In light of the Spider-Man implosion now gracing Broadway, it's worth taking a bit to wonder "How did Spider-Man ever even make it to Broadway?" The history of musical theater is awash with better shows that didn't make it to Broadway, for one reason or another. (Why Spider-Man got lucky is a whole other question…)
What might prevent a musical from gracing a Broadway stage?
"BAD SUBJECT MATTER…"
One of the top ways to kill off a musical is to make it about something distasteful or musically inappropriate.
Consider Prettybelle (1971) - "a lively tale of rape and resurrection" - with book and lyrics by Bob Merrill (who wrote the music and lyrics for Carnival, as well as other pop songs in the 1950's) and music by Jule Styne (Gypsy, Bells Are Ringing, and many other Broadway hits).
Briefly, Prettybelle concerns Prettybelle Sweet, a semi-trailer-parky Southern belle, who is an alcoholic schizophrenic with multiple personalities. After her sheriff husband dies, Prettybelle discovers that he abused helpless local minorities, and so, aghast, she takes her husband's fortune and begins to send checks to the NAACP.
Seeking redemption from her sins-by-marriage, Prettybelle, courtesy of the Reader's Digest, reads about "therapeutic rape" and how "being debased and trampled underfoot is a first-rate cleanser of the soul." All atwitter, Prettybelle proceeds to find every minority she can, so that she can be raped. (Of course, the running gag is that Prettybelle is never "raped" - she initiates all the encounters and has a marvelous time.) The story ends with the town ablaze and Prettybelle seeking safety in an insane asylum.
Odd subject for a musical, yes… or, actually, for anything. Still, Prettybelle - designed to be tongue-in-cheekly bizarre - had its droll points (it's a cult classic), the music had some marvelous tunes, and Prettybelle was played by Angela Lansbury. Alas, Angela or no, the show was a disaster from the start, prompting jeers and walkouts from the audience. The show opened in Boston and closed a little over a month later.
"WRONG TIME, WRONG PLACE…"
Some musicals aren't bad at all - even wonderful - but, if premiered at the wrong time and wrong place, may well tempt fate.
Consider Lolita, My Love (1971), with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Camelot, Brigadoon) and music by John Barry (who wrote many lovely James Bond tunes and won 5 Academy Awards for movie soundtracks). Lolita, My Love - as implied by the title - was based on the droll novel Lolita, about a middle-aged professor's romantic obsession with a 13-year-old girl. The resulting show was actually markedly good, with a witty, literate, very classy script by Lerner (lyrics always excellent) and marvelous music by Barry (a successful and catchy hybrid between James Bond hipness and traditional musical theater).
Trouble is.… Lolita, My Love opened in 1970, not 2011, and it opened first in Philadelphia, then Boston, of all places. The idea of premiering a musical about a man obsessed with "nymphettes" in the heart of both Puritanism and Irish Catholic America was not exactly the best strategy. One of the songs in the piece managed to become a hit for singer Shirley Bassey, but that's all that was a hit. The musical closed in Boston, after audiences voted with their feet and primly stayed away.
"IT JUST DOESN'T NEED MUSIC…"
Some musicals have great stories behind them, even good music - but why have music if it's not needed?
Consider Say Hello To Harvey (1981), with book, lyrics, and music by Leslie Bricusse, the English composer noted for his collaborations with Anthony Newley (Doctor Dolittle, Willy Wonka) and for his movie musicals (think Scrooge). Bricusse, always good for writing zippy, catchy, happy tunes, seemed to be a good fit for writing a musical, based on the famed play Harvey, about a simple, well-meaning man who, to the horror of his social-climbing sister, has an imaginary rabbit as his best friend. The music and lyrics for the show - which opened in Toronto (the backers were Canadian) - were all good fun.
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Trouble is, the show was long… very long (about a third of the songs were optional - a mistake Bricusse made when he tried to put Scrooge on the stage in 1991, adding tons of unnecessary, sub-par tunes in the process). At the end of the day, the music in Harvey didn't much advance the story, serving as show-stallers, not show-stoppers. The original two-set play was opened to embrace extraneous, unneeded locales and a chorus was brought in whose sole purpose seemed to be the opening number. Despite cheery audiences, Harvey played one month and then closed in October of 1981.
"IT DOESN'T HAVE A PLOT…"
Some musicals fail because they fill two-and-a-half hours by relating a story that could be told in 30 minutes - or not at all.
Consider The Prince of Grand Street (1978), with book, music, and lyrics, again, by Bob Merrill (he of Prettybelle fame). Grand told the story of a colorful Yiddish actor (Nathan Rashomsky) in early 20th century New York who puts on Jewish versions of popular stories (Romeo and Juliet, Young Avram Lincoln, Huckleberry Finn) to cheer up his poverty-stricken immigrant audiences. The shows at Rashomsky's theater feature odd casting (Rashomsky always plays the lead - even 16-year-old Huck), droll Semiti-centrisms (his Avram Lincoln promises to make Illinois a homeland for the Jews), and happy endings (Romeo and Juliet end up running away together and Hamlet shakes hands with his uncle).
Unfortunately, that's really where the plot ends… Act I is focused on Rashomsky trying to woo an 18-year-old girl, which, by the end of Act I, he does. Act II takes a different route, focusing on Rashomsky's aging and his attempt to save his career, which is being ripped apart by a local critic. Act I and Act II are basically two different stories, with little connecting them. Both plots are predictably resolved - which is why Grand opened in Philly and closed in Boston.
Of course, Spider-Man has all of the above… It has bad subject matter (why make a musical… about Spider-Man?), has been premiered at the wrong time and place (because there is no time and place suitable for such a musical), doesn't need music, and doesn't have a plot (or at least no plot that a sane person has been able to comprehend)…
…yet there it is, on Broadway. It helps to have Bono's name on the poster.