Few things in entertainment can bring in as much cash as a smash-hit show on Broadway. With attendance figures for live theater reaching record highs recently and the fact that a great show can entertain audiences for decades on end, landing a hit on The Great White Way can be like having a blank check for the writers and producers behind it.
But for every “Hamilton,” there are several shows that flop after relatively few performances. We’ve gone back through Broadway history to find some of the biggest failures ever. Despite many of them coming from proven geniuses of the theater, these shows all flopped for one reason or another, often leaving their backers with plenty of red in their books.
‘Moose Murders’ (1983)
The only non-musical to make our list, few shows in Broadway history can boast a run matching that of “Moose Murders” in terms of brevity. This play, about a murder mystery that plays out inside a hunting lodge in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, opened and closed on the same night, Feb. 22, 1983! Tony nominee Holland Taylor, pictured below, led the cast of that fateful production, which officially ran for 13 previews and just a single regular performance before closing after a barrage of bad reviews.
‘Anyone Can Whistle’ (1964)
When you think Stephen Sondheim and Angela Lansbury, pictured here, teaming up on Broadway, you likely think of classics like “Gypsy” and “Sweeney Todd,” but you probably don’t think of “Anyone Can Whistle.” This notorious musical actually saw Lansbury make her Broadway debut in 1964 — but it was just a brief introduction. “Anyone Can Whistle” ran for just nine performances before closing down, with Long Beach’s The Grunion blaming its demise on the world not being ready for “a satiric musical comedy based on religious miracles, city politics and rampant corruption.”
‘Leap Of Faith’ (2012)
It’s tough for anything starring Raúl Esparza to be considered a failure but “Leap of Faith” definitely fits the bill. This 2012 musical was based on the 1992 Steve Martin movie of the same name, following a con artist who poses as a faith healer in order to make money across the country. The show, which had music by Disney legend Alan Menken, saw Esparza take the lead role and only lasted for 20 performances on Broadway before closing. Backers who took a leap of faith on “Leap of Faith” reportedly lost $14 million.
‘Glory Days’ (2008)
One of the most recent Broadway shows to join the infamous one-and-done club was 2008’s “Glory Days.” The musical opened on May 7 and closed later that night after a single performance, because of bad reviews and low advance sales, according to Playbill. “Glory Days” was about four young men who reunite a year after finishing high school and its creators weren’t far from that age themselves. Nick Blaemire, pictured here, who penned the music and lyrics, was just 23 years old when it opened (and closed).
Songwriter Stephen Schwartz, pictured here, has had some incredible hits on Broadway, from “Wicked” to “Godspell,” but “Rags” unfortunately wasn’t among them. The show, which featured Schwartz’s lyrics alongside music from Charles Strouse, told the complicated story of a family of Russian Jews arriving in New York City in the early 1900s. It was nominated for best musical at the Tony Awards and was mostly praised but played just four performances before closing in 1986. Remembered fondly by those who saw it, “Rags” was called “Broadway’s most heartbreaking flop” by the New York Post.
‘Bring Back Birdie’ (1981)
Speaking of Charles Strouse, the Tony-winning composer was no stranger to flops even before “Rags,” with one high-profile case being his 1981 show, “Bring Back Birdie.” The rare Broadway sequel, this musical revisited the characters of 1960’s beloved “Bye Bye Birdie,” which had put Strouse on the map as a major talent. Unlike that hit, which ran for more than 600 performances, “Bring Back Birdie” was closed after just four shows. The New York Times reportedly called the musical “depressing” in its review.
‘1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’ (1976)
There’s no questioning the combined brilliance of Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner, but the two theater legends put together “one of the greatest flops in Broadway history,” according to The New York Times. The show was 1976’s “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” which recounted significant events overseen by various American presidents, all of whom were played by a single actor. The man with that honor was Ken Howard, pictured here, who only had to do seven performances before the musical was impeached.
