When musicals don’t Viva Forever!
14th December 2012
When musicals don’t viva forever
Critics have attacked the Spice Girls musical, but flops come in all shapes and sizes, so don’t pronounce its last rites yet. First published in the Daily Telegraph, 14 Dec, 2012.
I’ve never met the former Radio 1 DJ Mike Read but I have a strong feeling that, were we ever to be introduced, I’d get a less than cordial reception. He might well still remember me as one of the critics who slammed his woeful attempt at a musical based on the life of Oscar Wilde – called, with an ominous lack of originality, Oscar – at the Shaw Theatre on Euston Road back in 2004.
The only good time to be had lay in penning snide put-downs. Mr Read, I suggested, “passes golden genius through the filter of presumptuous mediocrity and produces over two hours of leaden dross”.
The wounded artiste shut the show, which he had laboured at for years, the day after the opening night. That’s almost a record. Though on Broadway, where critical butchery is an art in its own right and producers can have breakdowns at the first whiff of trouble at the box office, there are shows that died never having made it past previews – among them a 1990 revival of Gershwin’s Oh, Kay!
All of which leads one to ask what will be the fate of Viva Forever!, the Spice Girls musical? It was mauled by the critical pack this week with a savagery not seen since, well, probably the last awful attempt to take hard-earned cash from theatrical pleasure seekers without giving them anything sufficiently entertaining in return. Dishing out just one star – almost as an act of seasonal kindness – Charles Spencer denounced it as “a ghastly mistake… Tawdry, lazy and unedifying, a clunker”.
One hesitates to pronounce the last rites over the show yet, though. If Jennifer Saunders’ lacklustre attempt to follow in the gilded footsteps of Mamma Mia! – the mother of all money-spinning pop back-catalogue vehicles – doesn’t live for ever, it may linger on longer than its detractors would hope. It has a huge marketing‑machine behind it; the Spice Girls are – incredibly – cited as the second most popular British band in the world after the Beatles; and I have a suspicion that the public sometimes likes sticking two fingers up at the critical consensus. One shouldn’t underestimate either Girl Power or the temperament that likes to rally on behalf of an under‑dog.
In fact, Viva Forever!’s life-expectancy might have been shortened had the reviewers treated it with a greater degree of lukewarm indifference. As it is, I think some people may head to the Piccadilly Theatre to see for themselves what, if anything, has gone wrong. One reason, it seems, why Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is doing just fine on Broadway, despite being beset by early troubles, panned by critics and ranked as the most expensive show ever, is that the bad publicity has provided the perfect web in which to snare idle curiosity.
A similar pattern may hold good for Viva! In the age of the punter, where feedback is golden and digital silence a no-no, the chatterati might defy the cognoscenti to turn it into the biggest new hit in town. After all, look at what happened to We Will Rock You. That clunking attempt to shoehorn Queen’s greatest hits into a dire, futuristic book by Ben Elton couldn’t have had worse notices; Spencer, a rock-enthusiast, warned fans they’d be bored stiff and that this was “prole‑feed at its worst”. Ten years on, it’s still packing ’em in.
In general, though, I don’t think critics and audiences ever get too out of step; reviewers often simply point out the obvious in advance, especially as to whether a show is doomed. If the target audience for Viva! gives up on it faster than you can say “2 Become 1” (as in ticket-offers), and it joins the pile of great musical turkeys, it will be in quite some company. So many shows have wound up in the hall of shame over the years that you could dedicate a whole exhibition to them.
I’d divide them into four categories. There are those that chase after commercial success with naked intent, tapping pre-existing music reservoirs and fan loyalties, such as the blink and you missed it Boney M musical Daddy Cool, or Viva!’s boy-band counterpart, Never Forget, based on the oeuvre of Take That. Some of these spins on the “jukebox” format survive with a little dignity intact – Never Forget, though forgotten, was no outright flop – but in general, unless they fly spectacularly high, they’re an embarrassment to the legends they fed off.
Then there are the musicals that brought ignominy upon people who should have known better. The RSC famously came a cropper in 1988 with Carrie, a makeover of a Stephen King novel about a menstruating schoolgirl with telekenetic powers. It was so awful that it died on Broadway after 21 performances. In this realm, those who have given us some of the greatest evenings in our lives appear to take leave of their senses – step forward impresario Cameron Mackintosh, whose decision to transfer Moby Dick, the Melville novel as retold by a group of sixth-form gals in a school swimming pool, met with a tsunami of critical derision in 1992 at the Piccadilly.
The most intriguing category of flops, though, lies in the downright bizarre cases of outsiders, cranks and unknowns who gambled all – sometimes their own money – on projects that to any sane eye had not a ghost of a chance. Where to begin? Perhaps with Bernadette (1990), described at the time as “one of the most bizarre and spectacular failures in London musical theatre history”. Written by a piano-tuner and his wife, financed by readers of the Daily Mirror and blessed by the Pope, no less, it told the story of Bernadette Soubirous, a young peasant girl who had visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes in 1858. It elicited unholy tears of disbelief at the Dominion and lasted three weeks.
Equally notorious was Which Witch (1992), the brainchild of Benedicte Adrian and Ingrid Bjornov, members of Norwegian pop group Dollie Deluxe. Their “opera-musical” was a cod 16th-century tale of thwarted passion that culminated in the young Italian heroine being burnt at the stake as a witch. King Harald and Queen Sonja of Norway visited it to lend their support, but to no avail. “Flops don’t come much floppier,” the Telegraph quipped.
Some of these shows reach the so-bad-they’re-a-cult status, the prime example being 1996’s Fields of Ambrosia, which seized on the sick-taste conceit of a state executioner falling for the femme fatale he’s about to fry – and singing the finale from his own electric chair. There’s a cachet to having been there to witness them crash and burn. But in a way these non-events dwindle into the right kind of insignificance beside the fourth category: those shows that deserved to do well, but for some reason didn’t.
Who could hold their head up high and say they were glad to have missed the 1980 UK premiere of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd – now an acknowledged masterpiece – because it bombed at the Drury Lane? And do we feel we saved our bacon by skipping Betty Blue Eyes, the musical version of the film A Private Function that Mackintosh sank a fortune into and which inspired the kind of admiration last year that most composers dream of getting?
We can all have a laugh at the expense of the interloping lunatic ventures and those bird-brained projects that can’t get a fraction off the ground, but when all is said and done we need to allow shows like Viva Forever! to come (and perhaps go) with good grace. Not just to keep the West End ticking over – there are some 22 musicals running at the moment, and the amount of money, and people, this genre brings in is eye-watering: more than eight million attendances last year, bringing in over £328 million in revenue (according to the Society of London Theatre). But also because the strange science of producing a musical that achieves full lift-off is so fiendishly difficult, you’ve got to allow for those near-misses, even the stinkers, name them as such though you must.
Yes, the financial rewards for those who get it right can be staggering, but the emotional payback for us can be priceless too, as anyone who has ever been swept off their feet by a night at Billy Elliot or Matilda or My Fair Lady will attest. It’s that cherished prize – a night to remember – that most people are after, on either side of the house.
I suppose if I bumped into Mike Read after all these years, I’d say sorry if I shattered his dreams, but that he should have stuck it out, waited for word of mouth to spread, showed more faith, kept going. To quote a Spice Girls track, in this game you need a spirit of “Right Back at Ya”.