Do Broadway shows ever get punched up after bad reviews?

On a rare visit to Times Square yesterday I noticed that one of my favorite Jack Benny movies, To Be Or Not To Be, had been turned into a play. Since I like non-musicals I figured this would be a no-brainer for my next Broadway outing. I checked online, however, and the reviews were terrible.

Anyway, I’m wondering, since plays have the advantage of starting over every night, do they ever get reworked after their debut? Seems like if the reviews are bad and you’re only filling 20% of the seats on the Friday night, there would be little risk in experimenting, rewriting, etc.

I heard on an NPR program that West Side Story was tinkered with extensively early in its run, esp. the “I Like to Be in America” song. And directors tinker with every aspect of the show during the run for whatever whimsical reason they want.

Many shows do a trial run before coming to Broadway in some other place. I saw the first version of Wicked in San Francisco in 2003, and it was apparently tweaked quite a bit before making its way to New York.

It’s rare that changes are made once the show opens on Broadway. That’s why you go on the road – to see how it can miss.* But once you open, there’s little point in making changes after the reviews are in. People are going to go by the original reviews, and the reviewers will have moved on to savage other shows.

It’s also hard to market. “The play sucked, but we’re gonna fix all that this weekend.” And the changes would be in the hands of the same people who thought it was great in the first place.
*Paraphrasing the immortal Jean Kerr

Yill Brynner was in a musical entitled Odyssey that tried out in Boston in 1974. It flopped, and was reworked as…

Home Sweet Homer. It died a deserved death, after a title like that"HOME-SWEET-HOMER"-Rare-1974-FLOP-Flyer_W0QQitemZ390001547403QQcmdZViewItemQQimsxZ20081015?IMSfp=TL081015166012r24518

“Evil Dead: The Musical” was substantially altered after its first run - a fact I know because my sister was in it. The version of the show she performed was quite different from how it had originally been written.

I suspect this is true of most shows. “Grease,” which is now one of the most intolerably dreadful back-in-the-olden-days nostalgia barf-fests you can see performed, was a bit more mature and cutting-edge when first written and produced. (You can still see this in some of the plot points, like Rizzo’s feared pregnancy, which in today’s versions seem bizarrely out of place.)

“Camelot,” which was first produced in Toronto, was insanely long, and they were still cutting parts after its Broadway preview.

Since the incredible flop of his show “Jeeves,” Andrew Lloyd Webber has premiered every new show at his Sydmington festivals, a three day event held at his country estate by invitation only. The lucky few get to see and critique his new shows before he even puts them in the theatre.

In a different way, it’s tradition for versions of Godspell to make changes to adapt to make references to current events during its various runs and revivals.

In a true Broadway show, you’ll get tinkering, but nothing quite like reworking a lousy show. There is usually quite a bit of work that goes on before the opening, workshops, out of town runs, rehearsals and a month’s worth of previews before opening night. That’s when you make the big changes, cutting scenes, adding songs, etc. If it’s past opening night, the show sucks, and you’re selling 20% of your tickets, no amount of punching up is going to save your show, the reviews are out, everybody knows you stink, it’s over. Pack up your sets and go home.
That’s not to say that changes never happen, Beauty and the Beast, a lavish and complex show, added a whole new song when Toni Braxton joined the cast. Of course, they were a hit, and didn’t add it to save the show, but to highlight Miss Braxton.

Live shows do not “have the advantage of starting over every night.” Everyone involved has to approve all changes, and the cast has to rehearse and perfect the whole thing. Doing it once is very difficult, and takes about three to four months of putting it together. Every change has to be reworked by the singers, dancers, sound techs, lighting crew, etc. and musicians until it can be done properly.