Theatre

Dead On Arrival: Can we learn from The Addams Family’s grave ending?

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Today The Addams Family musical closes in Australia. The production opened in March 2013 at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney and had promised to go on and tour Australia, giving those involved (the incredibly well reviewed cast including John Waters and Chloe Dallimore) a good 12 months or so of employment. However like so many shows before it The Addams family would not tour and would shutter in Sydney only a few months after opening, leaving everyone involved unemployed.

Erin James on AussieTheatre.com reflected on the closing of Addams in an opinion piece that questioned the ‘nature of the industry’.

We enter into the industry knowing that we skate on thin ice with employment in practically every job. Sometimes we win, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we run for years, sometimes we close.

But does that have to be the case?

As is the case in Australia right now, Addams Family received a large investment of cash from Events New South Wales (on behalf of the NSW Government) to secure it’s opening in Sydney. It opened up the Melbourne vs Sydney rivalry once again, especially when NSW Premier Barry O’Farrel said “Sydney and NSW is back in the business of attracting the finest in musical theatre — and there is more to come. Musical theatre is now taking centre stage on the NSW Events Calendar.”

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But was Addams Family the “finest in musical theatre” or was it doomed from the start?

Around the same time Addams was announced as coming to Aus so were a series of other names, Shrek The Musical, Officer And A Gentleman, Legally Blonde, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (of which O’Farrel again said “This again cements Sydney’s place as the leading city for musical theatre across Australia.”)

IMG_0912None gave me particular hope (though for the sake of developing musicals in Australia I keenly watched over Officer). In fact I gave a good eye roll when I read most of the announcements.

Why?

Aside from Officer, all these shows had been tested in other markets, and reflecting on those markets we can see that none were particularly successful, or the best musicals of their age.

Addams, whilst constantly referred to as a hit in the media, was not. A quick look at ‘Did He Like It’ (a website that compiles Broadway reviews and states whether critics liked, disliked or were on the fence about a show) shows a unanimous dislike for the show. In fact it got some of the worst and most scathing reviews of a Broadway show for some time. The New York Times said it best “Imagine, if you dare, the agonies of the talented people trapped inside the collapsing tomb called “The Addams Family.” Looking at the grosses of the show it limped into 2011, just earning enough to stay open, and then plummeted further continuously after Nathan Lane left the cast in March of that year. It announced in August 2011 that it would close in December.

Going back further, reviews of it’s out of town try out in Chicago were also gloomy- “The show [is] overcrammed and underfocused” said Variety.

Above all else- despite running from March 2010 to December 2011 and posting grosses over $1million US for 35 of the weeks it was open, Addams Family did not recoup.

It also only received two Tony award nominations, Best Original Score and Best Performance by a Featured Actor in A Musical. No coveted best musical, and no wins either.

It was a critical and financial flop.

The positives it had going for it on it’s arrival to Australia was a slightly rejigged plot that came from rewrites for the US national tour (which reviewed slightly better) and brilliant Australian casting, which received unanimous praise from most Australian critics.

But, in a country that doesn’t get every single show that opens on Broadway anyway, why bring in this one? The commercial appeal of the Addams brand name? Must be, but did we ever have the cartoons published in Australia? And how long has it been since we’ve seen the family in a movie or TV show?

IMG_2045Chitty’s production in London was slightly less than spectacular, though it broke records for the length of it’s run at the Palladium. It was vastly improved in it’s US run (where the New York Times was still only mildly interested in it), and then improved upon again in Australia. It didn’t receive a best musical nod in London at the Oliviers or on Broadway at the Tonys. It closed after only 285 performances on Broadway losing most of it’s investment.

However- in Chitty’s case, Australia had the best response to the original film out of any country in the world, and while the musical pales in comparison to the film, an opening in Australia could rely on original film audience members now bringing their children to enjoy the magic of something they enjoyed as a child. I worried about the show opening in Sydney, not so long after the other Sherman Brothers musical Mary Poppins had flown away, but it didn’t seem to harm the wonderful flying car!

P1000601Shrek received mediocre reviews on Broadway, the over the top production (evidently dripping in money…and slime) didn’t get it right on Broadway and retooled for a national tour and then opening in the UK where it faired better. As one of the most expensive musicals of all time it didn’t recoup it’s original investment on Broadway. The new score also didn’t rival the fantastic soundtrack of the film. Originally the musical opened without I’m A Believer, but after audience disappointment, it was added. It did receive a Best Musical nomination from the Tony Awards (it was pitted against the powerhouse film adaptation that was Billy Elliot and one of the little musicals that could; Next To Normal) and also a nod from the Oliviers but did not win either.

The question now remains with this show, is it enough of  a family pleaser to be able to recoup the large amount of investment money in Australia? John Frost holds the rights, it was originally set for a 2012 opening, but I think he’ll wait to see how Grease goes before announcing another opening for Shrek, that would be in the best interest of receiving a fairytale ending.

