Reasons for SMILE's Failure

Recently, I found myself wondering about Howard's attempts at adapting SMILE into a musical, and I've always been curious as to what exactly it was that caused SMILE to fail so horribly. In the featurette TREASURES UNTOLD: THE MAKING OF THE LITTLE MERMAID, Jodi Benson said that because Howard was in charge of so many aspects of production (director, librettist, lyricist), "there were a lot of people that he had to answer to, and [perhaps] that made it difficult." Frank Oz further elaborated, "Howard's vision on SMILE got compromised to the point that when it opened, it wasn't the play that he wanted."

However, I feel that this doesn't explain the whole thing. So, does anyone have any brainstorms on what caused the show to crash and burn? I'd really like to learn more about this.


  • edited April 2015
    I can't speak for Howard's experience, but many shows by theatrical mainstays like Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz (RAGS), John Kander and Fred Ebb (THE RINK) and others didn't do very well during that period.

    People like to blame the Times critic, Frank Rich, for being "the Butcher of Broadway." Perhaps he could have been more encouraging, but the artists and shows he DID encourage and rave about during his tenure were numerous and varried-- Lanford Wilson, Stephen Sondheim (SUNDAY IN THE PARK... in particular), August Wilson, James Lapine, Ahrens and Flaherty, Bill Finn. I think has more to do with audiences being overwhelmed and excited by the big, empty spectacles of the British imports like LES MIS, CATS and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

    SMILE and the Strouse-Schwartz flop RAGS opened the same season that LES MISERABLES opened. It had hype from the West End, it had that very famous logo, it had a brand. People rushed to see it. Sadly, American musicals were getting a bad rap. Cameron Macintosh was-- is-- a smart producer. Shows like SMILE and RAGS needed those.

    That's just my perspective. (From a person who wasn't there.)
  • John, Your perspective is very much on the money. There were other issues as well but your insights are all valid.
  • edited April 2015
    Not related to SMILE, but nonetheless... Another issue RAGS had was the lack of a director out of town. Gene Saks, who just passed away and was best known for directing Neil Simon's plays (and the original production and terrible movie of MAME), came in under the wire and got credit, but to my knowledge, Strouse and Schwartz were doing a lot of the direction beforehand. And there are very few authors who can also direct their work on the musical stage-- Howard was one. So is James Lapine.

    It doesn't surprise me that Stephen Schwartz tried directing RAGS. He's proven to be smart, perceptive, articulate and just really, really smart (did I say that?) the couple of times I've encountered him-- once regarding my own work and another time the work of friends. Back to the matter at hand, though...
  • edited April 2015
    BTW, Sarah-- It might make you happy to know that upon rereading some reviews and essays Frank Rich collected in that giant tome of his, HOT SEAT, he favorably wrote of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, but mourned the fact that such a funny and wonderful piece was Off-Broadway rather than ON. He wrote the piece as a follow up to his negative, disappointed notice for the Comden-Green musical A DOLL'S LIFE, and bemoaned the fact that such a zany, witty show as LITTLE SHOP wasn't on the main stem the way something like BELLS ARE RINGING or ON THE TOWN had been years earlier.

    Of course, Howard WANTED the show to stay Off-Broadway, but nonetheless, I don't think Frank (who I've come to know slightly over the past few years and wrote the best memoir I've read, GHOST LIGHT) had it in for Howard, as he may have thought.
  • Interesting John. I guess I'd better pick up Hot Seat.
  • I think it's out of print, but I'm sure a copy can be found on Amazon Marketplace either used or in very good condition. In fact, I think that's how I got my copy a few years back. In any event, the essay was written in the 1982-1983 season section of the book (each season is a different chapter/section). It comes a few essays/reviews after A DOLL'S LIFE.

    I don't think any Times drama critic as ever been beloved in any capacity, at least since Brooks Atkinson back in the "Golden Age", but I think Frank Rich did (and does) genuinely love the theater, and is a pretty terrific prose writer. I don't know if I can say the same for the gentlemen at the Times now, though they've been growing on me in recent seasons. Still, the best current NY drama critic, by far, is Jesse Green of New York Magazine. At least, in my opinion!
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