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Hit Shows Critics Hated (Illustration: iStockphoto)

10 Broadway Shows Critics Got Dead Wrong

Spectacularly vulgar. Interminable. Pointless. The reviews were scathing but audiences kept coming. From one of the longest-running musicals on Broadway to a Tony Award-winning masterpiece, meet ten shows the critics got wrong

In the good old days, actors and producers used to gather after the curtain came down on opening night to wait for the evening paper, hoping the reviews were favorable (now they likely just furiously refresh their browsers). No matter the technology, the rule of thumb has always been that good reviews mean box office gold, while bad reviews mean disaster. Or do they? The theatergoing public and the critics don’t always agree, with shows that reviewers hate going on to be audience favorites that run for thousands of performances. It turns out that good word of mouth can be mightier than the pen. Here are ten productions that achieved long runs despite withering reviews, including one still-running show that is now one of the most profitable in Broadway history.

 

Playbills for 'Abie's Irish Rose,' Hellzapoppin' and 'Wish You Were Here'

Playbills for ‘Abie’s Irish Rose,’ Hellzapoppin’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’

Abie’s Irish Rose
Opened: May 23, 1922
Ran for: 2,327 performances
Anne Nichols’ simplistic comedy about an Irish girl marrying a Jewish boy was slammed by the critics as stereotypical ethnic humor, but achieved the longest run in Broadway history at that time. Robert Benchley of The New Yorker particularly hated it. He was forced to write summaries of the show in the magazine’s weekly listings. “People laugh at this every night, which explains why democracy can never be a success,” was one of his most scathing entries. After a run of several years, all of the critics who panned it were invited back for a publicity stunt (it seems that no new reviews were published). Lyricist Lorenz Hart referenced the show’s longevity in “We’ll Take Manhattan,” one of his classic collaborations with Richard Rodgers: “Our future babies/We’ll take to Abie’s Irish Rose/I hope they’ll live to see it close.”

Hellzapoppin’
Opened: Sept. 22, 1938
Ran for: 1,404 performances
Popular vaudeville comics Olesen and Johnson hosted this 1930s revue full of shenanigans: A gorilla kidnapped a woman in the audience, and the hosts awarded a theatergoer with a prize of 20 pounds of ice — then dumped it in his lap. Reviewers were not charmed. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times said the jokes were so old the writers must have swept them out of an attic and the cast was found by stopping every third person on the street. Audiences loved the show’s zany antics, and the show ran for three years.

Wish You Were Here
Opened: June 25, 1952
Ran for: 598 performances
This musical about romantic intrigue at Camp Karefree, a summer resort in the Catskills, received mixed notices, with many critics advising audiences not to make the trip to the Imperial Theater. The Journal-American called it “singularly unfunny.” The New York Post labeled it “Amateur Night at Camp Karefree.” Director and book-writer Josh Logan kept working on the script after the mixed notices. The improvements — and Eddie Fisher’s hit recording of the title song — helped bolster the box office. In addition, Wish You Were Here was the first Broadway musical to feature an onstage swimming pool. This may have drawn in curious and sweaty patrons since the show opened during a record heat wave in the days before theaters were air-conditioned.

 

Playbills for 'Kismet,' 'Camelot' and 'Oh! Calcutta'

Playbills for ‘Kismet,’ ‘Camelot’ and ‘Oh! Calcutta’

Kismet
Opened: Dec. 3, 1953
Ran for: 583 performances
Kismet was a lavish musical employing the classical tunes of Alexander Borodin to tell a tale of fabled Bagdad. It also opened during a newspaper strike so there were no initial reviews and good word of mouth spread. But once the strike ended, the critics were divided. The music and gorgeous sets and costumes received praise from some, but the powerful New York Times found it an overproduced spectacle hiding a flimsy book. “Kismet has not been written,” said Brooks Atkinson, the Times critic wrote, “It has been assembled from a storehouse of spare parts.” The New York Herald-Tribune conceded the show looked and sounded good, but found the jokes old-fashioned. But by then, hit songs from the show such as “Stranger in Paradise,” “And This Is My Beloved” and “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” were already receiving significant radio airplay and drawing in audiences.

