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Top 10 Iconic Musicals That Got Horrible Reviews

by Nora McCaughey
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Broadway reviews are important. After the opening night of a show, the cast and crew must wait patiently until, one by one, papers begin to release their thoughts.

Generally, potential ticket-buyers use reviews to decide what to see and what to skip. But in some cases, musicals that people go crazy for have been panned by the “professionals.” Here are a few famous shows you might be surprised to learn didn’t do so well with the critics.

Related: 10 Weird Sci-Fi and Fantasy Musicals You Won’t Believe Existed

10 Oklahoma!

The Cast Of Oklahoma! Performs “I Cain’t Say No/ Oklahoma” At The 2019 Tony Awards

While the original production of this truly groundbreaking musical garnered almost exclusively positive reviews, Daniel Fish’s 2019 Broadway revival was incredibly divisive.

Not a single word of the original production is changed. However, through costuming, blocking, gender-swapping, and more, Fish was able to transform a classic show into something entirely different—and not for the better, according to many.

Some reviews called it “edgy,” “dark,” and “terrifying,” which could be construed as positive, but many reviews weren’t so generous. WTTW News claimed the show “wreaks havoc on a musical theater classic” and that it’s “a travesty of a mockery of a sham.” There even were reports of audiences leaving the show early and even some “audible vomiting.”

So, not a beautiful morning![1]

9 Moulin Rouge!

Moulin Rouge! The Musical on Good Morning America

Based on Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie, Moulin Rouge! is truly a spectacle to behold. It has everything you could want in a Broadway musical: dazzling costumes, chorus lines, acrobats, moving sets, beautiful people, and an audience chomping at the bit for more.

But according to critics, there is one thing this show doesn’t have: substance. The show has no original songs, making it a “jukebox” musical (a show that uses pre-existing songs). It spends so much time showing off its sets and costumes it hardly remembers there’s supposed to be a plot.

Most reviewers agreed there wasn’t much depth to this supposed love story between writer Christian and courtesan Satine, leaving the audience empty emotionally. But the producers of the show seem to know what they’re doing: The show has boasted such stars as Titus Burgess, Riverdale’s Casey Cott, JoJo Levesque, and Boy George, keeping ticket-buyers coming back for more and ensuring the show’s glamorous marquee continues to shine on Broadway.[2]

8 Be More Chill

Be More Chill on Broadway – “Smartphone Hour”

The film Be More Chill, based on the 2004 novel, follows nerdy teenager Jeremy as he implants himself with a supercomputer chip programmed to make him cooler. An interesting score and some funny characters accompanied the 2015 world premiere of the musical version (also called Be More Chill), but that wasn’t enough to save the show when it moved to New York City.

Songs from Be More Chill went viral during its 2018 Off-Broadway run, so that by the time the show transferred to Broadway in 2020, thousands of teens flocked to the Big Apple to catch it. Unfortunately, both the COVID-19 pandemic and low ticket sales from adults (the main demographic for Broadway) caused the show to flop financially.

And the reviews didn’t help. While some critics enjoyed the experimental nature of the music, which used instruments such as the theremin, the majority found the show too childish, poorly written, and repetitive. Ben Brantley of the New York Times probably summed it up best when he wrote that Be More Chill was like “one of those high-pitched dog whistles that only those under 25 can hear.”

So, while the show might not be as famous as others on this list, scroll through TikTok for a few minutes, and I can almost guarantee you’ll stumble across a tune from Be More Chill. The tween fandom is still very much active.[3]

7 Suessical The Musical

SEUSSICAL B’way 2000

Now a staple in elementary schools across the country, Suessical seemed dead on arrival when it premiered on Broadway in 2000.

While Dr. Suess’s books, the source material for the show, are filled with heart and clear morals, the same can not be said for Suessical. Rather than focusing on just one Suess story, the musical attempts to combine multiple into one mega-plot. The result was a cluster of confusion, no real depth, and characters that were more caricatures than relatable people.

The biggest complaint about Suessical was that the show couldn’t decide whether it was for children or adults. While this meant failure on Broadway (the show couldn’t even be saved by a short stint featuring Rosie O’Donnell as the Cat in the Hat), the show has gone on to find a home at community and school theaters for children who are less concerned with clever lyrics and parents who are just excited to see little Billy play the Grinch.[4]

6 The Rocky Horror Show

ROCKY HORROR Alice Ripley/Terrence Mann

Not to be confused with the iconic The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the 1975 movie adaption of the 1973 musical The Rocky Horror Show, opening on Broadway to abysmal reviews. The New York Times called it “campy trash,” while Newsweek claimed it was “tasteless, plotless, and pointless.”

The funny thing is, this all may be true, but that doesn’t stop the show from being a whole lot of fun! The nonsensical yet extraterrestrially sexual plot seems just to be an excuse for the actors to jump around in their underwear, making crude jokes. And audiences love it.

While most people know that midnight moving showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show are a place to throw food and shout out jokes, not as many know that the stage version encourages this as well.

