Broadway Turkeys

If you consult your online dictionary for the definition of “turkey” you will find —

tur·key /ˈtərkē/

  1. a large mainly domesticated game bird native to North America, having a bald head and (in the male) red wattles. It is prized as food, especially on festive occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
  2. something that is extremely or completely unsuccessful, especially a play, musical or movie

On Broadway, turkeys are typically shows that had a decent amount of previews, but closed after the show’s official opening night. According to Playbill archives, there are a combined 35 plays and musicals on that list.

So, with a tip of the pilgrim hat and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, here are eight courses of notable Broadway flops, all cooked after opening night bows:

MOOSE MURDERS (opened/closed Feb. 22, 1983) – This self-described mystery farce by Arthur Bicknell, similar to Agathia Christie’s And Then There Were None, is a notorious Broadway flop. The play, starring Holland Taylor, has been called “the standard which all other disastrous plays are judged” and finished at No. 5, in one magazine’s list of biggest flops of the 20th Century, just behind New Coke.

I WON’T DANCE (opened/closed May 10, 1981) – This show, about a paraplegic who celebrates the mysterious, diabolical murder of his brother and sister-in-law, has the unique distinction of being the third play written by Oliver Hailey that opened and closed on the same night. The other two were First One Asleep, Whistle (Feb. 26, 1966) and Father’s Day (March 16, 1971). Called by a reviewer as being “the most produced, least successful” playwright in New York theater, Hailey did have four other plays produced Off Broadway. He also had a successful career writing for TV shows such as Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, McMillan and Wife and The Cosby Show.

LITTLE JOHNNY JONES (opened/closed March 21, 1982) – Former teen idol Donny Osmond fronted the revival that showcased songs written by George M. Cohan including “The Yankee Doodle Boy.” The show closed after 29 previews, one of two shows, the other being Frankenstein, with that many opportunities to make adjustments. One brutal review said a band playing on the street in front of Alvin Theater put on a better show than what was inside the theater and also noted the prophetic highlight was Osmond singing “Give My Regards to Broadway.” Ouch!

DANCE A LITTLE CLOSER (opened/closed May 11, 1983) – This show proved that a stellar writing pedigree can still produce a failure. Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Camelot) wrote the book and lyrics while composer Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie, Annie) wrote the music. The musical was about hotel guests facing a potential nuclear Armageddon. Broadway insiders dubbed it “Dance a Little Faster .. Close a Little Sooner” and famed New York Times critic Frank Rich called it a “mishmash” that “seems to have taken on a rampaging self-destructive life of its own.”

LA STRADA (opened/closed Dec. 14, 1969) – Starring Bernadette Peters in her first lead role, the musical drew from a tragic Federico Fellini film about a young woman sold to a circus strongman who eventually becomes the show’s star clown. The bleak plot filled with abuse, jealousy, murder and abandonment lead to it being one of the most depressing musicals ever, closing after opening night and 12 previews.

HERE’S WHERE I BELONG (opened/closed March 3, 1968) – Based on East of Eden by John Steinbeck, this musical would have been the Broadway musical book-writing debut for Terrence McNally, except that he asked his name be removed from the credits before opening night. McNally, of course, would go on to write Ragtime and Kiss of the Spiderwoman whereas Here’s Where I Belong closed after a postponed opening and bleak reviews.

HOME SWEET HOMER (opened/closed Jan. 4, 1976) – Based on the Greek legend of Homer, more specifically Odysseus and his journey home, this show was written for its star Yul Brynner, best known for his turn in the movie adaptation of The King and I. Despite decent reviews, troubles during a national tour compromised the show financially before it got to Broadway, having none of its capital investment left when it got to New York City. 

GANTRY (opened/closed Feb. 14, 1970) – Valentine’s Day showed little love for this musical based on Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry that starred Robert Shaw opposite Rita Moreno. Three years in development, the show opened to tepid reviews which doomed it, despite its star power.

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