History of The Musical Stage

1980s II: Triumphs & Embarassments

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996; revised 2014)

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

Broadway's Last Great Season?

La Cage Aux FollesGeorge Hearn, Gene Barry and the original Cagelles from Jerry Herman's La Cage Aux Folles appeared on the cover of the Theatre World annual.

During the 1983-84 season, five highly anticipated new musicals lined up funding and reached Broadway. It was the most impressive array of original works to share a season in two decades.

La Cage took the Tony for Best Musical, but with so many fine new musicals debuting on Broadway, theatergoers were the real winners. This giddy year for musical theatre fans ended all too soon. The following season brought only one original hit – Big River (1985 - 1,005 performances) a refreshing adaptation of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn with a score by country western composer Roger Miller. With no effective competition, it won the Tony for Best Musical and ran for three years.

And then there was a sudden, chilling silence. New American musicals still appeared on Broadway, but they had trouble attracting a sizeable audience. For the first time since Oklahoma, a full decade would go by before a new American musical would pass the 1,000 performance mark. What happened?


Broadway was now a small subculture ignored by mainstream media and the general public. Ticket prices continued to soar, and with popular music ignoring showtunes altogether, it became all the more difficult to get the public to notice anything but each season's biggest Tony Award winning hit – and even then, it could be a struggle to sell a new show. As several major composers (including Jerry Herman) and a number of veteran producers left the field, inexperienced newcomers mounted a series of costly disasters. Wildly ill-advised projects made it to Broadway, infuriating investors and audiences –

Carrie: Redefining Disaster

carrie.jpg (12501 bytes)Nothing matched the spectacular failure of Carrie (1988 - 5 performances), which became the most celebrated musical flop of the late 20th century. Based on Stephen King's best-selling horror novel and subsequent hit film, the stage version was so weak that experienced producers refused to touch it. After landing in rejection piles for more than half a decade, the project was picked up by Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company (which had succeeded with Les Miserables) and German producer Friedrich Kurz.

A preliminary British staging received such a critical drubbing that Barbara Cook (playing the title character's mother) withdrew from the project, and many assumed Carrie was done for. But the determined Kurz brought the show to Broadway with young Linzi Hateley as Carrie and Betty Buckley taking over for Cook.

At New York previews, theatergoers reacted with either silent shock or loud catcalls of rage. A tiny but vocal minority cheered the show on, feeding false hopes. By combining an incoherent script, tacky special effects, hideous choreography and lyrics like "Kill the pig, pig, pig," Carrie set a new standard for "bad." The frustrating thing was that it also had moments of genuine beauty, fueled by Buckley and Hateley's powerful dual scenes. That is why Carrie has inspired decades of discussion, especially among those who did not get to see it.

Most who sat through Carrie agreed that it's failure was well deserved, but something boded ill for the theatre's future, as historian Ken Mandelbaum later explained –

"Carrie also had non-stop energy, and, unlike so many flops, was not dull for a second. But there was something ominous about it all, a feeling that it was playing to the lowest common denominator, to people who had never been to the theatre and would respond only to jolts of pop music."
- Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops (NY: St. Martin's Press, 1991, p.352)

With Broadway in creative disarray, the British were only too happy to take up the slack and regain the theatrical dominance they had lost at the beginning of the 20th century. Somewhere, the ghosts of Gilbert and Sullivan were laughing -- and possibly cringing a bit too.

Next: Stage 1980s - Part III