A musical about chess and Cold War tension? Sure! What the hell!
Would you have invested in a musical featuring a bunch of actors dressed up as cats? As a new Canadian production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's feline-friendly musical, Cats, pads into the Panasonic this week, it's worth looking at other successful - or semi-successful - shows that might not have seemed like sure things at first.
1. Cats (1981)
It's got a strange structure, almost no spoken dialogue and text mostly lifted from whimsical poems by modernist master T.S. Eliot. Not exactly the makings of a hit. But Andrew Lloyd Webber's catchy tunes, some spectacular dance and at least one standard (Memory) have made this novelty show the second-longest-running musical in history.
2. Spring Awakening (2006)
A successful rock musical based on a frequently banned 1906 Expressionist play about sex and teens in fin de siècle Germany? Sounds about as likely as a musical transplanting the opera La Bohème to the world of 1980s drugs and AIDS in New York City. Ah, yes, point taken.
3. Chess (1986)
This musical's plot features a Cold War-era love triangle involving an American and a Russian chess player, which sounds like theatrical stalemate. The book still has problems, but as I write these words I'm humming I Know Him So Well and One Night In Bangkok. As the ABBA guys (who co-wrote the show with Tim Rice) proved a few years later in Mamma Mia!, their songs can easily become show tunes.
4. Avenue Q (2003)
This snarky, profane, yet oddly sweet musical about overeducated humans interacting with Sesame Street-like puppets managed to capture the irony of life for Generation Y. Its success helped pave the way for other hits like The Book Of Mormon (co-written and directed by Robert Lopez).
5. Starlight Express (1987)
Actors on roller skates playing toy railway trains that come to life should make for the ultimate disaster. Imagine the falls! But with Andrew Lloyd Webber behind it, the thing proved nearly unstoppable in the West End, racking up over 7,000 performances. It did not, however, fare as well on Broadway.