Silk from Pigs’ Ears
“The Pig Farm” number opened the second act of Carrie — the Musical, an adaptation of Stephen King’s book and Brian DePalma’s film. It was a ballet set to the sound of pigs being drained of blood, which later would be poured on the title heroine during her brief reign as prom queen. By the end of the evening, Carrie and her evangelical mother would, of course, be dead. And four days later, so would the show. Still, its notoriety is cemented by author Ken Mandelbaum’s wicked book, Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops, which says the show made “flop musical history by its combination of soaring, often breathtaking sequences and some of the most appalling and ridiculous scenes ever seen in a musical.”
This week, J. Kent Barnhart brings a bit of that book to the stage with Hits from Flops, through November 12 at Quality Hill Playhouse. “I read it when it was released,” he says, “and read it again getting ready for this. I’ve had the idea for Hits from Flops for three or four years and there’s a lot of material out there. What this show proves is that a horrible show cannot kill a marvelous song.”
Barnhart’s revue, which also features Karen Errington, Alison Sneegas Borberg, and New York transplant Michelle Miller, will not, alas, reprise the gorgeous “When There’s No One” from Carrie. But he says there’s no surfeit of other shows from which to sample: The Baker’s Wife, Working, Baby, Steel Pier, and Mack and Mabel, for starters. “And there’s George Gershwin’s ‘Blue Skies’ from a show called Betsy, which ran for 39 performances, and a number from Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant. Back in the 1930s and ’40s, songs were pulled out of flop shows and put in new ones,” he says, explaining how some have survived. “Sometimes I hear these scores and say, ‘How did this fail?’ but am reminded that the book was hideous.”
A flop, in Barnhart’s estimation, can be defined two ways: shows that didn’t recoup their investment, such as Kander and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, and shows that had truncated runs, such as the brilliant Side Show from two seasons ago, which heartbreakingly dramatized the life of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. “From Side Show, we’re doing ‘Who Will Love Me as I Am?’ — a wonderful song that probably five people have heard.”
No one knows more about musicals than Barnhart. Asked whether such current Broadway fare as Footloose spells the end of creative musicals with great songs, he says, “There will always be dreck and always people who will buy tickets to dreck. But what we don’t remember are the Footlooses of the ’40s and ’50s.”
Ever watchful of new musicals, such as this season’s The Full Monty and Seussical, Barnhart says one can find hope in composers such as Adam Guettel and Michael LaChiusa, whose The Wild Party last spring was a fascinating failure. Besides, charting the repertoire of Stephen Sondheim puts it all in perspective; most Sondheim shows would be considered flops if one considered only the color of the ink at the end of the run. Hits from Flops is sweet revenge.