Last week I reviewed Broadway Nights, a book I unexpectedly found at good ol’ Half-Price Books. Another book I was thrilled to come across in my used book store’s Performing Arts section was Ken Mandelbaum’s Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops. I’ve been keen on reading this book ever since I got interested in Carrie, the musical, several years ago, but hadn’t come across it in any of my bookstore visits (why I never looked online for it, I don’t know). I’m pretty sure I actually let out an audible gasp when I saw this copy wedged on the shelf and immediately snatched it up before proceeding to the register smiling like I had some kind of juicy secret. Hopefully I didn’t unnerve anyone too much, but I can’t really bring myself to be too bothered because I was on cloud nine.
To start with, I both love and hate the cover. I’m not fond of the typeface selected and really hate that it’s used for the title, subtitle, and author’s name. It’s just too much, especially for a typeface that’s so decorative and not particularly legible, and it kind of obscures the book’s name. Is it 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops: Not Since Carrie or Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops? Yes, the “Not Since Carrie” part is larger, but being written in the same font and having everything perfectly aligned to the left makes it read more like a paragraph than a title. I much preferred the title as presented within the book:
Doesn’t that look nicer? Using different fonts to give emphasis and impact, and actually arranged like a title rather than a block of text? What I love bout the cover, of course, is the photo. Gah, I spent an inordinate amount of time just looking at that photo and picking up little details like the glittering floral design on Carrie’s dress that I was never able to see in online photos of the show.
A little costume porn goes a long way with me, so that saves the whole cover.
Anywho, 300+ words into this review, maybe it’s time to actually talk about the content of the book, huh? The first section included Mandelbaum’s acknowledgements, operational definition of a “Broadway Flop” (No more than 250 performances, no significant productions after closing, only shows which were intended to play Broadway even if they closed before making it to their opening, and only those with a narrative), and some preliminary information about the infamous musical from which the book gets its title.
So far, Mandelbaum has kept the writing primarily dry (though not bland) as he presents the facts. This soon changes when he begins the main body of the book in which he gives more analysis on the flops discussed. Each musical presented is given a brief overview of its plot, some history on the creative production, information about the cast, and the reception it received from critics and audiences. Depending on which aspect(s) is/are most responsible for the show’s failure, Mandelbaum spends more time discussing those more pertinent topics while interjecting his own analysis.
Mandelbaum really knows his stuff and it’s really interesting to read his input on these shows and find some patterns (if the show goes through three directors, none of whom want to be credited in the program, chances are it’s headed for Floptown), as well as some anomalies (how is it that an excellent out-of-town tryout can lead to a disastrous Broadway run?) and seeing the development of the art form in terms of what is being produced by creators and what is being embraced by audiences. The stories he’s managed to unearth and record are invaluable to anyone interested in Broadway history.
The perhaps unavoidable pitfall of trying to document such a large span of time in Broadway history, however, is that the literally hundreds of shows discussed have to be so condensed that the book clips along through them with little room to breathe. While I can remember general patterns from the book and a few anecdotes, it’s very difficult to call to mind specific shows and examples as some shows get their whole history stuffed into half a page of text. Mandelbaum does his best to work against this by grouping the flops into types such as “Catastrophes and Camp”, “The Movie Was Better”, and “Missed Opportunities” rather than going chronologically. I think this method of organization is why I can remember the general principles more than the specific details.
The only section of the book I didn’t particularly enjoy was the one titled “Don’t Let This Happen to You” in which Mandelbaum gives his rules for avoiding flops, such as “Don’t musicalize works which can’t be musicalized” and “Don’t start with a bad/impossible idea”. I don’t like these rules because I don’t believe that art should (or even can) be limited and words like “can’t” and “impossible” have almost no place in an artist’s vocabulary. Yes, there are guidelines and principles which are important to know and respect in any artistic field, but opposing them is often a valid and interesting option which keeps art alive and growing.
Not Since Carrie is a detailed and informative piece. Author Ken Mandelbaum offers keen insights informed by extensive research on one of the most fascinating and unpredictable aspects of musical theatre: the flop. From the hilariously wrong to the merely mediocre, each show included helps the reader understand the landscape of the musical theatre art form a little more fully. I recommend it to avid theatre fans looking to deepen their appreciation for the genre, but not to anyone looking for a casual read.