`Thank you for coming to my closing night...'

Fingers crossed at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley; if all goes well, `Jekyll' could be a monster. W Stephen Gilbert goes behind the scenes, and below, David Benedict looks at the musicals that fell at the first

Word of mouth on Dance a Little Closer was so bad that, the day before the first night, the gala opening- night party was axed. In retrospect, it would also have been wise to have cut the line "Thank you for coming to my closing night" from the heroine's flashback scene as the show opened and closed after one performance. Lauren Bacall sat through it, and honour bound to go backstage and say something vaguely encouraging, threw open Liz Robertson's dressing-room door and, arms outstretched, exclaimed in her best basso profundo, "Well! What about you!"

Breakfast at Tiffany's fared even worse. Personnel changes during the out-of-town try-outs were so fast that people appeared to be entering through revolving doors. Then, after four Broadway previews, the legendary producer David Merrick announced to a stunned press conference: "Rather than subject the drama critics and the theatre-going public - who invested $1m in advance sales - to an excruciatingly boring evening, I have decided to close."

Famous names are no insurance. Peter Hall's three attempts have flopped. According to Hall, Via Galactica, set on an asteroid 1,000 years into the future, was "a monumental failure"; the bio-musical Jean Seberg with music by Marvin Hamlisch was "impaled on its own pretensions" and the unlikely musical of Ionesco's absurdist play Rhinoceros died a fairly unnatural death. Even director John (Les Miserables) Caird, armed with music and lyrics by Stephen (Godspell) Schwartz couldn't turn Children of Eden into a hit. A musical of Genesis (the book, not the band), it prompted one critic to remark, "Would you Adam and Eve it", and proved that Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat notwithstanding, in musical terms the Old Testament ain't necessarily so.

Schwartz was also responsible for The Baker's Wife, based on a French film by Marcel Pagnol which attracted the normally Midas-like Trevor Nunn. Reviews were less than ecstatic. "Je ne baguette rien," remarked Carl Miller drily in City Limits. The show died after seven weeks, the same length of sentence meted out to The Hunting of a Snark, the dreamchild of Mike Batt, best known for penning the immortal "Remember You're a Womble". He wrote the book, music and lyrics, produced, orchestrated and staged it and even had a hand in the design. Why?

Similarly, Michael Lombardi unwisely wrote the book and lyrics and produced Troubadour, his gormless tale of Lupus, a 12th-century male chauvinist who learns that woman is not necessarily made for man. After cancellations due to audiences staying away in droves, a matinee was held at the 1,283 seat Cambridge Theatre. Eighty people attended. Five of them had paid.

Ziegfeld had a pounds 3.2m budget, 450 costumes, 27 sets, a cast of 60, and four different directors attempting to save it, but it still crashed, losing pounds 2.5m. King did no better. The Martin Luther King story generated more press about its production team walk-outs than the show itself. Six weeks after opening it had gone, as had pounds 3m.

Even the Pope's blessing on the cast didn't save Bernadette, a mind-numbing religious folly by Shrewsbury-based piano tuner Glynn Hughes and his wife Maureen whose previous claim to fame was writing a song knocked out of an early round of the Eurovision Song Contest. They raised the finances through coffee mornings and 2,500 Daily Mirror readers who doubtless saw the show but no return on their investment. The desperate publicists splashed the less than captivating review line "A very well-painted backcloth" on the poster, but it convinced no one.

The lesson? Real-life characters, whose lives so obstinately refuse to fit into the strictures and structure of the musical, are a risky starting point. On the other hand, Eva Peron didn't do Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice any harm. But then Evita wasn't at the Piccadilly Theatre, which has earned itself the nickname "house of hits" for hosting such lulus as King, Y, Metropolis, Cameron Mackintosh's disaster Moby Dick and the Norwegian Which Witch whose "erotic" Act 1 finale redefines the expression "jiggery-pokery". Robin Prince of Sherwood also played there, the second ghastly attempt at a Robin Hood musical. The first came from the overheated imagination of Lionel (Oliver!) Bart who ensnared Anthony Booth as Robin and Barbara Windsor as "Delphina, a nymphomaniac" and gave his concoction the sublime title Twang!!

Out of the Blue, the tale of the bombing of Nagasaki, was stymied from the outset. Anyone who wanted a show about Nagasaki didn't want a musical: anyone who wanted a musical didn't want Nagasaki. Hey presto, the musical without an audience.

The profession is unkind to its flops. The revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was renamed A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Dole Queue, while wags retitled the dodgy Suzy Quatro revival of Annie Get Your Gun as Annie Get Your P45. Even during rehearsals, The Fields of Ambrosia - a dead cert for this year's "Best Use of an Electric Chair in a Musical" award - was known as The Fields of Amnesia.

All these bad omens count as nothing when you look at the worldwide grosses of the likes of Miss Saigon. As for multimillionaire Andrew Lloyd Webber, he has spent the last few months rewriting Jeeves, his 1975 flopperoo co-written with Alan Ayckbourn. It opens Ayckbourn's new theatre in Scarborough at the end of this month. After all, lightning never strikes twice, does it? DB

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