Legally Blonde received mixed reviews on Broadway, it fared better in London, and it seemed off to a rocky start in Sydney with rumours of an early close and no tour floating around. However rumours were quashed as the show progressed on to Brisbane and has just moved to Melbourne. The show played 595 shows on Broadway, and again did not recoup it’s investment. The original film premiered in 2001, the musical on Broadway in 2007, London in 2009. Were audiences over the story by then? Does the sorority sister come lawyer story resonate with Australian audiences? As with Shrek, is it worth the $75+ you’ll spend on a ticket when you could sit at home and watch the DVD of the film for less the $12? All risks with these ‘commercially appealing’ shows.

It is of course upsetting whenever a show closes, and whenever a number of talented, hardworking people are out of a job. But I have to question whether producers are making the best decisions when it comes to shows. Are they looking at the history of a production and taking it into account? Or are they just willing to take a risk and hope on the ‘brand’ of the show and that it hopefully translates to sales with Australian audiences.

I honestly think audiences are better than what producers often give them credit for. It is often declared by producers that the audience says what it wants, that it is the one begging for movie adaptations and juke box musicals, but I think it’s a lie. I think producers see the opportunity for an easy buck using familiar material and often create sub par work.

A classic example right now is Viva Forever on the West End, an absolutely abismal show that I would be embarrassed to have my name attached to if I’d had some hand in it. As a producer watching the development of that show, with the commodities it has (Spice Girls music, Jennifer Saunders writing) I would have halted the process, said ‘No, it’s not working, let’s take some more time, delay an opening and get it right.’ That could have lead to a much stronger production, and perhaps seen it stay open longer than it will, giving it a better chance to recoup, and make the money back it would have cost to rework the show.

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I’d love to see what would happen one year if Broadway producers, instead of going through the motions of bringing another sub par juke box musical to the stage, all invested in new musical theatre writers and original scores. It would create an even playing field for new work which is often overshadowed by flaky commercial brand name shows.

Audiences are smarter than sub par work, especially in Australia. They demand high quality productions, excellent casts, and pieces worthy of their time. Jersey Boys worked because it linked familiar songs with an incredibly strong story, and for those reasons Rock Of Ages didn’t.

Now if only our producers would invest their time and money into good quality musicals, perhaps we’d see longer seasons, engaged and returning audiences, and bountiful employment for everyone in the industry. Ensure you’re delivering the best quality product to your customers and the money will come in. Perhaps shows closing prematurely wouldn’t be the ‘nature of the industry’ if this was the case. And this doesn’t just go for Australia, but for Broadway and the West End too.

I hate to say I predicted Addams Family not doing well in Australia, but I did. I read the signs. Perhaps that’s the nature of the industry, or perhaps as producers we can do better for everyone that we involve in our productions.

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About Sean Bryan

Creator of Mortimer Sparks, one part of Duck and Mouse.

Discussion

One thought on “Dead On Arrival: Can we learn from The Addams Family’s grave ending?

  1. Re Addams, I never did watch the tv show, and may not have enjoyed this musical at all. Too many musicals lack one essential ingredient: good music (which you sing as you leave the theatre). Basing a plot on a sitcom rather than real drama doesn’t give a show much in the way of roots. However, the big mistake was opening in Sydney and not Melbourne; it might have got somewhere in Melbourne. Sydney is a cultural desert: all glam and not substance. Way back, Chess folded in Sydney. That was also partly the fault of being overgimmicked. A Melbourne audience is far more cultural and appreciative. In Sydney, anything gets a standing ovation, so the gesture is meaningless. In Melbourne, nothing gets a standing ovation.
    I am not desperate to see King Kong: I always worry about things which are overhyped.
    Other flops which I can remember: Seven Little Australians (pleasant but not memorable, and now kept alive on amateur); Manning Clarke (a very bad political interpretation of the books). Where did Leonardo fold? Some early Sondheim flopped: ahead of its time, as revivals have been good (I think of ‘Merrily we roll along’, and ‘Anyone can Whistle’.
    There are many shows which do very well on amateur but not on professional. I didn’t like Sunset Boulevard on professional (overgimmicked), but a pared-down amateur version was far warmer and more meaningful.
    Likewise Chess: it isn’t dated, it is a period piece, and doesn’t have to be seen as irrelevant with the cold war ended.
    I had always thought that Hair would date, despite its brilliant score. If anything, it is better today than it was originally, a window into a period of time. It has had several revivals on amateur, and has now hit the school market. Those students are playing, not to their parents, but to their grandparents: how hard to believe.
    It is interesting to see that Phantom is now into top amateur, which means that it will move to the next rank before long.
    I grew up on a diet of the brilliant musicals of the late 1940s and through the 1950s: all regarded as classics. Not many modern ones have joined them. The total modern classic is ‘Les Miserables’: the plot, the music, and just as much in every company’s repertoire as ‘Oklahoma’. Get the ingredients right, and the audience will come, and the show will endure.

    Roderick Smith (Melbourne theatregoer)

    Posted by Roderick Smith | June 27, 2013, 11:25 pm

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