This year's Olivier Award for best London revival went to a
Broadway dud with big names attached - Stephen Sondheim and
George Furth's "Merrily We Roll Along", which ran for only 44
previews and 16 performances on Broadway in 1981.
Other famous flops that have had British revivals include
Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" of 1956, which had closed on
Broadway after 73 performances, and another Sondheim show, his
"Pacific Overtures" of 1976, that was revived at London's Donmar
Warehouse in 2003.
Now, aspiring British theatre director Matthew Malone, a masters
student in music at the University of Sheffield, hopes to
further his ambitions to put on West End and Broadway musicals
by taking the trend a step further: reviving a Broadway flop in
Britain and bringing it back to New York.
This past week he has given the Jules Styne musical "Subways Are
For Sleeping", which closed in 1962 after just 205 performances
despite having a star composer and star cast, its first fully
orchestrated revival in more than 50 years.
Having exhumed the score from parts scattered in three U.S.
archives, Malone put on a performance at Sheffield university
with a student cast and orchestra performing the songs, with no
stage set, that appears to have been a hit among the young
"It's a great project," he said. "I've got a 36-piece orchestra,
15 people in a chorus, I've got four principal singers,
everyone's enjoying it and there's a big buzz."
Why some shows put together by hit-making teams fail while
others succeed is hard to judge. But the London director of
"Merrily", British actress Maria Friedman, thinks "Merrily" -
about a penniless composer's rise in show business - may have
been ahead of its time.
"I think maybe it's one of those things with the timing of it, I
think maybe people have grown up into it a little," Friedman,
who is a collaborator of Sondheim's, told Reuters at the Olivier
awards last month.
"All I can say is I did the show that I thought it was and it
seems to be the one that Steve and George had written - I didn't
put anything on it," said Friedman, whose show had a strong
12-week run on the West End beginning in May last year.
"Subways", too, a story about homeless people in New York,
appears to appeal to modern audiences more than it did to
theatre-goers half a century ago.
Fiona Primrose, a 21-year-old literature student in the cast,
when asked during a break in the show on Tuesday, why she
thought it had flopped, said, "Definitely it's not the music,
the music is fantastic.
"The subject for the story was not conventional for the time,
but I've really grown to love it."
Malone and his mentor, Dominic McHugh, Lecturer in Musicology at
Sheffield and a specialist in Broadway musicals, hope a New York
theatre company specialising in revivals will mount a
production, now that the grunt work of reassembling the score
has been completed.
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"We hope it gets put on in New York," McHugh said, mentioning the
Encores musical theatre series at New York City Center as a
"The score is brilliant," Malone added.
From the start, the show seemed to have everything going for it.
Frank Sinatra had bought the screen rights and the lyricists were
Adolph Green and Betty Comden who also wrote lyrics for "On the
Town" and "Bells are Ringing" and the screenplay for the movie "Singin'
in the Rain".
Styne himself had a strong record on Broadway with previous hits
including "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and "Gypsy". But not even
Broadway stars Carol Lawrence, of "West Side Story" fame, and Sydney
Chaplin, could save it.
The main flaw, McHugh said, was the show's book, inspired by tales
about New York homeless people, some of whom slept on subway trains.
"Styne thought it was going to be his best show, he did this
interview before it opened saying, 'Everything I've done up until
now was just for the money'," McHugh said. "But it really is an odd
story to make a musical comedy about homeless people."
The show gained notoriety, though, after producer David Merrick
sought to counteract bad reviews with an infamous publicity coup.
He rounded up people with the same names as the leading New York
theatre critics, picked up the tab for their dinner and ran a
newspaper ad with quotes from them praising "Subways" to the skies.
The ad was quickly pulled, but the scandal probably helped keep the
show alive a bit longer, McHugh said.
Malone believes modern-day audiences are more sympathetic to the
subject matter. Reviving a musical as out of favour as "Subways" has
not been easy, however. In addition to piecing together the
orchestration, he needed permission from the Styne estate.
"We were fortunate enough to get the permission, otherwise I'd have
had to rethink my life, basically," he said.
And the project has had its rewards beyond the performance.
"The most interesting thing is knowing that someone's looked at this
music 53 years before me, and it's opened on Broadway," Malone said,
hoping a return to New York comes next.
(This story has been refiled to clarify that "Merrily" run is over
in para 10)
(Editing by Susan Fenton)
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