performances of Gielgud or Olivier can’t be revisited, beyond the films that were sometimes made of them. A silent movie actor like Chaplin perhaps has a different role in the cultural language; but in an era of mindless blockbusters, how much longer will that language stay alive? This musical hardly provides a way to keep his memory alive, either.