We all have our favourite shows, the Book of Mormons and Harry Potters that keep the West End tills ringing…but every once in a while a show comes along that we love for all the WRONG reasons. Join us as we high-kick our way through 20 terrible West End Musicals which left their investors weeping and the critics licking their lips:
1. Beautiful & Damned, Lyric Theatre – Opened 10 May 2004, Closed 14 August 2004
Described as “sentimental mush more representative of American daytime TV soap than a stage musical”, Beautiful and Damned told the story of F.Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald through a series of flapper-style, drug fueled song and dance numbers with titles like “She’s Over the Top and He’s Under the Table”.
“Making the roaring twenties seem like the boring twenties” Lyn Gardner, Guardian
“Has all the zest of flat champagne.” Ian Johns, The TimesDuchess Theatre
2. Behind the Iron Mask, Duchess Theatre – Opened 2 August 2005, Closed 20 August 2005
Professor John Robinson’s wife’s dying wish was to see one of his musicals in the West End. She clearly had a good sense of humour. The set and costumes were inadvertently hilarious; including a prison door which accidentally swung open and an iron mask which kept falling off. Most inexplicable of all was the casting of Shelia Ferguson (Three Degrees) as a gypsy whose “seductive gyspy dance” more closely resembled a cleaner getting tangled up in the dog’s blanket.
“There were weird, vacant moments…as though, like its audience, it was losing the will to live.” – Paul Taylor, The Independent
“Not just a vanity project but a calamity project” Lyn Gardner, Guardian
3. Bernadette, Dominion Theatre – Opened 20 June 1990, Closed 14 July 1990
Nicknamed “The People’s Musical” and later “Berna-don’t”, this ill-fated musical was the brainchild of teacher and piano-tuner, Maureen and Gwyn Hughes from Shrewsbury who had a vision of a West End Hit Show. Sadly, Bernadette wasn’t it. Instead, the vast Dominion Theatre became a slightly echoey home to the tale of a young French girl who thought she had seen the Virgin Mary. Crowd-funding by Daily Mirror readers and even a blessing from Pope John Paul II couldn’t fix Bernadette.
Described by one audience member as “A Lourdes of rubbish” and by Sheridan Morley as “like watching a plate of liver”. 4. Fields of Ambrosia, Aldwych Theatre – Opened 31 January 1996, Closed 11 February 1996
Based on the 1971 film The Traveling Executioner and with lyrics including “The fields of Ambrosia/Where everybody knows ya”, the show enjoyed one of the shortest ever West End runs. Also famed for its remote control rat and the Act One finale shriek of “Fry me while I’m hot” as the cast flew past on an electric chair.
“…tone deaf to its own ridiculousness” Paul Taylor, Independent
5. Hunting of the Snark, Prince Edward – Opened 24 October 1991, Closed 7 weeks later
This £2million production of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, written by Mike Batt, featured a cast including Billy Connolly, John Hurt and Kenny Everett. The show was both ahead of its time with hundreds of video screens and a 50 piece orchestra on stage, and weirdly surreal, including only one female character – called Beaver.
“I predict few revivals in decades to come” City Limits Magazine
6. Leonardo, Strand Theatre (now Novello) – Opened 3 June 1993, Closed July 10 1993
The high point of this show about a highly questionable love affair between Leonardo da Vinci and the Mona Lisa, came in Act One when Leonardo slapped La Gioconda’s bottom and asked her to “help me with my research”. After that it was downhill all the way for the show – which had been entirely funded by seagull droppings. You really can’t make this stuff up.
“More run of the mill than reeking” David Lister, Independent
7. Love Never Dies, Adelphi Theatre – Opened 9 March 2010, Closed 27 August 2011
Not exactly a flop, but weird enough to warrant inclusion. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to Phantom of the Opera, aka Paint Never Dries, sees Phantom ditching the Parisian sewers for the fairground lights of Coney Island. Having made his home inside a big monkey head, he takes to building people out of scrap metal and human body parts. Things are fine until Christine arrives with her peculiarly annoying son and eventually the Phantom agrees to perform his parental duty, funded by the proceeds of his saucy burlesque songs. The show was so odd that it even grew its own anti-fan club.
“He might as well have a “kick me” sign pasted to his backside.” Ben Brantley, New York Times
8. Moby Dick! The Musical, Piccadilly Theatre – Opened 17 March 1992, Closed after four months
A cult hit with audiences but panned by critics. This whale of a tale was told by St Trinian’s-style schoolgirls who, determined to save their institution from bankruptcy, decide to stage Herman Melville’s classic novel in the school’s swimming pool.
“A sorry mess” Michael Coveney, The Observer
“The latest nail to be driven into the glittering coffin of the West End musical” Michael Billington, Guardian
9. Money To Burn, The Venue – Opened 9 October 2003, Closed after the matinee 11 October 2003
The prophetically named Money To Burn should have given investors a clue. After notable lyrics such as “Your morals may be iffy, but you’ve given me a stiffy” the next most interesting element of the show was that its writer/director, Daniel Abineri, had played Jake Sanders in Australian cult mini-series Return To Eden where his love interest was a model who came back from the dead after being eaten alive by her sister’s crocodile.
“Faced with such dross as this, one’s first inclination is to flee screaming into the night.” Michael Billington, Guardian.
10. Murderous Instincts, Savoy Theatre – Opened 7 October 2004, Closed 16 October 2004
Very nearly the shortest ever West End run. Leading lady Nichola McCauliff described rehearsals as “a motorway pileup”. In its short life, the show went through eight directors and told the autobiographical tale of Cinda Fox, wife of the show’s producer and heiress to Firestone Tyres.
