This 2004 Broadway flop has a very interesting and frankly rather inspirational story behind its creation that can best be described as a real-life cross between Once and The Fisher King. Sadly, that inspirational quality is undercut by the fact that this backstory is a hundred times more interesting than the story of the actual musical. The authors claim to have based this story on their own experiences, but frankly they would have been far better off simply writing a straightforward stage memoir about the musical’s own writing process and setting it to the same music (which frankly, would have for the most part fit that story just fine).
This is a shame, because the show was in many ways a meritorious and even beautiful achievement. The visual designs were extremely creative, with sets and costumes literally made out of trash, and the original Broadway cast featured some very strong and emotive singers, particularly Eden Espinosa as the title character and Ramona Keller as the villain. The show drew on the experience of its author as a homeless street musician, with a gritty and honest ambience that seemed to really capture the experience of the lifestyles portrayed in the musical.
There was a lot of pre-Broadway buzz about how interesting the music was supposed to be, but when the show actually reached Broadway, the critics unanimously dismissed the score. In reality, the score is a fascinating one, with lovely melodies that show off the singers’ voices beautifully, surprisingly penetrating lyrics, and an extremely distinctive sound rather reminiscent of the more accessible portions of Elizabeth Swados’ scores.
Especially interesting is “Raven” for the show’s villainous diva Miss Paradice, which offers perhaps the most insightful look at how it feels to be the villain since The Who recorded “Behind Blue Eyes” (the chorus runs “I’ll fly like a raven/in a sky of doves/I’ll make you love to hate me/but that’s still love, that’s still love”). But because its relentless belting and overwrought emotionalism bore a superficial resemblance to the standard, American Idol-influenced ballad-pop of the early 2000s, the critics rejected it almost violently, a move that only really makes sense if you fully grasp how paranoid Broadway was at the time about being taken over by the Pop world.
But the show’s poor reception as a whole can’t really be blamed on the critics’ reaction to the score. Unfortunately, all these strong elements I’ve described are hamstrung by the insularity of the story. The narrative was apparently supposed to be a modern commentary on fairy tales, but it wound up playing more like a very depressing version of a children’s bedtime story. The plot is a hoary old ‘orphan looking for her real father’ cliché, and even uses the ‘unfinished melody’ device most famously associated with Naughty Marietta…a plot device that was already shorthand for uninspired and outdated writing when Anya used it back in the Sixties. The book wasn’t exactly badly written…some of the dialogue is surprisingly sharp, especially the biting satirical speeches for Ramona Keller’s Miss Paradice about the downfall of the American Dream (most of which are even more relevant now than they were at the time)…but the tiresome and saccharine cliches on which the story was built ultimately proved insurmountable.
Due to its Cinderella-esque backstory, everyone, critics and audiences alike, wanted to like this show, but in spite of that estimable advantage, the show pretty much disappeared after the critics dismissed it as a monotonous exercise in saccharine sentimentality. And while I don’t think that out-of-hand dismissal was remotely deserved…it should have been acknowledged as the flawed but fascinating artistic showpiece it was, instead of being treated like a bottom-dwelling catastrophe like In My Life or the Wildhorn Dracula…I can’t really argue that it deserved to be a hit either. The show was, in spirit, a direct descendents of Swados’ Runaways, but that show was wise enough not to attempt a linear plot. This show had all the ingrediants neeeded for a brilliant Conceptual concert, which is why the 15th Anniversary Reunion concert, which cut all the dialogue except a few of Miss Paradice’s speeches, played vastly better than the original Broadway production.
This show is what we in the theater business refer to as a “Heartbreaker Flop”, a fascinating and ambitious failure that scales glorious heights in its better moments. But the fact remains that, for all its beautiful qualities, the show simply didn’t work, at least in its Broadway incarnation, and even the inspirational circumstances of its creation can’t really change that fact. That said, it was something special and unique on Broadway at the time, and it doesn’t get nearly the level of praise it deserves within the category of beloved cult flops, with even its cast album getting little to no attention (as Eden Espinosa observed at the reunion concert, it isn’t currently available on any streaming service or digital platform). So I encourage you to call attention to this gem of a score, because whatever may have been wrong with the original show on stage, the show’s cast album, like so many recordings of great cult flops, makes it sounds indistinguishable from a masterpiece.