I write for the musical theater, and I’ve had a number of successful shows. But one big, juicy, well-publicized and totally humiliating Broadway flop taught me more than any success. It taught me to believe in the work, not the outcome.
My journey to super-flopdom began in 1998. My writing partner, the composer Stephen Flaherty, and I had just had success with the Broadway musical “Ragtime,” and our producer, the flamboyant mogul Garth Drabinsky, asked us to start work on a new project called “Seussical,” based on the works of Dr. Seuss. We agreed, thinking that a blithe, fantastical show about sour kangaroos, gentle elephants and a world of invisible Whos would be a refreshing change from the epic, emotional “Ragtime.” I must confess that we also thought we’d have a sure-fire hit. Who doesn’t love Dr. Seuss?
But by the time “Seussical” was ready for its out of town tryout at the Colonial Theater in Boston, the original producing organization had declared bankruptcy and our show had been “acquired,” like so much chattel, by new producers.
There were ominous rumblings about the production itself. Internet rumors and gossip flew, posted by anonymous sources and often containing intimate backstage details of a show in trouble—“So and so had a fight with his wife in the dressing room—they’re splitting up.” “The authors have put in such and such a change and it’s not very good.” There we were, far from our loved ones, working day and night in a goldfish bowl to fix a show that didn’t work on many levels, for many reasons. Late at night, my partner and I could be found holding hands at the bar and sobbing.
By the time the show arrived on Broadway, we were exhausted, paranoid and prepared for the worst. And even so, when the worst came, in the form of scathing reviews, we were devastated.
Did I stop writing? Yes. I tried to avoid people I knew, friends included. I dug in my garden, went for walks, breathed country air and flailed around for what else I could do with the rest of my life. I couldn’t think of a thing.
Little by little, I realized I missed sitting at the piano with Stephen, batting around words and music. I missed being in a room filled with emotional, noisy, funny actors. I missed lying awake, trying to solve the twists and turns of structure and rhyme. I missed the work more than I could say.
It’s taken that experience, and three subsequent shows, for me to fully realize why I write. I write for me. Every story helps me to learn something new about myself. Telling the tale to others enables me to share my deepest and truest feelings with them, for better or for worse. And no matter what the reviews, at least I can count on having had several of the best years of my life doing the work. “Seussical” has ended up one of the most performed shows in America. But honestly? That’s just gravy.
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