Side Show is set for a high-budget revival on the Great White Way, despite the show being a well-known historic Broadway flop. So, it has to be asked: Why stage a risky Revival?
Recently it was announced that the notorious 1990s flop and retrospective cult classic Side Show will be transferring to Broadway from its current out-of-town run later this year. This news was met with that unique brand of enthusiasm seemingly reserved for the self-possessed theatre geek: a bittersweet, nostalgic, excited enthusiasm, tinged with the glow of bright possibilities. There is already an expectation that this previously unsung musical’s impending big-time run, with a freshly revised score and a flashy new visual palette, will award the show with its overdue recognition as a master work. But is this much to be expected of a prior flop, or is this a case of all-singin’, all-dancin’ optimism that exceeds a possibly disappointing reality?
There is a history behind the revival of former flops becoming huge and unlikely hits. One of the most famous examples of this is of course the 1990s revival production of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, a show that was largely ignored in its abstract original form in 1975. The point, if there really was one, behind the dark, cynical, frankly bizarre Fosse-directed production, escaped audiences. The reaction was generally one of bafflement and dissatisfaction with the show’s confusing message and unsympathetic characters. It also didn’t help that everything in the ’75 season was dwarfed by the explosion of A Chorus Line onto the New York scene. Chicago simply receded into the obscurity whence it came, as many shows have done before it and since, to be forgotten in the annals of time. But Broadway has a way of resurrecting its selective memory, digging into its own past with a backward-looking desperation and a presently-thinking postmodernism. It is in a constant state of self-reference, resurrection, circulation, and re-invention of itself.
What makes the truly iconic revivals so successful and so special is difficult to pinpoint. In retrospect, it’s easy to identify the potential behind those failed first attempts and recognise the material’s latent greatness, but I doubt that many would have looked back at quirky, underground Chicago and thought; this show will one day cause a damn near revolution, and a whole new generation will at last become enthused about musical theatre! It’s a new phenomenon for Broadway to actively look back at the history of failed productions with an absence of cynicism, to see its own failures through rose-tinted lenses. Perhaps the desperation of the current Broadway climate, although not unparalleled, is contributing to the need for a cyclic saviour for its disappointing attendance numbers and general lack of investment interest. And maybe the conjoined twins of Side Show look an awfully lot like former saviour Millie Dillmount through those shiny, rosy, vintage lenses.
Pictured above: the poster image for Broadway's revival of Side Show
With such a high chance of failure for musicals on Broadway, perhaps a revival of a formerly derided show is no more of a risk than any other Broadway investment. Where revivals of classic shows are less of an investment risk than brand new shows, controversial revivals seem to sit somewhere in the middle, unpredictable and unbound by the shackles of time. It seems to be a perfect blend of low-risk and high-risk, interacting and co-existing. This phenomenon dances jazzily along the line between these two opposing forces, satisfying Broadway’s need for safe, familiar knowability, whilst simultaneously quenching the ever-present thirst for something fresh.
What shows deserve to get re-discovered? The recent off-Broadway revival of Carrie, which many awaited in great expectation (whilst others muttered under their breath about the banality of unnecessary beating deceased horses), successfully carried out its limited run. They did what they set out to do, regardless of the result – to rescue Carrie from oblivion so she could breathe new life. Who knows, maybe twenty years down the line, producers will look to Carrie for a symbolic leader to guide them into a new age of Broadway reinvigoration, and maybe it’ll work. Maybe this wasn’t Carrie’s big chance at justice. But this is unlikely. For any revival to work, the source material needs to connect to its time in a way that Carrie’s synthesized 80s rock sounds and outdated horror has failed to do.
There are truly many forgotten shows neatly nestled into the folds of Broadway’s layered history that were way ahead of their time, that are very deserving of a revival. Some flops remain truly unsung. But some have had their song. The blind circulation and recycling of old ideas, superficially re-packaged for a dying audience, has had its day on Broadway. Now, as always, there must be an ability to provide something new, fresh, and exciting, to consolidate a mythicized past with a young and passionate present on the American stage. Revivals of flops are a way to keep that young spirit of reinvention alive that seems to so capture the restless spirit of the modern age. In this phenomenon, we might be witnessing the unwitting future of Broadway: resurrection. But we’ll have to wait and see if Side Show can pull through and pave the way. For now, it sure does look promising.
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