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10 Disastrous West End Musical Fails That You’ve Likely Never Heard Of
West End musicals attract over 16,000,000 attendees every year. For fans of the genre, nothing can compare to taking their seats ready for a matinee performance. Big-name shows like Cats, Les Misérables, and Hamilton are famous around the world, and composers like Andrew Lloyd Webber have become household names.
Yet, while the longest-running musicals have racked up more than 14,000 performances each, there are a handful of shows that have proven to be spectacular flops. Here are ten of the most disastrous fails in London’s West End history that we bet you have never heard of and probably will never want to go and see.
10 Gone with the Wind
According to the American Film Institute, Gone with the Wind is the 4th-greatest American movie of all time. But unfortunately, its musical counterpart bombed spectacularly when it took to the stage of the New London Theatre in April 2008.
Starring the late Darius Danesh of Pop Idol fame, the musical was directed by none other than the iconic Trevor Nunn. Nunn’s reputation for commercially successful musical stage productions gave rise to high expectations that this show, based on the epic novel by Margaret Mitchell, would be an overnight sensation.
Unfortunately, all hopes were dashed when the critics panned the 4-hour-20-minute-long spectacle, with Mark Shenton condemning the “over-long book, plodding lyrics, and tepid score.” The show cost 4 million pounds but closed after just seventy-nine performances over seven weeks.
9 Someone Like You
Another musical set in the Civil War era came to an abrupt end in 1990 when Someone Like You saw its untimely close a mere four weeks after opening at the Strand Theatre.
Unlike Gone with the Wind, Someone Like You had received many positive reviews from the critics when it first launched on March 22, 1990. And it looked set to be a success thanks to its excellent music by Petula Clark and outstanding performance by West End stalwart Dave Willetts in the lead role.
Unfortunately, just as everything seemed to be going well, Harold Fielding, the producer (who was famous for many successful musicals in the past, such as Mame, Half a Sixpence, and Show Boat), fell into some serious financial difficulties. When his assets were all seized on April 25, 1990, the show had to close with no warning, even before there was time to record a cast album.
Best-known among musical theatre fans as Lloyd Webber’s one and only major flop, Jeeves was a 1975 show based on the works of P.G. Wodehouse. Despite the great potential for success due to the popular comedy material and the strong creative team, which included Alan Ayckbourn, the famous British playwright, the final result was a disaster worthy of Bertie Wooster himself.
Lasting for an epic 4 hours and 45 minutes, the musical proved to be too long for anybody to stomach. Despite efforts to slim down the seemingly endless plot, it only managed to struggle on for 38 performances at Her Majesty’s Theatre before calling it a day… much to the relief of its audiences.
After an extensive rewrite, the show was produced in 1996 in both London and America and premiered on Broadway in 2001 as By Jeeves.
7 Imagine This
When this musical about life in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust came to the West End stage, it was hard to “Imagine This” would ever be a success. Handling such challenging and sensitive material would require a careful touch, and it turned out that this attempt would be sadly lacking. Critic Michael Coveney even went so far as to say it made “Springtime for Hitler look like The Sound of Music.”
After opening at the New London Theatre in November 2008 (just months after the ill-fated Gone with the Wind closed at the same venue), Imagine This earned a reputation as a “feel bad” musical. It closed after a month-long run on December 20.
6 Behind the Iron Mask
Based on the French novel by Alexandre Dumas, Behind the Iron Mask should have been a promising prospect when it arrived at the Duchess Theatre on August 2, 2005. Unfortunately, even the classic material couldn’t save this disaster which was described as a “cast iron dud” by the Daily Mail.
The musical only came about in the first place because the composer’s wife expressed a dying wish to see his work on a West End stage. However, with only three actors trying to hold the show together, combined with uninspiring lyrics, forgettable melodies, and clumsy choreography, not to mention unintentionally hilarious blunders with the costumes and set that included the prison door accidentally swinging open and the iron mask falling off, it wasn’t too surprising to find that the curtain came down on this epic fail after just 3 weeks.
5 Leonardo: A Portrait of Love
If the plot of Leonardo: A Portrait of Love does not sound improbable enough—Leonardo Da Vinci has a torrid affair with the Mona Lisa while she sits for her portrait—the fact that the show was financed by a tiny island in the South Pacific that made its fortune from exporting seagull droppings may give you more of an idea why this musical fell at the first hurdle.
The production, which ran for just a month at the Strand Theatre in 1993, is said to be one of London theatre’s biggest disasters. The director made no secret of the fact that they disliked musicals intensely, while a leading actor had to take urgent singing lessons in order to manage the role. When the fact that the show lasted almost four hours is taken into account, it is barely surprising that the majority of the first performance’s audience had left long before the final curtain came down.
4 Too Close to the Sun
Just four years after his spectacular flop Behind the Iron Mask, composer John Robinson was at it again, this time with a musical based on Ernest Hemingway’s final year of life. The fictional account failed to inspire audiences, with critic Michael Billington going so far as to call it “implausible and unnecessary.”
It appeared that even the illustrious Hemingway himself would have struggled to find suitably damning words to condemn this diabolical show, so nobody was surprised (probably including Mr. Robinson himself) when the show closed after just two weeks on the West End.
3 Murderous Instincts
It is very possible that the audiences of this “salsa” musical left the Savoy Theatre with “murderous instincts” after watching this 2004 show. The musical promised to be a combination of Tennessee Williams and Agatha Christie. Instead, it turned out to be the onstage equivalent of a “motorway pile-up” rather than a smash hit.
Plagued from the outset by numerous script changes and multiple firings within the creative team and cast, the Puerto Rican murder mystery comedy may have been saved by an engaging plot, outstanding direction, and a toe-tapping score. Unfortunately, none of the above were forthcoming, and the show closed within a week.
2 Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde—a highly-anticipated musical celebrating the life of the famous author–leads the way when it comes to West End failures.
Perhaps the fact that it was written, directed, and produced by 1980s DJ Mike Read should have given audiences a clue that this spectacle, which was intended to commemorate 150 years since its subject’s birth, may not have quite the same level of wit, style, and talent as the great man himself. However, the final product, which consisted of a script made up solely of rhyming couplets, ended up being reminiscent of the two years of hard labor that Wilde served for gross indecency.
Even the presence of its creator’s friends in the audience, including big-name stars like Alvin Stardust and Cliff Richard, could not drive up ticket sales. Since only five out of a possible 500 seats were sold for the second performance, the show bowed out, not entirely gracefully, after just a single night.
1 The Intimate Revue
Taking the prize for London’s shortest run of all time, The Intimate Revue lasted for just half a performance.
Both opening and closing on March 11, 1930, at the newly opened Duchess Theatre (the very same venue that would witness another disastrous failure in the form of John Robinson’s Behind the Iron Mask three-quarters of a century later), the show was phenomenally under-rehearsed. This led to a catalog of embarrassing gaffes and mistakes like scene changes taking as long as 20 minutes.
As the evening dragged on, the management ended up having to scrap seven scenes so that the finale could take place before midnight. Of course, by that point, most of the audience had already headed for home.