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Review - Overusing Broadway's F-word

Lenny Bruce used to say that if you used a hurtful word often enough it would lose its meaning and its power to harm. I think Broadway has reached that point with the F-word. You know the F-word I'm talking about. Flop.

In simpler times, it was easy to spot flop Broadway musicals. They were the ones that received generally poor reviews, played to indifferent audiences and called it quits in a month... or a week... or a day.

And they lost money. The average theatre-goer wouldn't be privileged to the exact figures, but when a show closes with fewer than 100 performances under its belt, you can safely assume the investments were not paid back.

Naturally, to people on the business end of show business, that loss or gain of money provides a clear-cut dividing line behind what shows are hits and what shows are flops. But in the mind of the public, is a musical that ran on Broadway for over a year and got nominated for major awards (maybe even won some) really a flop?

Yesterday's New York Times published an article headlined, "Flops on Broadway? Fix Them Overseas," about how unsuccessful Broadway shows are being polished and revised for productions in Europe. But the article is not about recent causalities like The Story of My Life (5 performances) and Glory Days (1 performance), or even about shows that were enthusiastically praised by the press but ignored by the general public, like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (3 months) and The Scottsboro Boys (6 weeks).

No, the flop musicals covered in this article include Shrek (12½ months), Tarzan (14 months), Legally Blonde (17½ months) and The Little Mermaid (19½ months). (Note: The Times includes previews in determining the length of a show's Broadway run. My calculations begin on opening night.) Such runs might be considered short when compared with Wicked or Phantom of the Opera - and perhaps these musicals would have been less successful if they didn't have publically-recognized titles and major corporate backing - but the word "flop" seems a little harsh.

In his essential 1969 theatre book, The Season, William Goldman described a phenomena he called the "seasonal musical"; a show that would open in the early months of a season to less than raves, but still manage to establish enough good word of mouth to be popular before closing at the start of summer. Seasonal musicals lost money, but were generally fondly remembered as pleasant, if not earth-shattering, evenings at the theatre. Perhaps seasonal musicals are still with us, only they're running a bit longer. In that spirit, I wouldn't call Shrek a flop. It's just the 21st Century's answer to Bajour.

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