The cast of 'I Can't Sing!' (photo: Flickr)

Musicals can be a tough sell

 The West End production of I Can’t Sing! – based on the extravagant success of The X Factor – closed on the 10th of May after just six weeks of its run. Over on Broadway, The Bridges of Madison County musical closed on the 18th of May after a meagre 137 performances. Despite being one of the most lucrative sections of the theatre industry, musicals can also be extremely challenging to get right.

For these two recent closures, the issue has been the cost of keeping large scale shows running in expensive theatres despite waning audience interest. Both were critical hits, with I Can’t Sing! defied expectations to get four- and five-star reviews while The Bridges of Madison County scored multiple Tony nominations this year. However, they were unable to inspire the same level of confidence among audiences and sluggish ticket sales led to their cancellations.

The Broadway production is still keeping itself alive by downsizing and going on a national tour, but I Can’t Sing! is now a distant memory. This is largely down to a number of technical and timing errors during its early previews that, although not affecting its rating, did give the play an unsavoury reputation among keen audiences. Most notorious of all was one performance where the intermission ended up being 50 minutes long instead of the traditional 20 because of a set malfunctioned – unacceptable even for a play in early previews.

Yet, other productions have survived technical gaffes. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was critically panned for its weak story and suffered from a series of mishaps that not only threatened its run but actually injured a few of the performers. It still managed a full 3-year run, with a move to Las Vegas planned for next year. By contrast, Viva Forever! did not have any technical snafus and tapped into one of the guiltiest musical pleasures of all time, hoping to be this generation’s Mamma Mia! It only ran for seven months, though that probably came down to getting arguably the worst reviews of any musical ever, The Telegraph even admitting that if possible it would be given ‘a minus-star rating.’

 It would seem that the best way to keep a musical up and running with the audience, regardless of critical reaction, is to have a good plot. With a lot of the focus inevitably on the songs and the production value – two aspects that set musicals apart from, say, a Shakespearean play at the Globe or an absurdist piece at the National Theatre – producers can sometimes forget that the most successful musicals have the most gripping stories.

 Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is, of course, a striking example, but consider the likes of Chess, Cats or Starlight Express. Any one of their synopses would be considered outlandish at the very least, but it is exactly that level of eccentricity that makes them fun to watch. By contrast, the increasingly pedestrian reality show shtick of I Can’t Sing! can be rather monotonous, no matter how much attention is given to the performances.

 The Bridges of Madison County, meanwhile, proves that adapting a well-known story does not always work either. While adaptations of musical films like Dirty Dancing or Disney productions have had their own successful runs, turning a serious on-screen project into a musical rarely works. At the same time, taking a well-known story that has not yet been interpreted using mainstream media can be very lucrative, demonstrated by the huge success of Les Miserables or Wicked.

It is safe to say that audiences want to find something memorable. It can be something unexpected like The Book of Mormon and its brash humour, or something nostalgic like the breath-taking beauty of The Lion King. Mamma Mia! was able to pair a simple plot with songs that audience members could sing along to, and it is still running strong today on both sides of the Atlantic. The reason productions like I Can’t Sing! and The Bridges of Madison County were unable to keep themselves going, largely comes down to the fact that their stories did not resonate with the audience, one being too mundane, the other being unsuitable for a musical adaptation.

Such is the nature of the industry. Despite critics’ responses indicating a regular run, the cast and crew now have to find new work. Some would argue that this is a particularly unfair aspect of how unpredictable these productions can be, especially given the signs that they might continue (unlike Viva Forever!). However, a quick scan through interviews, social media feeds and general reactions from the people involved in theatre to these cancellations shows that they are all very well aware of how tough their jobs can be. For anyone who thinks making a musical is a piece of cake, you had better reconsider your opinion.


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