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A Long and Legendary Trail of Broadway Bloopers

NO one is immune to failure on Broadway. Work there long enough and you're bound to trip over a turkey. It's a fact, especially this season when the busiest fall in a decade produced more than its share of unsuccessful productions - seven financial flops so far.

The unfortunate roll call included such fine work as Brian Friel's ``Wonderful Tennessee,'' one of the most moving plays of the year, and ``The Kentucky Cycle,'' a two-part, six-hour historical drama that arrived in New York bolstered with a Pulitzer Prize and considerable success in Seattle and Los Angeles. It lost $2 million, a record for a play, during its month-long run.

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Then there were outright stinkers like ``Mixed Emotions,'' a wan little comedy that somehow ended up on Broadway instead of on television. Or genuine miscalculations like ``The Red Shoes,'' the great Jule Styne's misguided attempt to turn a classic ballet film into a musical.

After nearly two months of previews and highly publicized firings of cast and crew, ``The Red Shoes'' opened on a Thursday in mid-December. It closed the following Sunday at a loss of nearly $8 million, making it one of Broadway's most expensive duds ever.

Mr. Styne's impeccable music-theater credentials (composer of ``Gypsy,'' ``Funny Girl,'' and ``Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,'' among others) were no guarantee his new show would be a hit.

But all the great composers made mistakes - from Porter to Gershwin to Rodgers to Berlin - as did writers such as Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. Errors in judgment come with the unpredictability of collaboration.

In 1943, while basking in the glow of two Broadway hits, ``Oklahoma!'' and ``Carmen Jones,'' Oscar Hammerstein II took an ad in the show-business paper Variety. It proudly listed his five previous shows, all flops, and then proclaimed, ``I've done it before, and I can do it again.''

``On Broadway, when you're good, you're very, very good, and when you're bad, you're terrible,'' Hammerstein said later.

Yet in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s playwrights, composers, lyricists, and actors could recover quickly from a disastrous Broadway experience.

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In 1926, for example, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart had four musicals produced in New York and one in London. Not all of them were hits, but the more successful productions erased memories of the flops.

Now unsuccessful creators soothe their bruised egos - and fatten their pocketbooks - in movies and on television. Howard Ashman, one of the creators of off-Broadway's ``Little Shop of Horrors,'' flopped on Broadway with ``Smile.'' Its failure drove him to California, where he and his partner Alan Menken found success writing scores for Disney, including ``The Little Mermaid'' and ``Beauty and the Beast.''

Ironically, the popularity of ``Beauty and the Beast'' as an animated feature persuaded Disney that it might work on Broadway. The stage adaptation begins performances at the Palace Theater in March with Tim Rice helping Menken fill out the score for New York.

Disney owns the movie rights to ``Twilight of the Golds,'' another flop this season. The rights to Jonathan Tolins's comedy-drama were purchased before the play's disappointing Broadway run.

Then there's the one fall failure that didn't even make it to New York before it collapsed. ``Paper Moon,'' a $4-million musical version of the Ryan and Tatum O'Neal movie, suffered the ignominy of closing last October in Millburn, N.J., 60 minutes from Times Square.

The show, which starred Gregory Harrison, joins a long list of legendary productions such as ``Breakfast at Tiffany's,'' ``Mata Hari,'' ``Annie 2,'' and ``Miss Moffat'' that never had a Broadway opening night.

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