‘La Strada’ (1969)
Bernadette Peters is an American treasure, but even she has been involved in some misfires. In 1969, a 21-year-old Peters starred in “La Strada,” a musical about a girl who is sold to a circus by her poor mother, eventually becoming the star attraction as a clown. The show opened on Dec. 14 and closed the same day after just one performance. It took more than 30 years for a recording of “La Strada” to finally land on disc for curious theater lovers.
The idea of a Broadway musical based on Stephen King’s novel, “Carrie,” is as laughable as they come, but it happened. In 1988, this doomed show landed in New York with lyrics by Tony nominee Dean Pitchford and a book written by Lawrence D. Cohen, the screenwriter behind the beloved 1976 movie adaptation. “Carrie” closed after just three days on Broadway and reportedly lost $7 million in the process. In 2012, The New Yorker posed the simple question to influential theater writers, “Is ‘Carrie’ the worst musical of all time?”
‘Via Galactica’ (1972)
If you think a stage musical set 1,000 years in the future sounds ridiculous, you aren’t alone. In 1972, Broadway saw the debut of “Via Galactica,” a show set in the year 2972 on an asteroid named Ithaca. The show was written by Galt MacDermot, who’d had major hits with “Hair” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona” but couldn’t recapture it with this out-there musical. “Via Galactica,” which reportedly cost $900,000 to stage — more than $5 million in today’s money — ran for just seven performances before crash landing.
‘Tuck Everlasting’ (2016)
Running for 39 performances may sound like a borderline hit compared to others on this list but when the show costs $11 million to produce, it might as well be one that closed on opening night. “Tuck Everlasting” was based on the 1975 children’s novel about a girl who meets an immortal family and is tempted to join them in living forever. The 2016 show was Tony-nominated for its costumes but that was about all the buzz it earned. The New York Times estimated it failed because adults viewed it as a show for kids and it didn’t have the all-important Disney brand attached.
‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ (1966)
As far as Broadway flops go, this musical adaptation of Truman Capote’s classic novel is as notorious as they come. The first time it tried to play Broadway, co-starring Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain in 1966, it closed after just four previews, meaning it never had a single regular performance. Producers tried it again in 2013, this time with Emilia Clarke and Cory Michael Smith in the lead roles, and the revival was only slightly more successful, closing after 38 performances. It was a rare double flop.
‘Charlie And Algernon’ (1980)
Speaking of doomed musical adaptations of beloved books, this 1980 flop was based on the 1966 book, “Flowers for Algernon.” That terribly sad book was about a man with mental disabilities named Charlie who undergoes an experimental surgery that drastically increases his intelligence. The show once again featured music by the great Charles Strouse but his songs weren’t enough to keep it on Broadway longer than 17 performances. P.J. Benjamin, pictured here, played Charlie in the short-lived production.
The Smithsonian labeled this failed show as one of Broadway’s 10 greatest flops ever, alongside some others on this list. It earned that distinction by closing after a single performance and losing a reported $650,000 (approximately $5.2 million today). “Kelly” was set in 1880s New York and followed a busboy whose dream was to survive a jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. Yes, I’m scratching my head, too. Among the actors in that opening-night cast was Broadway favorite Anita Gillette.
‘A Doll’s Life’ (1982)
Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play, “A Doll’s House,” is recognized as a landmark in theater but the same can’t be said for its belated sequel. Coming more than 100 years later, “A Doll’s Life” was a musical follow-up to that acclaimed drama, which continued the life story of its main character, Nora. The show was co-written by Betty Comden, pictured here, was directed by Hal Prince and co-starred Peter Gallagher, but it closed after just five performances. Despite flopping, the show was still nominated for three Tonys in 1983.
‘Merrily We Roll Along’ (1981)
Stephen Sondheim is about as beloved as any Broadway composer in modern history, but even he had his flops. In 1981, one of his most notorious misfires came in “Merrily We Roll Along,” which played for just 16 performances before closing. The musical told the story of a friendship between three people that dissolves for various reasons, which are examined in reverse chronological order. It was the last production in a great partnership between Sondheim and director Hal Prince and the cast included a future star named Jason Alexander.
