Theatre Thursdays: Seussical the (Flopped) Musical

Quite a while ago I had an idea for a series talking about my favorite Broadway flops. Being the brilliant wordsmith I am, I titled this series “A Few of My Favorite Flops”…get it? Like that song from The Sound of Music? But with the word “flop” instead of…eh, you get it. Anyway, I started with Carrie and that led into a lot more posts than I intended and I never went back to the series. Today I will be continuing “A Few of My Favorite Flops” with Seussical the Musical.

I performed in this show my freshman year of college and fell in love with it. The music and lyrics are by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty who are honestly my favorite musical creators (Ragtime, Once on this Island, and Seussical are three of the most perfect cast recordings I own) and the original production was directed by Frank Galati. As you have probably guessed, the story is based on the works of Dr. Seuss with the main plot of the musical being comprised of the stories “Horton Hears a Who” and “Horton Hatches the Egg” so our protagonists are Horton the Elephant and Jojo (the son of Whoville’s mayor) with the Cat in the Hat serving as narrator. Other main players include Gertrude McFuzz, Mayzie LaBird, the Sour Kangaroo, and the Wickersham Brothers, with special appearances by notable Seussian characters such as the Grinch and Yertle the Turtle.

The music and lyrics are all-around solid, in my opinion, but the show had some major problems in direction. To begin with, Frank Galati directed the out-of-town tryout in Boston but was replaced for the Broadway mounting by Rob Marshall, whose sister Kathleen was he show’s choreographer. Galati was still credited as the show’s director but the switch was public knowledge and the situation did not make for encouraging press even prior to the show’s opening.

The look of the show was another shortcoming. The costumer, William Ivey Long, decided against literal depictions of the animal characters with varying success. Gertrude, Mayzie, and the other Bird Girls had costumes which looked nice and suggested “bird” fairly clearly. The Sour Kangaroo and Horton, however, looked almost nothing like the animals they were meant to represent and I personally find Sour Kangaroo’s costume particularly strange. She had feathers…seriously:

And then there are those leather-clad Wickershams who are awfully sexualized for a Seussian tale.

Another problem with the look of the show came from the set and lighting designs which failed to create the imaginative wonder Dr. Seuss’ tales ought to inhabit. See the video below for reference:

Now, I realize a lot of the darkness is due to the video itself but even accommodating for that, the lighting doesn’t seem particularly vibrant (but I appreciate the gobo spotlight use) and the sets don’t really resemble the whimsy of Seussian illustrations.

All these problems were noted by critics (many of whom also found the book lacking) which of course didn’t help the show, but critics aren’t always the determining factor in keeping a show open or shutting it down. Audiences can be won over by critically panned shows and make them into hits, but Seussical didn’t manage to find an audience and I can’t say for sure why. It could be perhaps that their shoes were too tight; it could be their heads weren’t screwed on just right; but I think that the most likely reason of all may have been that the show’s target was two sizes too small.

Seussical was believed to have been a show for children (whether this was the creators’ intent or not, I don’t know, but it seems to have been the public’s perception) and having a target audience of people who rely on their parents to buy them what they want is a problem when it comes to Broadway. For starters, very few children are exposed to theatre in comparison to TV and movies so it’s unlikely many kids were begging their parents for Seussical tickets. Secondly, even if they were, Broadway tickets are expensive and it’s not like parents can buy the entertainment and leave the room (as they could with a video game or toy): they’re going to have to sit there through the 2+ hours with said child. Now, I don’t believe for a minute that Seussical can’t appeal to adults because it has really strong characters who are relatable on multiple levels and go through some pretty great development, but if parents are led to believe that the show is purely kiddie fare they won’t be interested in spending the money to see the show in the first place in order to be won over by the story and characters.

Speaking of the story, I mentioned that the book was criticized by some critics. Unfortunately I can’t agree or disagree here because the script for the original Broadway production was re-written when the show was taken out on tour and it is that revised version which is now licensed for performance and is therefore the version I performed and know. All I can use to judge the original plot is the cast recording which doesn’t include much dialogue. Furthermore, one critic predicted that the show would likely seem better on its CD so he may very well have been right because I really love that album but from what I’ve seen and read, the actual show didn’t live up to what I always imagined while listening to it.

Though the original Broadway production of Seussical was flawed and failed to run very long (only from November of 2000 to May of 2001) I think that it had great potential and its flopping states more about the weaknesses of the particular production than of the musical itself. The currently licensed version is very enjoyable and if you ever get a chance to see it at a local theater I strongly encourage you to do so. The music and lyrics are great, the characters worthwhile, and the story imaginative and unique. It has multiple worthwhile messages but resists being preachy and it takes the audience on a wonderful journey. I also highly recommend the Original Broadway Cast Recording because it really is top-notch and paints a vivid tale through lyric and melody that will really come to life in your imagination.