Thoughts on a Notorious Flop: Kelly

kellyI think I’ve cracked the mystery of this one. 

Kelly came and went in one night on Broadway back in 1965, and it’s been a legend ever since, the most expensive flop of its day, and a sphinx of a show, forever posing the riddle: “What the hell were they thinking?” The show is about a man who jumps from the Brooklyn Bridge for money, and doesn’t that just reek of flop?

Steven Suskin’s superb Second Act Trouble reprints an April 24, 1965 article from the Saturday Evening Post by Lewis H. Lapham, in which it’s clear that Kelly‘s producers, to be brutally mercenary about these things, should have fired the writers on day two.

Book-writer and lyricist Eddie Lawrence, for his part, always maintained that it was pre-Broadway meddling by those producers that doomed his show. The noisy, hoarse demo recording he made with composer Moose Charlap at the piano is the sound of a man in love with his own words, spitting out every treasured syllable. 

So, for decades, that’s been the prevailing wisdom about Kelly: the writers wanted one show, the producers another. The writers held on, caved in to inexperienced producers, and the mismatched show that opened was a flop.

In 1998 a much more polished studio cast recording of the score was made, with Brian D’Arcy James as a much more polished Hop Kelly. Now everyone could hear the score presented with some flair, and most agreed that it was pretty dreadful. The prevailing wisdom was altered slightly: maybe the producers were inexperienced, but the songs were awful anyway. That doesn’t wash, though:  if the songs were obviously so bad, why weren’t they replaced with interpolations by, say, Styne, Comden and Green, as happened with Charlap’s earlier Peter Pan?

Then Stephen Sondheim listed, in a 2000 article, “I’ll Never Go There Anymore”, from Kelly, as a song he wished he had written “at least in part”. So the score couldn’t be completely dreadful, could it?

I don’t know what the authors were thinking, but having listened to the score, I think I know what happened. 

Kelly was always going to be one of those smartass ’60s musicals in which the writers hector the audience on how they, the artists, get it, and you, the audience, don’t. Sondheim wrote one himself, with Arthur Laurents; Anyone Can Whistle ran for nine performances, and the score has its devotees, but the show amounts to a windy lecture on how, when you really think about it, insane people are more sane than the rest of us, you know? Pure ’60s smartassery.

Kelly sounds to me like this lecture: you gotta get up, you gotta get out, but the only way for a Bowery bum to make it in this crazy system is to practically kill himself jumpin’ off a bridge, ya know? In other words, echt Brecht.

I think that’s why the opening song, “Ode to the Brooklyn Bridge” is so awful:

Oh you great big bridge,
Connectin’ Brooklyn with New York,
You don’t squawk.
You just do your job,
And it’s a helluva job you do …

This is to be enjoyed, if at all, at an ironic distance. Ah yes, we are supposed to think, an unlikeable hero, a fruitless premise, a doddering plot. The system degrades us all!  Which is why the show was never going to run on the Great White Way: the broader the audience, the less it likes to be lectured. I suppose one might have mounted a production somewhere fringey, with a hip crowd, but they’d have found the manner of presentation trite and obvious.

I think the authors tried to have it both ways in the finale, “Everyone Here Loves Kelly”. By then, the producers had ordered a complete script rewrite from Mel Brooks and Leonard Stern – primarily to make the hero more likeable – and they demanded this closing number from an all but spent songwriting team. When this horrible ditty closes the show, I can’t help but detect a whiff of Shostakovich’s Fifth. Maybe the ghastly repetition is trying to undermine the literal meaning? Or maybe it’s just a rotten song.

In any case, it’s easy to hear why Sondheim likes “I’ll Never Go There Anymore”, because it’s not far removed from the sort of thing he was attempting throughout that decade. There’s Charlap’s literate chord progression, wandering through key centres before deftly returning home, just like something by Kern. There’s the romantic melody in a less than romantic situation, just as Sondheim had done in “With So Little To Be Sure Of”, and was to do in “Take Me To The World” and “Too Many Mornings”. There’s the way the song constitutes, over its considerable length, a sung-through scene. There’s the play on different interpretations of seemingly simple title words, a Sondheim constant (“No More”, “Move On”, “There Is No Other Way”). And there’s this, from Hop’s girl, which is just lovely:

There was a boy …
A boy I once knew,
We kissed, I loved him.
He was killed in a stupid old war
And I’ll never see him anymore,
No, I’ll never see him anymore …

The authors wanted, I think, to use a skinny plot to apprise their audience of their shortcomings, and that would always have flopped. The producers wanted to flesh out a skinny plot with girls and gags, and that too would have flopped. The mismatched show that resulted? Flopped. 

And the songs are, for the most part, awful, but I think they were meant to be. After all, what sort of score befits a harangue?


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