Camelot
Opened: Dec. 3, 1960
Ran for: 873 performances
Lerner and Loewe’s musical take on the Camelot legend was in trouble. After a difficult out-of-town try-out period (resulting in director Moss Hart suffering a heart attack and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner developing a bleeding ulcer), critics were not enchanted with the final result. “Graceful and sumptuous though it is, Camelot leans dangerously in the direction of old-hat operetta,” sneered the New York Times. The New York Mirror compared it unfavorably with My Fair Lady, the team’s last hit, and found the lyrics and music “just fair.” But audiences kept coming, especially after stars Richard Burton and Julie Andrews performed an excerpt on Ed Sullivan’s popular TV variety show.

Oh Calcutta!
Opened: Feb. 6, 1971
Ran for: 610 performances after 704 performances Off-Broadway
“Voyeurs of the city unite, you have nothing to lose but your brains,” joked Clive Barnes in the New York Times of this erotic, nudity-filled revue. Almost all the other critics joined him in condemning Calcutta! as lowbrow and tasteless, but it went on to a hit run in its first production. If you add the 1976 revival (which was essentially the same show), Calcutta! had one of the longest runs in Broadway history at nearly 6,000 performances.

 

Playbills for 'Evita,' 'Nine,' 'Cats,' and 'Wicked'

Playbills for ‘Evita,’ ‘Nine,’ ‘Cats,’ and ‘Wicked’

Evita
Opened: Sept. 25, 1979
Ran for: 1,567 performances
The Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice bio of Argentina’s infamous first lady was a hit in London, but received a less enthusiastic response from the New York critics. The Daily News called it “spectacularly vulgar…dispiriting and even pointless” and the Wall Street Journal labeled it “hopelessly muddled.” Newsweek thought it was “a very underdone dish,” relying on Harold Prince’s masterful staging to cover up the shallow content. Meanwhile WABC-TV sneered that Webber’s music was “mediocre.” Despite the critical brickbats, Patti LuPone’s star-making performance and seven Tonys give it a rainbow high.

Nine
Opened: May 9, 1982
Ran for: 729 performances
Maury Yeston, Arthur Kopit and Mario Fratti’s adaptation of Federico Fellini’s autobiographical film 8 1/2 received praise for Tommy Tune’s innovative staging, but many critics slammed the book and score as passionless. The headline in the Daily News review called it a “pretentious, tiresome musical.” Time thought it a “spectacle without a subject.” Despite the critical reservations, it won the Best Musical Tony over the more popular Dreamgirls and continued for a long run.

Cats
Opened: Oct. 2, 1982
Ran for: 7,485 performances
Though Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats stands as the second-longest run in Broadway history, the show did not have all the critics contentedly purring. While all acknowledged John Napier’s dazzling set design transforming the Winter Garden Theatre into a feline-skewed junkyard, many found Webber’s score, with the possible exception of the soaring “Memory,” less than memorable. The Daily News said it “makes for a strained and eventually wearying evening.” But audiences lapped it up like cream and Cats went on to win the Tony for Best Musical and more than nine lives in touring productions.

Wicked
Opened: Oct. 30, 2003
Ran for: Still going after more than 4,000 performances
The long-running musical about the witches of Oz before Dorothy dropped in was not popular with every critic. Charles Isherwood of Variety quipped he was more “bothered than bewitched.” Newsday pronounced it an “overproduced, overblown, confusingly dark, and laboriously ambitious jumble.” The Daily News dismissed it as “an interminable show with no dramatic logic or emotional center.” But family audiences loved it and little girls in the audience looked to the courageous Elphaba, the wrongfully maligned green-skinned witch, as a role model. Despite losing the Best Musical Tony to Avenue Q, Wicked is still defying gravity today.

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