SHEFFIELD, England — Broadway musicals are usually revived when, like “My Fair Lady” or “South Pacific,” they have been big hits. But the British stage, in London and elsewhere, has been giving flops a second chance.
This year’s Olivier Award for best London revival went to a Broadway dud with big names attached — Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” which ran for only 44 previews and 16 performances on Broadway in 1981.
Other famous flops that have had British revivals include Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 “Candide,” which had closed on Broadway after 73 performances, and another Sondheim show, his “Pacific Overtures” of 1976, which was revived at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2003.
Now, aspiring British theater director Matthew Malone, a masters student in music at the University of Sheffield, hopes to further his ambitions to put on West End and Broadway musicals by taking the trend a step further: reviving a Broadway flop in Britain and bringing it back to New York.
He has given the Jule Styne musical “Subways Are for Sleeping,” which closed in 1962 after just 205 performances — despite having a star composer and star cast — its first fully orchestrated revival in more than 50 years.
Having exhumed the score from parts scattered in three U.S. archives, Malone put on a performance at Sheffield with a student cast and orchestra performing the songs, with no stage set, that appears to have been a hit with the young audience.
“It’s a great project,” he said. “I’ve got a 36-piece orchestra, 15 people in a chorus. I’ve got four principal singers. Everyone’s enjoying it, and there’s a big buzz.”
Why some shows put together by hit-making teams fail while others succeed is hard to judge. But the London director of “Merrily,” British actress Maria Friedman, thinks “Merrily” — which is about a penniless composer’s rise in show business — may have been ahead of its time.
“I think maybe it’s one of those things with the timing of it. I think maybe people have grown up into it a little,” Friedman, who is a collaborator of Sondheim’s, told Reuters at the Olivier Awards last month.
“All I can say is I did the show that I thought it was, and it seems to be the one that Steve and George had written. I didn’t put anything on it,” said Friedman, whose show had a strong 12-week run in the West End beginning in May last year.
“Subways,” too, a story about homeless people in New York, appears to appeal to modern audiences more than it did to theatergoers half a century ago.
Fiona Primrose, a 21-year-old literature student in the cast, when asked during a break in the show why she thought it had flopped, said: “Definitely it’s not the music. The music is fantastic.
“The subject for the story was not conventional for the time, but I’ve really grown to love it.”
Malone and Dominic McHugh, his mentor, who is a lecturer in musicology at Sheffield and a specialist in Broadway musicals, hope a New York theater company specializing in revivals will mount a production, now that the grunt work of reassembling the score has been completed.
“We hope it gets put on in New York,” McHugh said, mentioning the Encores musical theater series at New York City Center as a possibility.
“The score is brilliant,” Malone added.
From the start, the show seemed to have everything going for it. Frank Sinatra had bought the screen rights, and the lyricists were Adolph Green and Betty Comden, who also wrote lyrics for “On the Town” and “Bells Are Ringing,” and the screenplay for the movie “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Styne had a strong record on Broadway with previous hits including “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Gypsy.” But not even the Broadway stars Carol Lawrence, of “West Side Story” fame, and Sydney Chaplin could save it.
The main flaw, McHugh said, was the show’s book, inspired by tales about New York homeless people, some of whom slept on subway trains.
“Styne thought it was going to be his best show. He did this interview before it opened, saying, ‘Everything I’ve done up until now was just for the money,’ ” McHugh said. “But it really is an odd story to make a musical comedy about homeless people.”
The show gained notoriety, though, after producer David Merrick sought to counteract bad reviews with an infamous publicity coup.
He rounded up people with the same names as the leading New York theater critics, picked up the tab for their dinner and ran a newspaper ad with quotes from them praising “Subways” to the skies. The ad was quickly pulled, but the scandal probably helped keep the show alive a bit longer, McHugh said.
Malone believes modern-day audiences are more sympathetic to the subject matter. Reviving a musical as out of favor as “Subways” has not been easy, however. In addition to piecing together the orchestration, he needed permission from the Styne estate.
“We were fortunate enough to get the permission. Otherwise, I’d have had to rethink my life, basically,” he said.
And the project has had its rewards beyond the performance.
“The most interesting thing is knowing that someone’s looked at this music 53 years before me, and it’s opened on Broadway,” Malone said, hoping a return to New York comes next.