‘Lolita, My Love’ (1971)
What could go wrong with a musical based on a notorious novel about a middle-aged man who falls in love with a young girl? Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” is a classic of controversial literature but its Broadway adaptation is only notable for how badly it bombed. Technically, “Lolita, My Love” didn’t even open on Broadway, because it was decided to shut down the production after two “disastrous out-of-town tryouts,” according to The New York Times. Pictured here is Denise Nickerson, best known as Violet from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” who played Lolita in the show, which was snuffed out before it could reach puberty.
‘American Psycho’ (2016)
While we’re on the subject of books that should’ve never been made into musicals, “American Psycho” would seem to fit the bill. Author Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel about a successful, self-obsessed man who is murdering people in 1980s New York doesn’t exactly scream “song and dance.” However, songwriter Ducan Sheik wrote some tunes to go along with the macabre action, which featured plenty of blood flying on stage. It ran for just 54 performances before closing at a cost of $8.8 million, according to The New York Times.
‘A Broadway Musical’ (1978)
With a flashy title like “A Broadway Musical,” how could this one have failed to gain steam? Yet another from Charles Strouse, this show hit the town a year after his massive hit “Annie” and it wasn’t quite the runaway success. In fact, “A Broadway Musical” shut down on opening night and was later called a “crushing flop” by PBS New York. As you probably guessed, the show was about the obstacles of putting on a Broadway show. Emmy Award winner Loretta Devine was among the show’s cast at that first — and last — regular performance.
‘Dance Of The Vampires’ (2003)
Compared to most of the shows on this list, the run of “Dance of the Vampires” looks almost like that of “The Lion King,” but it was still a costly flop. The 2003 show cost a reported $12 million to produce and ran for just 56 performances on Broadway before folding. The oddly-titled show was based on an obscure film by Roman Polanski and featured a score by Jim Steinman, pictured here, who is most famous for writing songs for Meat Loaf. The show was a dark comedy about vampires with gothic rock musical numbers and it closed without so much as a cast recording being released.
‘The Red Shoes’ (1993)
Another example of a musical based on a movie that failed on Broadway was 1993’s “The Red Shoes.” The 1948 movie, set in the world of ballet, is hailed as an artistic masterpiece but the stage version ran for just five performances before closing. According to The New York Times, “The Red Shoes” lost about $8 million for its backers and became “one of the greatest calamities in Broadway history.” The cast included prima ballerina Margaret Illmann and Broadway stalwart Hugh Panaro, who is pictured here.
‘The Lieutenant’ (1975)
In 1975, some extremely brave Broadway producers decided to stage a musical about the Vietnam War and it went over about as well as could be expected. “The Lieutenant” followed the court-martial of a fictional lieutenant who was involved in the 1968 My Lai massacre. If it sounds a little heavy for musical theater, it probably was, which led to it closing after just nine days of performances. “Laverne & Shirley” star Eddie Mekka starred as the title character in that short run.
Like Charles Strouse, Broadway icon Alan Jay Lerner has had his name on a few flops on this list, one of which was this 1979 show. “Carmelina” is one of those failed shows that actually had decent acclaim and was even nominated for best original score at the Tonys. Despite that, it closed after 17 performances. The musical followed an Italian woman who collects money from three men who all think they’re the father of her child, making it sound a bit like a precursor to “Mamma Mia!” Lerner co-wrote “Carmelina” with Joseph Stein, who is pictured below.
A ton of star power and strong reviews couldn’t save “Gantry” from becoming a big flop. This musical adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel, “Elmer Gantry,” ran for either a single performance or just four performances, depending on which source you read. Either way, it was a massive failure, despite starring brilliant actors like Robert Shaw and Rita Moreno, who is pictured. Legendary choreographer Onna White directed the doomed production.
‘Oh, Brother!’ (1981)
Musical adaptations of William Shakespeare sound like just the type of thing that would flop and that’s what happened with “Oh, Brother!” This 1981 show closed after just 24 hours and three performances. It was a farce, based on the Bard’s “The Comedy of Errors,” following a modern-day father searching for his missing children. The cast included Judy Kaye, Mary Mastrantonio and a young Joe Morton, who is pictured here.