05/22/2012 07:40 am ET Updated Jul 22, 2012

Anatomy of Flop

It's a word that is thrown about with abandon. "Flop." It is synonymous with failure and it's one of those words that sounds like what it means: short, blunt, unimpressive; the sound of a leaden landing or even the puncturing of expectation.

It is used profligately in the theatre, and indeed aficionados revel in tales of famed flops on Broadway: vampire musicals, Shogun, Carrie, Enron, On The Waterfront, Breakfast at Tiffany's. Even as you read this, you're adding your own to the list. Theatrical dining spot Joe Allen reserves space on its walls for posters of famous flops (also accessible online); I have to imagine it has either driven away those who were involved in these shows, or at least induces a bit of indigestion as they dine.

There's a certain grandeur and folly to the theatrical flop. There are countless shows that over the decades have opened, often with big stars and advance anticipation, only to sink quickly out of sight. But to be a truly legendary flop, there seems to be a unique and ever changing set of guidelines that lifts this show or that one into the pantheon; certainly hubris seems to play a role. The more godawful, the better they are for gossip and chatter, years after the fact. Even Shakespeare can flop on Broadway, despite the long-established reputation of the work; living down to its cursed reputation, separate Macbeths featuring Kelsey Grammer and Christopher Plummer come to mind.

Yet for some, notably journalists of a certain vintage, "flop" is not merely a pejorative, but an economic distinction, propagated by the much diminished showbiz bible Variety. Any commercial production that does not recoup its initial investment during its Broadway run, even if only shy by five or ten percent of the capitalization, is a flop. Any show which recoups or exceeds is a hit. This rigidly binary criteria permits no flexibility, so some of Stephen Sondheim's most admired work takes its place alongside travesties in the Variety annals; flop is an economic distinction, not an artistic one.

I have no doubt that this terminology, part of the distinctive patois that made Variety such a pleasure to read (and commemorated by The Animaniacs as "Variety Speak") dates back many decades, to a time when all major new work debuted on Broadway and the not-for-profit theatre system in America was not yet formed (most agree it launched in earnest in the early 1960s). So does -- and should -- "flop" retain any power today? There's certainly no eradicating the word (any more than the failure to nominate certain artists and works for awards will cease to be called "snubs"), but perhaps we can all agree that there's a benefit to discussing the success or failure of theatre with something approaching nuance.

On a purely economic level, the failure of a show to return its entire investment during its Broadway run does not mean that the show is necessarily unprofitable. Yes, shows that lose their entire investment or return only 30% of the capitalization have a very long road, especially musicals produced for $10-15 million. But what of those shows that get to 85% or 90% recoupment? They are likely to tour; to be licensed to regional theatres, amateur companies and schools; to sell cast recordings even if they didn't quite snatch the brass ring in the commercial incarnation. Maybe they'll even be sold to the movies. As a result (and I'm not going to break down how investment income is returned to investors and producers in this post), they may enter profit a year or several years after they've shuttered on Broadway. But the public books have already been closed, the rubber stamp of flop already impressed upon their public file; no one issues press releases about recoupment on closed shows (though perhaps they might do well to start).

This isn't as much of a problem for the not-for-profits that produce on Broadway, or for that matter, Off-Broadway. Since their expenses for any show are part of a larger institutional budget, the issue of recoupment isn't germane; in their immediate wake, an unpopular show may be branded a flop, but over time that distinction seems to fade in a way it does not for commercial work. This doesn't stop the media from trying to intimate the dreaded branding iron of flop when discussing not-for-profit work; witness The New York Times' "autopsy" for MCC Theatre's Carrie revival, which wishfully applies the paper's own commercial expectations for the show in order to support its thesis.

"Flop" strikes me as particularly debilitating when it comes to work that is recognized as having artistic value, even if it fails in the marketplace. As far as I'm concerned, Sondheim's score for Merrily We Roll Along is one of his finest, and while the overall piece proves problematic in reworking after revival after resuscitation, I challenge anyone who would claim that it is an utter failure creatively, even if it is not an unqualified success. By Variety's yardstick, the original Merrily was a flop, and it's hard to argue given its brief run, but that fails to do the work justice. If one is allowed more than a single word in judgment, it is an ambitious, flawed work by one of the geniuses of musical theatre; it does not deserve dismissal in a column that codifies only hits and flops. Works of art shouldn't be "guilty" or "not guilty."

"Flop" is so associated with theatrical ventures that goes so far as to help define its meaning by specifically linking it to works on the stage; I can't compete with that. But perhaps in our conversations in the field, commercial or not for profit, we can bring shadings to assessments of productions. For economics, we must take the long view, and remember that a show's life does not end the moment it closes in New York. For creativity, I recommend that The Scottsboro Boys, Caroline or Change and Passing Strange shouldn't be lumped together on any extant list with In My Life and Metro. We would serve work better -- even when money is lost, sometimes significant sums -- if our collective focused on the succès d'estime, rather than the success of an accountant's pen. It won't necessarily cushion financial losses, however they're calculated, but it will put emphasis back on the work, not just on its bottom line.