Have Any Broadway Plays Ever Closed Before They Opened? Part 2

Jennifer Ashley Tepper Is answering your questions with Broadway Deep Dive!

By: Mar. 26, 2023
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Do you have a burning Broadway question? Dying to know more about an obscure Broadway fact? Broadway historian and self-proclaimed theatre nerd Jennifer Ashley Tepper is here to help with her new series, Broadway Deep Dive. Every month, BroadwayWorld will be accepting questions from theatre fans like you. If you're lucky, your question might be selected as the topic of her next column!

Submit your Broadway question in the comments here!

This month, the reader question was: Have any Broadway plays ever closed before they opened?

I love this reader question because the Broadway shows that closed before they opened deserve to be remembered. All have fascinating history behind them.

Our last column was about the seven Broadway musicals that closed during previews. This column is about the nine plays that closed before they opened on Broadway in the last 100 years. Check out Part 1!

Leda Had a Little Swan

14 previews, March 29- April 10, 1968

In the iconic book, The Season, revered by many as one of the greatest theatre books, William Goldman described Leda Had a Little Swan as "a comedy about bestiality set in the future where educators give children animals as substitute sex objects to ease them through puberty".

The show was so reviled by theatergoers that they walked out in droves, threatened to protest at opening night, and screamed at anyone they could find who was associated with the production.

Leda Had a Little Swan was written by English playwright Bamber Gascoigne, but the play could not get a license to be performed in England at the time. Gascoigne was better known as the original quizmaster on University Challenge, a position he held for 25 years. The popular British quiz show made Gascoigne a household name on the other side of the pond, where he was also an acclaimed author and historian. He never returned to Broadway.

As the eccentric headmaster who fought in favor of forcing young students to embrace bestiality, Michael J. Pollard was just a year out from his highly acclaimed performance in the film Bonnie and Clyde.

Leda Had a Little Swan was the one of three shows in this list to close in previews at the Cort Theatre, the others being Bobbi Boland and Face Value.

Me Jack, You Jill

16 previews, March 2-14, 1976

With the longest run of any show on this list, Me Jack, You Jill eked out 16 previews at the Golden Theatre in 1976. Produced by Adela Holzer, the only producer who had two musicals that closed during previews, the play took place on the empty stage of a Broadway theater. This meta-theatricality resulted in a moment when a character threatened to close the play within the play and the audience screamed their support.

The four-character mystery counted among its stars Sylvia Sidney, Academy Award-nominated star of stage and screen whose career spanned the 1920s to the 1990s; Barbara Baxley, whose over-a-dozen Broadway credits included originating the role of Ilona in She Loves Me; Lisa Kirk who starred in the original productions of Allegro, Kiss Me, Kate, and Mack & Mabel; and Russ Thacker, a talented actor whose career was beset by flops also including The Grass Harp, Home Sweet Homer, and Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? (Thacker's five Broadway musicals played a total of nineteen performances.) Sidney, Baxley, and Kirk played the mother, wife, and mistress of Thacker's character. They meet every week for six years.

Like several other shows produced by Holzer, Me Jack, You Jill closed in previews when Holzer could not keep up with the payroll. It was one of two Broadway productions in the 1975-1976 Broadway season that depicted the process of putting on a show; the other was A Chorus Line.

The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake

3 previews, October 30- November 1, 1967

Like Leda Had a Little Swan, The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake was profiled in William Goldman's The Season. The play, about a Midwestern woman who travels to New York and discovers her niece has joined the [gasp] hippie community-which she is then drawn into herself, was to star Jean Arthur, the beloved stage and screen star, in a late-career comeback role.

At the helm of the production was producer Cheryl Crawford, a pioneering theater maker who started out at The Theatre Guild, later co-founded The Group Theatre and The Actors Studio, and was responsible for many significant works on Broadway during the 20th century. Direction was by Michael Kahn in his Broadway debut; Kahn would later hold the positions of head of Juilliard's drama school, artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre Company, and artistic director of The McCarter Theatre Company. He took over when the original director quit rehearsals.