Rocky Horror is interesting because, critically, it is a bad musical. But who cares about what the experts think when you can have a fun two and a half hours throwing toast and screaming “A**hole!” at Brad Majors?[5]

5 Gigi

Gigi Musical on Broadway, Starring Vanessa Hudgens & Corey Cott

Based on the 1958 musical movie of the same name, Gigi seemed like it was meant to be a surefire hit. Starring Broadway superstar Corey Cott and High School Musical alum Vanessa Hudgens, Gigi opened its revival stage production in 2015.

The main compliant critics had with this show was how clean it was. Despite the fact that the show is about a teenage prostitute, the New York Times mentioned it “has been scrubbed of anything even remotely naughty or distasteful” and that Gigi’s job as a prostitute “is alluded to in such delicately vague terms that no parent chaperoning a tween… will have much explaining to do after the curtain has fallen.”

While this may have interrupted the show’s integrity as a piece of art, it did boost ticket sales. Hudgens’s young fanbase and the show’s classic Broadway feel allowed tourists with children to enjoy the Tony-nominated, splashy production.[6]

4 Beetlejuice

Watch the Opening Number From Beetlejuice on Broadway – “The Whole Being Dead Thing”

Beetlejuice follows the same plot as the 1988 Tim Burton movie it’s based on: Undead demon Beetlejuice meets a recently dead couple, and hijinks ensue. The odd plot lends itself well to a musical adaption, and the show has blown up on social media, particularly TikTok, with songs such as “Dead Mom” inspiring lip-syncing trends.

However, while the youth may adore the show, adult professional critics largely do not. The New York Times claimed Beetlejuice catered to its younger audience by frequently relying on cheap one-liners and stupid gags, leading to “sensory overload.”

Even the most positive reviews admitted that there’s not a lot of substance behind the mediocre songs and recycled jokes. “Exhausting,” “gross,” and “ill-conceived” are just a few of the worst things this show has been accused of being.

Luckily, most teens don’t rely on the NYT to know what to see on Broadway. A catchy song and impressive voice work from the title character is all it takes nowadays.[7]

3 Les Misérables

Les Miserables Broadway Trailer

Trying to adapt a 1,200-page book into just two and a half hours of showtime is a difficult task, and the reviews of the original production of Les Misérables reflect this. Opening in 1985, one critic called the show “witless and synthetic entertainment,” while another compared it to “attempting to pour the entire English Channel through a china teapot.”

While the music and performances were loved, audiences and critics simply couldn’t get past how much was left out of the original novel. One of the most infamous reviews of the show comes from Francis King in the Sunday Telegraph, who described the show as “a lurid Victorian melodrama produced with Victorian lavishness” without the missing context of Victor Hugo’s book.

Despite these poor reviews and the long run time, Les Misérables got the last laugh, eventually going on to become the second longest-running musical in the world and winning Best Musical at the Tony Awards.[8]

2 Merrily We Roll Along

Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” returns to Broadway

Anyone who’s been keeping up on Broadway this year knows this season’s hot ticket is Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Tickets are going for hundreds of dollars, and this production about a group of friends coming of age (told in reverse) stars Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe and Frozen’s Jonathan Groff.

This is a revival of one of the most infamous Broadway flops of all time. Before the show had even officially opened, there were reports of audience members walking out, and leading man James Weissenbach dropped out of the show. Opening night didn’t go much better: Critics ripped the show apart, calling it both boring and confusing. To combat the issue of audience members being unable to tell characters apart, producer Hal Price dressed everyone in sweatshirts with their names on them.

After just 16 performances, Merrily ended its original run. Since then, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim has been recognized as one of the best in theater history, and more familiarity with the odd style of the show and Sondheim’s complicated lyricism has allowed the newest revival, which opened in 2023 to usher in a new era of appreciate for the flopped show.[9]

1 Wicked

“Popular’ from WICKED the Musical

With Jon Chu’s big-budget adaption set to premiere later this year with pop superstar Ariana Grande at the helm, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time Wicked wasn’t one of the most beloved shows on Broadway.

Wicked started performances in San Francisco in 2003, to generally mixed results. The production was highly anticipated, with lyrics and music by Stephen Schwartz (who also did such famous shows as Pippin and Godspell). While Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth’s performances were universally admired, many critics found the music generic and the lyrics trite.

Karen D’Souza of the San Jose Mercury News wrote that “style over substance is the real theme in this Emerald City,” suggesting that while the sets and costumes were dazzling, there wasn’t much of a story beneath all the glitz and glamor of this Wizard of Oz retelling.

So how did Wicked become the cultural symbol of Broadway it is today? Thanks to some great rewrites, by the time the show made it to New York City, Schwartz and the creative team had taken critics’ advice and tightened things up. Although reviews were better for their Broadway opening, these good reviews wouldn’t be enough to allow the show to take home the coveted “Best Musical” Tony Award: It lost to Avenue Q, a show starring some seriously disturbed puppets.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen