It began with the revue, became even more memorable in both vaudeville and burlesque. At the turn of the last century, it was nothing more than a series of songs strung together. By the 1930s, it had morphed into a magical American artform. Indeed, the musical may seem like the offspring of the operetta and its classical cousin, but the truth is that names such as Hammerstein, Rodgers, Lerner, Lowe, Sondheim, and Webber redefined the stage show, bringing it in line with similar strides in other media. Of course, Hollywood had to try its hand at adapting many of these amazing shows, as well as developing a few original offerings along the way. Many are sensational. As this list will show, however, quite a few of them stink, and stink bad. By looking at the 10 worst musicals of all time, we can begin to see why the greatest are labeled such, and why the truly terrible trod all over the concept.
In the 1950s, the Western was all the rage, and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe decided to capitalize on the trend by creating a show set around the California Gold Rush. The musical was a hit, and with Hollywood also high on the oater, they decided to adapt it for the big screen. Sadly, they forced rewrites and demanded casting including non-singing talents such as Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg. The result was a off key flop of wild, wild proportions.
Throughout the ’60s, the songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David were top of the pops. Songs such as “Do You Know the Way to San Jose? and “Anyone Who Had a Heart” dominated the charts. They even had success on the stage, creating the hit Promises, Promises. But when they were hired to write the tunes for a remake of Frank Capra’s 1937 smash, their efforts were underwhelming to say the least. Released during the height of the post-modern movement, the film felt old fashioned and fell flat.
This fictional “autobiography” of the disco act The Village People is often so bad, so camp-tacularly crappy, that its inherent kitsch value finds it taking up space on quite a few guilty pleasure shelves. On the other hand, it’s simply awful, a train wreck in tight glitter shorts. Of course, all the homoerotic subtext is handled with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and first time director Nancy Walker (who was better known for her sitcom work… as an actress) couldn’t convincingly make any of it work.
At one point, it was the longest running musical in Broadway history. It won every award possible, including the Pulitzer Prize. So how did Tinseltown decide to adapt this massive success? Basically, by stripping away everything that made it great and, instead, concentrating on the character of Zach, the despotic choreographer. Then several seminal songs were scrapped, while others were refitted for a failed romance subplot. The final edit was nothing like the hit show, and it bombed at the box office.
During the early ’70s, director Peter Bogdanovich was making a name for himself with nostalgia tinged throwbacks like The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon. Hoping to pay homage to the great movie musicals of the 1930s, he gathered together a bunch of Cole Porter songs, hired a group of actors who could kind-of, sort-of sing, and attempted to film their performances “live,” without any pre-recording. When it opened, critics savaged the stunt, being especially unkind to stars Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd.
The year is 1979, and for some unknown reason, Israel film entrepreneur Menahem Golan decided to write a sci-fi parable about nonconformity and the music industry of the future. He then hired someone named Coby Recht to write the stupefyingly hideous disco pop score, and then dressed everyone up like rejects from Starlight Express. Another in a long line of “so bad, they’re almost good” efforts, the surreal spectacle was derided when it finally hit theaters. Golan would go on to redeem himself by starting the ’80s action label Cannon.
Back when Stephen Sondheim was remaking musical theater in his own image, bringing a new sense of realism and seriousness to the otherwise frivolous fare, others attempted to follow in his groundbreaking footsteps. Using Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8 1/2 as its basis, composer Arthur Kopit came up with this, a terrible tribute that became even more unbearable when Rob Marshall made it into a movie. Daniel Day-Lewis gives one of his worst performances ever as a director trying to recapture his muse. He doesn’t.
Back in the day, she defined onscreen sex appeal. By the end of the ’60s, Mae West was a Golden Era has-been more known for influencing bad impressions than making movies. Plotting her comeback, she decided to adapt her own play, Sex, into a modern musical comedy and offered up such surreal choices as Dom Deluise, Keith Moon, Ringo Starr, and Alice Cooper as costars. Oh, and did we mention that West was playing the romantic lead (across from Timothy Dalton) and was in her 80s at the time?
While many have long since forgotten Kate Smith, there was a time when this rotund radio personality and recording artist was as well known as the “Star Spangled Banner,” perhaps even more so. Her rendition of “God Bless America” is often cited as the true national anthem. Of course, the studio suits hoped to capitalize on her fame and in 1933 they gave her this god-awful starring vehicle. Along with some horribly racists songs, the movie proved that, while she could belt out a tune, Smith couldn’t act.
Of all the titles on this list, here’s one that still boggles the mind some 40 years later. The idea was to marry much of Fox’s newsreel footage from WWII with… the songs of the Beatles. Yes, you read that right. Of course, the Fab Four would not allow their original recordings to be used, so the producers hired contemporary artists to sing them. The result was so terrible, so completely inappropriate in the coupling of culture and content, it has yet to have a legitimate home video release.