Report by Rob Lester

Jamie McGonnigal
photo: Ben Strothmann
In addition to a fascination with cut songs, many theater fans join me in a fascination with songs from musicals that are not the big smash long-run hits. Pick your euphemism: "artistic success"; "underappreciated"; "disappointing run"; "troubled" or my personal favorite, "ill-fated." Some just call the show a flop. Put together by Jamie McGonnigal with sheet music maven/pianist Michael Lavine, last month's Joe's Pub Flopz! concert celebrated some of the best parts of the some of the worst-received shows in Broadway history. An intriguing idea, the toasting/roasting of these failures was mostly a success, with a few unintentional ill-fated moments of its own.

There are many definitions of a "flop" show, and this potpourri embraced them all - musicals that closed very quickly for any reason, those that ran (or limped) a while but were panned by critics, and a few that lasted longer but lost a lot of money. A key decision had to be made about how much context to give the material so they could be appreciated as isolated songs. In a friendly and affectionate manner, Jamie and Michael decided to be mostly straightforward informative with the facts. Avoiding snide, gloating comments relishing the failures, Michael often emphasized the positive aspects, making the audience wish they'd been around for some of the original performances. Some facts and star name-dropping came with a bit of wide-eyed wonder implying the occasional "what were they thinking!!?" reaction. At times, the relaxed reeling off of names and plot slowed down the energy, especially for any audience member already knowledgeable or not interested. Introductions which are more scripted, combining entertaining anecdotes with basic facts, would be worth considering. To point to a model, the right balance has often been struck in the long-running concert series Lyrics and Lyricists and Broadway By The Year. Anecdotes abound in books about musical theater, especially Ken Mandelbaum's Not Since Carrie: 40 Years Of Broadway Flops.

The event was an AIDS benefit for the Joey DiPaolo Foundation. Jamie, who oversees other special musical theater concerts for AIDS charities, was in a happy hosting mood, also celebrating his 30th birthday this night of August 7th. Sporting a kilt and a big smile, he also took a swell turn singing, offering "Words He Doesn't Sing" from Romance, Romance. Arranger and music expert Michael was in splendid form, from a name-that-tune opening medley of snippets to taking a vocal turn with Christine Pedi on the comic "What Do We Do? We Fly!" from 1965's Do I Hear A Waltz? by Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim, a 220-performance run. Christine was one of the most polished and poised participants, successfully fusing her own performing style with the needs of the material and its original intent. Danny Gurwin, recently of Little Women, displayed his ferocious charisma with a tune from the quirky King Of Hearts.

Others were better at showing off their vocal chops and personality than recreating the texture of the material at hand or didn't seem to have a strong grasp of the song they'd been given. Matt Cavenaugh and Jenn Colella admittedly had an "unfair" advantage being able to do material from a show they were actually in (Urban Cowboy) and were simply smashing. They made some of the others seem all the more unprepared, especially those leaning too heavily on the sheet music. Leslie Kritzer has good stage presence and pipes but didn't capture the determination required of "He Needs Me Now" from Walter Marks' score of Golden Rainbow. Natalie Joy Johnson sizzled with something from a show that fizzled: the sequel to Annie. Debra S. Craig of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has one of the more appealing voices around, but she was woefully underprepared and lost, stopping and starting over more than once, as if in rehearsal. She had been given a wordy song, "A Man I Can Love," actually cut from a lost musical, So Long, 174th Street.

David Burnham was an example of a singer who outshone his material, but this golden-throated ensemble member/understudy for the male lead in The Light In The Piazza is the kind of singer who invokes the cliche of being able to sing the phone book and make it sound beautiful. As the concert revival of Fourtune, musical-directed by Michael Lavine, was being presented the same week, David and cast-mates previewed some of that material in a "shameless plug" for their next gig. Songwriter Bill Russell (Side Show) also appeared onstage and was given generous time to talk about that gay musical, jokingly defining a "gay musical" as "a musical that that sleeps with other musicals of its own kind."

A show big on heart, Craig Carnelia's Is There life After High School? demonstrated there is musical life after an initial run. The emotional friendship saga, "Fran and Janie" was a strong contender, powerfully championed by Jenn Colella and Jen Foote. A third Jen, Jen Gambatese, from All Shook Up shook up the place by repolishing a golden oldie from Goldilocks. Sarah Gettelfinger (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) had a steamy time grinding out Grind's "All Things to One Man." And there were more people and more musicals in this marathon!

Other shows heard from were Whoop-Up, Rags, and Banjo Eyes. The order seemed quite random, not chronological and without much grouping by theme or other common threads. This added a sense of unpredictability and almost stream-of-consciousness, as if everyone as at a party talking about failed shows, saying, "Oh! I just thought of another one! Let's sing ..."

From the 1980s, Carrie is one of the most notorious short-run, big-interest curiosities of all. Wisely saved for the end, it was indeed the highlight. As the title character, Celia Keenan-Bolger was a revelation, mesmerizing and magical, with "What Do I Do Now?" She was introduced as the most likely choice for a most unlikely remounting of this show.

There's always the curiosity factor of "why did it fail with all the talented people involved?" The bottom line is "I guess you had to be there." We don't get the answers from 20/20 hindsight, second guessing, or new singers re-interpreting the songs. So what do you do? You just try to have fun and expose the material. This was a noble and interesting start, and I'm happy to know that a follow-up is planned. I hope it's one that never stops - but tops - Flopz!.

Jamie McGonnigal serves as Artistic Director for the upcoming concert presentation of The Secret Garden, to be presented on December 5 to commemorate World AIDS Day. Proceeds will benefit The Joey DiPaolo AIDS Foundation. Tickets will go on sale in mid-October. Visit www.jamiemcg.com for more information.

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