by Gil Benbrook
I’m proud to admit that I'm a huge fan of flop musicals. I saw one of the most notorious flop shows of all time, Carrie, on Broadway in previews back in 1988 and ever since then have been fascinated by musicals like Carrie that have some great songs in their scores yet the show bombed and quickly folded. Over the years I had the treat to sit through such famous Broadway flops as Nick & Nora, Starmites, Cyrano, Rags, Metro, The Red Shoes, Big, Steel Pier, Side Show, Lestat and Spiderman.
It turns out I'm not the only one who is intrigued by these shows that either folded quickly on Broadway, or had a decent run but were hardly ever seen again. James May and Kelli James have both worked on Broadway, tours and regional theatres. Kelli was the first American "Eponine" in the original Broadway production of Les Misérables and James has served as a musician and musical director for such shows as Sunset Boulevard. They are both intrigued by shows like Carrie, The Baker's Wife, Chess, and Merrily We Roll Along, that are notorious bombs, and even Tony winning musicals such as Kiss of the Spider Woman that had healthy NY runs but are rarely produced.
Both James and Kelli now call the Phoenix area their home and worked together at Theater Works last Fall on their superior youth production of Les Misérables. When the idea for an evening of songs from flop musicals, entitled Great Songs from Bomb Shows, was being put together at Theater Works it turned out to be a perfect follow up for this duo, as well as a way to feature other performers who are regulars on the Theater Works Peoria stage.
I had the chance to ask May, who is the musical director and narrator for the concert, and James some questions about this concert, their fascination with flop shows, as well as ask Kelli about her upcoming plans to play Mama Rose in Gypsy at Theater Works in September.
"James, how exactly did this concert come together? I know when we spoke in the past you mentioned that you used to host theme parties in your home, was that the impetus? "
James May - "While living in Los Angeles, I had a wide circle of friends who were theater people. And we always loved getting together, so I had an idea to do what I called "soirees"! These were wine and finger food parties culminating in a show done BY us FOR us right there in my living room. They would be themed parties. Our first one was celebrating Stephen Sondheim. The second one was Jerry Herman. Many others followed. They became very popular but were always limited in size due to doing them in my living room. So when Chris Hamby approached me about doing a cabaret, I thought it would be great to do a "soiree" but in a bigger venue. So here we are, at Theaterworks!!"
Kelli James – "Well, It's an age old question isn't it? What is talent? Who and what has the IT or X factor? Is it just for audiences to decide? Critics? Is it the perfect combination of book and score? Timing? I think we are fascinated because it can happen to the best of writers, directors and actors. Why do shows flop? Many writers and directors that I have spoken to over the years say it's about the book. No matter how great the music is, if the audience doesn't care for the story it just won't work."
James May - "I am often interested in what makes a show a flop....bad book, too long, incorrect casting. But usually, in each show there are at least a few great songs that can stand on their own. So this cabaret celebrates that."
"What are some of the songs concert goers can expect to hear?"
James May - "We are doing many great songs, all from shows that did not enjoy a successful run, or what we may call BOMBS! A few of the titles are "Meadowlark" from The Baker's Wife, "In Love with You" from First Date, "And Eve Was Weak" from Carrie, "Pretty Lady" from Pacific Overtures and 18 more!!"
"Kelli, while this concert is headlined by you, you also share the stage with a lot of talented individuals, many of whom you worked with on Follies. What can you tell us about them and what songs that they sing in this show that you enjoy listening to the most?"
Kelli James – "Yes, Joshua Vern, Jacqui Notorio,Tony Blosser and I all did Follies together and when Jim May moved to Scottsdale we met for coffee and he asked about singers for his soiree'. I had just finished Follies and recommended all my friends from that show.That show was so special for me. It came at a time when I was ready to give up. Follies started a string of wonderful relationships and friendships including Phillip Fazio and Steve Hilderbrand, two of my favorite directors in town and also my new director for Gypsy, Rusty Ferracane. Jesse and Laura Berger came to us through my dear friends and Follies co-stars, Kathleen Berger and Marty Berger. I have worked with Jesse only once in concert and I've never worked with Laura but I'm so excited to do so! Our first sing through was inspiring. One great song and voice after the next! I had friends in First Date, Kiss Of The Spider Woman and Bridges Of Madison County but never got to see any of those shows so was delighted to hear the songs come to life. I don't think I can choose favorites, they all are wonderful and so special to me because I have either worked with the composers, directors, had friends in the shows or just love the songs themselves. I do have to say that there are 3 songs in our cabaret that I have NEVER heard sung live. It's thrilling!"
"James, I know you worked on Teddy and Alice, which flopped on Broadway. You guys both have a lot of experience working on both Broadway shows, tours, and regional productions, were there any shows you were a part of that you thought would flop but ended up being hits?"
James - "Teddy and Alice on Broadway opened in 1987. At that time in American life, people were not extremely patriotic. So a show celebrating Americana (Teddy Roosevelt) and flag waving, was not wildly accepted with open arms. We only lasted 4 months. But, a bit later, in 1991, Miss Saigon opened on Broadway. So did Will Rogers Follies. It was the year of the first Iraq/mideast war, so patriotism was in vogue. So even though Miss Saigon was the show that would be an eventual huge hit, Will Rogers Follies won the Tony for Best Musical. So my point is that, sometimes, world events can control the eventual success of a show, possibly explaining one reason for the failure of Teddy and Alice.
"I know you guys worked together previously on the Les Misérables Youth production at Theater Works last Fall, but is that the only time the two of you have worked together?"
James - "Les Misérables at Theaterworks was the first time that Kelli and I have worked together. We missed each other on Les Miz on Broadway by only a matter of a few months! When I moved to Phoenix two years ago, I was introduced to Kelli. We have so much and so many friends in common!"
"Kelli, it was also just recently announced that you’ll be starring in Gypsy at Theater Works. After your success at Theater Works in both Follies and Les Misérables, Gypsy seems like a perfect follow up. Why do you think playing Mama Rose is such an iconic part that every actress wants to tackle?"
Kelli -" Oh Mama Rose. I think it's an incredible challenge for any actress of any age but being able to play such a colorful,outspoken and powerful woman who is not young, not beautiful and not sweet, is something we all want to do when we get up in years.We are all ready to play her when the time comes. In my last 15 years of teaching and meeting so many "Mama Rose type parents", I feel that I've got an interesting inside track to her! I relate to her struggles, her dreams and I too have been married 3 times! In all seriousness, it has a great deal to do with having a true respect for the Golden Age musical, the writers, composers and the actors that came before us. My God, the women who have played her.....astonishing! What a lineup! If I didn't say it was a bit overwhelming and that I didn't feel the pressure, I'd be a liar."
While Great Songs from Flop Shows is Sold Out with an extensive waiting list already, Theater Works does hope to present this show again in the future, because of the response, but hasn't made any plans with James & Kelli yet. CLICK HERE for information on upcoming shows at Theater Works