For today's blog, I decided to research the topic of compositional "flops," a term I define below.
Stephen Sondheim is, by any measure, one of the all-time great composers and lyricists of musical theatre, and yet Anyone Can Whistle (1964) closed after only 9 performances, and Merrily We Roll Along (1981), had only 16-performances.
Have you heard of Galt MacDermott? He is Canadian (b. 1928), and the composer of the wildly-successful, period-defining musical, Hair (1967). Another successful Broadway production of his was Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971), which won the Tony award for best musical that year. He also did the music for Via Galactica (1973), which closed after seven performances.
The history of musical theatre includes many flops by otherwise successful composers. Rodgers and Hammerstein — creators of many of the most successful Broadway musicals, such as Oklahoma!, Carousel, The Sound of Music, The King and I, and South Pacific — created Pipe Dream (1955), described as "a flop and a financial disaster" by Wikipedia, and others. It closed after 246 performances — which may seem like a pretty good run, except it was "the shortest run of any Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and their only show to lose money and not go on tour." Breakfast at Tiffany's (1966), by Bob Merrill and Edward Albee (both extremely successful), closed after only four previews, despite having a cast that included Mary Tyler Moore, Richard Chamberlain, and Sally Kellerman. The Rocky Horror Show (1975) closed after only 45 performances on Broadway (although it did well in London and other venues). The film adaptation (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) did poorly when it opened, but went on to become a cult classic.
A reversal of this last example is Disney's Newsies, a 1992 film described by the L. A. Times as "one of the year's biggest flops." The music was by Alan Menken, composer of some fairly successful (!) film musicals, such as Tangled, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, and many, many others. Menken won an Academy Award for Aladdin the same year (1992) as he won a Razzie for "worst song of the year" for Newsies. Ouch! When the movie was reworked into a Broadway musical twenty years later, with songs from the original movie as well as new numbers, all by Menken, it became a smash hit.
Beethoven is possibly the best-known classical composer that ever lived; surely he must not have written any flops! And yet, he worked on his Violin Concerto in C when he was a young man, and either never finished it, or did finish it, but it was never performed.
This brings up an important point: What exactly is a flop? If a composer fails to finish a work, does that make it a flop?
I think of a flop as a completed work that was received badly by the public and/or critics, and, as a consequence, did not fare well, at least initially.Let us set aside the Violin Concerto in C, and consider Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, which he did finish. Unfortunately, it got off to a bad start; according to Wikipedia, "the premiere was not a success, and the concerto was little performed in the following decades." Beethoven died thinking his Violin Concerto had been unsuccessful. It was revived seventeen years after his death in a performance by a 12-year old violinist, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn, and went on to become a staple of the classical music repertoire.
Fidelio (1805), Beethoven's only opera, was also the largest work he had composed at the time. It suffered several delays during composition, one of which arose from objections raised by the Austrian censor, and finally premiered in November 1805 to houses that were nearly empty because of the French occupation of the city. Wikipedia tells us that, "in addition to being a financial failure, this version of Fidelio was also a critical failure, and Beethoven began revising it." The next revision (1806) was also unsuccessful, but the last one, in 1814, was finally well received.
The Paris version of Wagner's Tannhäuser (1861; original Dresden version completed in 1845) was an expensive flop, closing after three performances, this after 164 rehearsals. The performances were belligerently disrupted by members of a claque called The Jockey Club, which had unsuccessfully tried to extort Wagner into paying them off to prevent these disruptions. They were also displeased that it had a ballet in the first act, because they held the strong conviction that ballets in operas should only be in the second act, which allowed them to arrive late for shows and still catch the ballet, for them the highlight of any opera.
There are many more examples of compositions that did not fare well, at least initially, by highly-regarded composers, but there are also countless examples of people working in other fields who experienced failure in their lives, and yet managed to overcome it.
- Vincent Van Gogh created 860 paintings, but only one was sold during his lifetime.
- Emily Dickinson published fewer than a dozen of her 1,800 poems during her lifetime.
- Dr. Seuss’ first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was refused by "at least 20" publishers.
- Vera Wang competed at the 1968 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but failed to make the US Olympic team; she then switched careers and entered the fashion industry.
- Steve Jobs was the cofounder, chairman, and CEO of Apple Inc. He was dismissed by Apple in 1985 following an unsuccessful power struggle with its board of directors; you can probably imagine how gutted he felt by this experience. He then went on to found a new computer company, NeXT, which made better computers than those being produced by Apple. NeXT was moderately successful, but caught the attention of Apple, and in 1996 Apple bought the NeXTSTEP platform and used it as the basis of its highly-successful OS X. This led to Jobs coming back to Apple as an advisor, and in 1998 he was once again given control of the company, bringing Apple back from near-bankruptcy to become the world's most valuable publicly-traded company in 2011.
- And that is not all; after being fired by Apple, Jobs acquired Pixar for $10 million in 1986 and became its CEO. Pixar went on to produce some of the most commercially and critically successful animated films of all time, such as Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, and Wall-E. In 2006 Jobs sold Pixar to Disney for $7.6 billion.
The point of all these stories is that almost everyone experiences failure on some level at various points in their lives, including highly-successful people. Setbacks are a normal part of life, and especially of the creative process; try to learn from them, and push past them, but never let them define you.