“Thoughts turn not to murder but to suicide” Lyn Gardner, Guardian
11. Oscar Wilde: The Musical – Opened 19 April 2004, Closed 20 April 2004
The award for biggest West End flop of all time goes to former DJ Mike Read. Oscar Wilde: The Musical opened on Tuesday 19 April and closed the following day following awful reviews and total ticket sales for that night of one.
“A pitiful vanity project” Dominic Cavendish, Telegraph
“You begin to wonder if the sound…is Oscar Wilde turning in his grave.” Elisabeth Mahoney, Guardian
12. Out of the Blue, Shaftesbury Theatre – Opened 4 Nov 1994, Closed 17 days later
One of Shaftesbury Avenue’s more forgettable moments surely came in 1994 when, on 4th November, Out of the Blue opened. It’s still a mystery as to why a musical about dropping a bomb on Nagasaki wouldn’t be more entertaining?
“Sadly, heading for oblivion” Peter Hepple, The Stage
13. Romeo & Juliet The Musical, Piccadilly Theatre – Opened 18 Oct 2002, Closed 8 Feb 2003
Highlights included Jane McDonald’s nurse “risking her life” batting off a couple of camp chorus boys to bring Juliet news of Romeo, Juliet taking poison with a cheery “Here goes” and a Capulet party which more closely resembled a roman orgy.
“Truly tragic – but not in the way that Shakespeare intended” Lyn Gardner, Guardian
14. Stephen Ward, Aldwych Theatre – Opening Night 19 Dec 2013, Closed 29 March 2014
Described as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s biggest flop to date, Stephen Ward (aka Emergency Ward) was cursed from the start. Critics were unsure about its S&M dinner parties and “slack storytelling”. A further portent of doom came on press night, which was overshadowed by the collapse of the ceiling at the nearby Apollo Theatre.
“Takes risky sex…and turns it into a flaccid new musical” David Benedict, Variety
15. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Savoy Theatre – Opened 30th Oct 1999, Closed 10th Jan 2000
Described as “the last great musical flop of the millennium”, perhaps the most memorable thing about this dumbed-down Thomas Hardy classic was the arrival of bailiffs who arrived to seize assets after audiences had fallen as low as 20 per performance. We remain unsure how they managed to fit a polystyrene Stonehenge in the removal van?
“Imagine Thomas Hardy having been put through the mangle with Mills and Boon and you are on your way to capturing the tone of this unfortunate musical.” Sarah Hemming, Financial Times
16. Too Close To The Sun, Comedy Theatre – Opened 24 July 2009, Closed 8 August 2009
Undeterred by the utter failure of Behind The Iron Mask, Professor John Robinson soldiered on with this fictionalized tale of Ernest Hemingway’s romantic dalliance with the secretary who wants to become his fifth wife. Sadly, the old man’s “wang dang doodle” wasn’t up to much…and neither was the score.
“A sickening premonition of this terrible show was what finally persuaded [Hemingway] to put the barrel of the shotgun in his mouth and pull the trigger” Charles Spencer, The Telegraph
17. Twang!!, Shaftesbury Theatre – Opened 20 December 1965, Closed 29 January 1966
Twang!! involved Robin Hood trying to prevent the marriage of court Nymphomaniac Delphina (Barbara Windsor) to Roger the Ugly. The show rapidly descended from farce to utter chaos until even comedy great Ronnie Corbett as Will Scarlett couldn’t save the day. The show bankrupted Lionel Bart, who later turned from writing musicals to alcoholism.18. Viva Forever, Piccadilly Theatre – Opened 11 December 2012, Closed 29 June 2013
Unlike Mamma Mia which had a vast back-catalogue of excellent ABBA songs, or Our House which had a tremendous script to work with, Viva Forever had cheesy pop hits and a terrible script which Jennifer Saunders seemed to have cobbled together over tea in Harvey Nicks.
“I’ll tell you what I wanted, what I really really wanted – I wanted this terrible show to stop.” Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph
19. Which Witch, Piccadilly Theatre – Opened 22 Oct 1992, Closed after 72 performances
Which Witch was written by Norwegian singers/composers Benedicte Adrian and Ingrid Bjornov. Despite the later success of Stephen Schwarz’s Wicked, it seemed that in 1992 the West End was still not ready for an Operamusical about Witches – even one translated from Norwegian.
Critics described it as “a bizarre musical” and “a dire rock opera” although one critic was slightly kinder, calling it only the “second worst West End Musical of all time”.
20. Ziegfeld, London Palladium – Opened 26 April 1988, Closed 1 October 1988
Harold Fielding’s obituary in the Guardian back in 2003 proclaimed the impresario’s love of optimistic songs and happy endings. Sadly, neither appropriately describes his (admittedly lavish) production of Ziegfeld. An extensive re-write and re-casting Topol in the lead role did little to improve matters, leaving one critic to describe the changes as “re-arranging the deck-chairs on Titanic”.
”Expensive nothingness” Michael Billington, Guardian
“Brains should be checked in with the coats” Jack Tinker, Daily Mail
Here are some other shows we might have considered for inclusion because they lost their investors a small fortune, but which we didn’t consider bad enough for our top twenty:
Children of Eden (1991), Desperately Seeking Susan (2007), The Far Pavilions (2005), Gone with the Wind (2008), I Can’t Sing (2014), Imagine This (2008), Lautrec (2000), Lord of the Rings (2006), Matador (1991), Metropolis (1989), Peggy Sue Got Married (2001)
If you’re interested in reading about shows that flopped over on Broadway, read the excellent Not Since Carrie which is available on Amazon. And while the West End is in tip top shape now, don’t worry – it won’t be long until another turkey hits town!
Check out our other blog features including an interview with the gorgeous Michael Xavier on starring with Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard.