Applause: Talking turkey in theater terminology
“Even with a turkey that you know will fold/ You may be stranded out in the cold/ Still you wouldn’t change it for a sack of gold/ Let’s go on with the show.” — “Annie Get Your Gun.”
Turkey time again. Poor Tom, the dish of the season, has given his name to a number of expressions: “To go cold turkey,” “turkey trot,” “turkey shoot,’ “talking turkey,” ”gobbledegook.”
Benjamin Franklin proposed the fowl as our national symbol. In the show “1776,” the Franklin character describes the bird as “truly noble, a native of America, a source of sustenance to our settlers and an incredibly brave fellow.” As we know, Franklin was voted down by eagle supporters.
In the theater, a turkey is more than a flop, a quick fold, a failure. It is a disaster, a bomb, a stinkeroo. First showing up in a 1927 Vanity Fair article, that designation comes from the bird’s supposed inbred stupidity, as in “how can you be so stupid to put on that show?”
Even top-notch talents have had bombs, from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Pipe Dream” to Jerry Herman’s “Dear World.” Ever hear of Angela Lansbury as an alcoholic “Prettybelle” and Bette Davis as spinster teacher “Miss Moffat”? Probably not. Both closed out of town.
The fickle finger of fate has touched local luminaries as well, despite their many sucesses. Westport Country Playhouse’s artistic director Mark Lamos appeared as the handsome but inarticulate Christian in a musical version of “Cyrano de Bergerac” that lasted a mere 49 performances in 1973. Another neighbor, Christopher Plummer, played the title character. At least he won a Tony for Best Musical Actor.
The father and mother of all turkeys are surely “Kelly” and “Carrie.” Both legends are detailed in Ken Mandelbaum’s “Not Since Carrie,” his invaluable behind-the-scenes compendium of nearly 200 shows that didn’t make it.
The 1964 “Kelly” was about Steve Brodie who may or may not have jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1880s. “Kelly” opened and closed the same night, losing a record-for-the-time $650,000. Even its play doctor, Mel Brooks, brought in to “fix” things, couldn’t save it. Looking on the bright side, the show’s quick demise possibly gave Brooks the idea for “The Producers,” about a con man determined to fleece investors with a sure musical flop.
As for the 1988 “Carrie,” it eked out five performances, losing $6 million. Based on Stephen King’s novel and taking seven years from conception to production, it had its virtues: Some gorgeous music, dramatic mother-daughter confrontations and daring decor.
But it also was what Mandelbaum characterizes as “often wildly off in tone and unintentionally comic, with some of the most appalling and ridiculous scenes ever seen in a musical.” One number, “The Pig Farm,” had lyrics that went “It’s a simple little gig / You help me kill a pig.” The song was accompanied by sounds of “oinks” as Carrie’s torturers rub porcine “blood” (raspberry juice?) over their bodies.
The gold standard of nonmusical turkeys must be the 1963 mystery farce titled “Moose Murders,” deemed by critics as not merely “bad” but “titanically” and “indescribably” bad. Theatergoers at its first — and last — performance were advised to treasure their programs for posterity.
Mandelbaum also writes about shows that didn’t make it but were not disasters.
Among “real heartbreakers, the flops that dared, the flops that might have been glorious” is Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” to be revived next summer at Goodspeed Musicals. Yet for every noble failure like the mythological “The Golden Apple” there’s the “terminally silly” “Home Sweet Homer,” whose opening and closing nights were one and the same. Yul Brynner, who tried getting out of his contract, played Odysseus, a come-down from the King of Siam.
For every admirable “Rags” or “House of Flowers,” there’s “Dance of the Vampires,” “Dracula” or “Lestat,” proving that the only things scarier than immigration or prostitution are the undead. But not all flops have short runs: Back in the 1920s, the reincarnation drama “The Ladder” lasted a year and a half, thanks to its millionaire backer, oil tycoon Edgar Davis.
The most beloved British turkey was the 1980 “Macbeth,” with a monotonous Peter O’Toole as the murderous thane. Audiences hooted with laughter for a full season.
If you want to get a flavor of notorious flops, stop in at Joe Allen’s restaurant in New York. There, on the brick walls are immortalized posters from some of these embarrassments. And if you’re thinking of aligning yourself with a tuner, remember: Don’t put in your own money.
Norwalk resident David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.