01/13/2013 07:47 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2013

Something Isn't Right Here: Surprises of the Fall Broadway Season

It was not a very good fall season. I say that almost every winter, but it seems especially true this one. Disasters abounded, as did mediocrity. As the dust settled, I asked a bunch of industry people to comment anonymously on what they consider to be the biggest surprises of the fall season and one of my unsolved mysteries of 2012-2013.

Basically, every single person selected the quick closing of The Anarchist as his/her biggest surprise of the fall. The shuttering of The Anarchist was indeed shocking -- there were a lot of indicators that would lead you to believe that would not happen. It was written and directed by David Mamet, a theatrical darling. Mamet has had some big busts in recent years (I am personally blocking out American Buffalo and Oleanna for the sake of my yet-to-be-defeated faith in the American theater), but none quite this big. It was produced by Mamet's frequent producers, Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel, who are also producing a hit revival of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross and have had other success producing the playwright. It was a two-person play, making it relatively cheap to run. The two women were stage legend Patti LuPone and three-time Oscar nominee Debra Winger in her Broadway debut. Ahead of time, The Anarchist was not destined to be a hit necessarily, but a run of at least a couple of months seemed inevitable. Then, a few days after it opened to horrid reviews, the announcement came.

Of course, once the reviews hit, the show was doomed. But announcing the closing this quickly? Showing that much disrespect to Mamet? I applaud the move Richards and Frankel made -- there was little point in flushing the weekly running cost down the drain and making the actors play to virtually empty houses -- but it did not (and does not) feel like the politically acceptable one. Surprise!

The only other thing selected for biggest surprise was the closing of The Performers, which ran only seven regular performances this fall. This one came as less of a shocker to me. When a play by an unknown playwright gets to Broadway I think: "Wow, this must be great." Sadly, I am rarely proven correct. (Good luck Velocity of Autumn!) The Performers wasn't the most dreadful thing ever, but it was limp. One might have expected that a cast including Henry Winkler and Alicia Silverstone would have led it to last a couple of weeks at least, but, eh.

What was my unsolved mystery of the fall? How it was that most journalists didn't notice when Amber Tamblyn was announced for The Miss Firecracker Contest that fellow Sisterhood member America Ferrera was previously reported? (See my August post about other forgotten show histories.) Why Dead Accounts was produced? How Scandalous went through years and years of changes and still was what it was? Why Mitch Leigh has returned in the form of a community pitchman? The Mystery of Edwin Drood? No, the failure of Bring It On. When I saw Bring It On in Los Angeles at the start of its tour, I thought its eventual Broadway engagement would be panned. As an audience member, it completely won me over, but I knew it needed work, and I also knew it was the kind of thing industry people love to attack. By the time it opened on the Great White Way however, revisions had been made and the young cast had become more comfortable in their roles. Bring It On was announced as a limited engagement through early October, but it was always intended to change into an open-ended run if audiences cheered. (In August, producers announced an extension through January 30. That was cut back and it closed December 30.) StageGrade listed the musical's critical consensus grade as B+, the same as Peter and the Starcatcher. Yet at some points this fall the play Peter and the Starcatcher, which had been around longer than Bring It On and would seemingly have less tourist appeal, was doing better at the box office than Bring It On. Why?

I received many responses, the primary one being some form of "brand resistance" (five movies later). One person said the "demographic is too limited.... It's not really an adult show, but it's not really a show for kids either." A few people cited its timing as one of the reasons it sank. "You bring a show like that in no later than May," one said. "It's not a fall/winter show--audiences are exhausted by that much perkiness in January." Another offered a more complete picture: "This is a show that should have launched earlier to tap into the summer tourist market when kids are out of school and parents are looking to do something with them. A June opening when people are looking for summer activities would have been better, not August 1 when there was only 2-3 weeks left of summer vacation for most schools. That was mostly because Leap of Faith closed on May 13 and Bring It On announced it would come to Broadway two days later. That gave them a little over 8 weeks to build up a head of steam with group sales, marketing, publicity, etc. Not a lot of time for a big musical, even if it was just a limited engagement." A couple of responses mentioned cheerleading didn't appeal to them as a musical topic. (This could explain the failure of both Bring It On and Lysistrata Jones, which was a much more disastrous bomb.)

Many also mentioned the show itself was a problem, calling it "boring and trivial," "ordinary" and "forgettable." I personally think the show itself was less of an issue -- its score was average, but I think generally crowds liked it. All the non-industry folks that I know that saw it (including straight boys) found it winning. I asked people outside the theater a couple of nights and almost all of them praised it. I myself really enjoyed it -- I thought it was completely entertaining. Yet it never took off, probably because of a combination of all of the above and more. In the end, it didn't seem special to people. I remember someone asking me what show he should see with his 12-year-old niece when she was in town from Wisconsin; when I mentioned Bring It On among the list of possibilities, he responded: "I don't want to take her to something tired."

So it goes, Bring It On is now gone. It, The Anarchist and The Performers are three of the many shows we welcomed and bid adieu to already this season. Here's hoping the spring will be better. Bring It.