The play was written by Richard Chandler, who was Crawford's assistant. After working on many Broadway productions with her, he presented her with his own play. Chandler was later arrested for embezzlement, having illegally manipulated her accounts for years.

In The Season, Goldman wrote that the show was "... the one legendary production of the season. The word legendary applies to a certain kind of Broadway show that by virtue of its birth agonies and the resulting publicity achieves an immortality most productions never aspire to."

Previews were postponed several times as The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake attempted to pull itself together. Chandler couldn't agree with anyone, and tried to take over in multiple roles. The cast was filled with inexperienced players who were cast for their authenticity as hippies. The original actress playing the niece fled. The staging and technical elements were slow, bumbling, and potentially dangerous. The first preview concluded with the cast running off stage to escape a turntable move that went awry.

All of that said, Arthur herself was largely responsible for the play closing before opening. She refused to go on, and attributed this to extreme exhaustion, absolutely necessitating The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake's closure after its third preview.

In the cast was Andrea Martin, in her Broadway debut. She wouldn't return to Broadway for 25 years.

The Office

10 previews, April 21-30, 1966

The Office had a creative team led by two very different legends of the American Theatre.

Director Jerome Robbins was one of the great director-choreographers on Broadway. Responsible for ushering in a new style of cohesive storytelling through dance and movement and for helming some of the most important musicals of the Golden Age, Robbins' work included The King and I, West Side Story, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof. He was not known for his work on plays, and The Office was the fourth play he directed on Broadway. It would also be his last original production on Broadway, save for Jerome Robbins' Broadway, a dance revue of his work, in 1989.

Playwright María Irene Fornés was a groundbreaking experimental theatre maker, who won nine Obie Awards, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and is considered a pioneer of modern playwriting. She was prolific in the off and off-off-Broadway spheres, and The Office marked the one time her work was presented on Broadway. Fornés' influential and sustained career included the works Fefu and her Friends, Sarita, and Letters from Cuba; some of her plays reflected her experience as a Cuban-American and others reflected her experience as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. She explored women's experiences, poverty, mental health, and so much more.

In their aesthetics, sensibilities, and personal trajectories, Robbins and Fornés could not have been more divergent. The commercial theatre that Robbins represented was not of interest to Fornés; in fact, she hated what the commercial theatre did to The Office. The piece she wrote was not at all what she saw being rehearsed on the stage of the Henry Miller's (today the Stephen Sondheim) Theatre. From that point forward, Fornés always remained in control of her own productions, preferring what off and off-off Broadway had to offer.

The Office starred Elaine May as a new, unskilled secretary in an office where everyone works hard but nothing gets done. Jack Weston, Doris Roberts, and Tony Lo Bianco also starred in the satirical play. May would not return to Broadway as an actor for over 50 years, until The Waverly Gallery in 2018.

Robbins discovered The Office in an off-off-Broadway production and brought it to Broadway. In doing so, some elements were made less experimental and some were kept. The set was on a hydraulic lift which increasingly leaned toward the audience as the play went on, terrifying them. As Doris Roberts remembered, the audience loudly booed not just the play but also the actors at the first preview's curtain call.

Venus Is

7 previews, April 5-9, 1966

Posters that proclaimed "'Venus Is' Coming!", advertising the new play headed to the Billy Rose (now Nederlander) Theatre, were hung around the theatre district in 1966... but the show never opened. Space travel was becoming an increasingly hotter topic on Broadway and in all media in the 1960s. This play, about a regular community on Earth during the time that a robot was sent out to explore the planet Venus, predated future Broadway flops like Via Galactica.

Word Baker, who directed the world's longest running musical, the original off-Broadway production of The Fantasticks, earned his sole Broadway credit as director with Venus Is. He had previously almost made his Broadway debut at the same theater, the Billy Rose, on the musical A Family Affair in 1962, but was replaced as director by Hal Prince out of town.

The show was the final Broadway credit for its playwright, Chester Erskine (sometimes credited as Chester Erskin). Erskine's Broadway career began in the 1920s, and he performed, produced, directed, and wrote on Broadway and in Hollywood. His film credits included Frankie and Johnnie and All My Sons.