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  • Writer's pictureClosing Night

Nick & Nora: A Broadway Dream Becomes a Nightmare

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Closing Night explores the journey of this notorious Broadway flop and cracks the case on how it became such a disaster. Here is the transcript of that episode and sources used...

Creatives and actors from Nick & Nora by a piano during rehearsals in 1991.
Arthur Laurents, Charles Stouse, Joanna Gleason, and Barry Bostwick with Asta

Even with all the right ingredients in place, a show can still falter on Broadway. And few shows have ever fallen as hard or as spectacularly as Nick & Nora, which emerged from The Thin Man novel and popular film series into a new musical in 1991.

The talented artists leading this ill-fated venture seemed like a dream team: there was Arthur Laurents, the storyteller of West Side Story and Gypsy; Charles Strouse, the prolific composer of Bye Bye Birdie and Annie, and then Richard Maltby, Jr., the creative force behind Ain’t Misbehavin’. Onstage, there was an equally all-star cast led by Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason.

Valiantly, Barry and I were out there every night with these bullseyes painted on our tuchuses, because the show was just a fiasco from the beginning. But he was grace under pressure and a darling. And we—there we stood in front the firing squad, but you gotta go through these things, you know. It makes the best stories, and of course it’s where I met Chris 31 years ago. - Joanna Gleason


The “Chris" that Gleason mentions is her now-husband Chris Sarandon, who was part of the talented supporting cast for Nick & Nora, which also featured Christine Baranski and Faith Prince, among others. On paper, this musical seemed like a guaranteed hit, but the pieces just never seemed to come together as Nick & Nora had announced a total of five opening dates in 1991: first in February, then April, months later in November, and then on December 2nd and finally on the 8th. Theater historian Mark Robinson gives his own thoughts on why Nick & Nora had so many delays and setbacks.


I've studied Nick and Nora inside and out. I've read the script, I've listened to the score. Someone even sent me the tracks that they recorded in the theater, of a performance. The show doesn't work. I mean, it should have, but I think the reason it doesn't chiefly is that I think that Arthur Laurents, who directed the piece and wrote the book for the piece, lost all objectivity about the piece. - Mark Robinson, theater historian



Originally, there was another writer hired to create the book and story for Nick & Nora, but once he walked out, Laurents took over and completely controlled the show. And eventually, Laurents’ prickly reputation caught up with him as he unleashed tirades on the actors and creative team.

Arthur exploded in a way that I never understood, and what is down there beneath it was a note of uh, I don't know whether to call it apology or not, but it's something like that. - Charles Strouse with Michael John LaChiusa

That note Charles Strouse is referring to is beneath a poster of Nick & Nora in his home. The note is dated January 3, 2001 and says: “Dear Charles, I played the CD of Nick & Nora (after all this time!) and was impressed by your music. It’s so good, it’s so bad that what happened happened. Happy New Year, Arthur”


So what did happen? What led to all the fights, frustrations, and financial failures that ultimately closed this show after just one week? As you’ll see, Nick & Nora serves as a cautionary tale to anyone who thinks big names automatically mean big box office. Because even the brightest stars sometimes find themselves lost in the shadows. Yet Nick & Snora, as it’s been called, has achieved a legacy and even some appreciation in the decades since its collapse on Broadway.

 

Closing Night is a theater history podcast about famous and forgotten Broadway shows that closed too soon, hosted and produced by New York actor Patrick Oliver Jones. This first season highlights some of the shows that have come and gone from one of Broadway’s youngest venues: the Marquis Theatre. And this is the episode transcript all about Nick & Nora and its 1991 attempt to make it on Broadway. It has only been slightly edited for this format. You can listen to the full episode here or on your favorite podcast app:


BEGINNINGS

The origins of Nick & Nora can be traced back the popular 1934 novel The Thin Man written by Dashiell Hammett. The book was based on his experiences as detective in Butte, Montana, and the witty banter between the two main characters was patterned after his own on-again, off-again rocky relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman. The Thin Man novel inspired a radio program and a TV show, but it is best known for the series of six movies that were made in the 1930s and 40s, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, who play Nick and Nora Charles.


He's from the bad side of the tracks. She's Radcliffey upper crust, and they're a married couple and they solve crimes together. - Mark Robinson


Myrna Loy credited much of the appeal of these murder mystery films to the director’s pacing and spontaneity, which focused on the banter of Nick and Nora made all the more witty and funny by the chemistry between Powell and Loy themselves. When talking about Loy, Powell said: “When we did a scene together, we forgot about technique, camera angles, and microphones. We weren't acting. We were just two people in perfect harmony.”


Decades later in May 1985, two young men who worked on Broadway were going to see a double bill of those old Thin Man movies at an art house theater in the East Village of Manhattan. One of them was James Pentecost, a stage manager for La Cage aux Folles and other Broadway shows, while the other man was Charles Suisman, a production assistant on shows like Dreamgirls. For months, they had been searching for the perfect idea for a musical, and as the two of them watched the witty banter between Nick and Nora, they felt inspired to bring this endearing detective duo to a Broadway stage.


But Pentecost and Suisman weren’t wealthy producers, so the two began crafting their vision by creating an MTV-like mashup music video of various Thin Man clips as a way to entice potential investors. But their first obstacle to overcome was securing the rights to The Thin Man films and characters, in order to create an original murder mystery musical, featuring a retired detective and his spirited wife, alongside their beloved dog. The process took more than two years, but they finally reached a deal with the Lillian Hellman estate and media mogul Ted Turner.


CREATIVES & CAST

So with the rights in place, now Pentecost and Suisman needed a director, and after the success of La Cage Aux Folles which closed on Broadway in 1987, the producers approached the Tony-winning director of that musical, Arthur Laurents. Though he’d written the book to such iconic shows as West Side Story and Gypsy, Laurents wasn’t really interested in writing this one but did agree to direct, so the producers reached out to A.R. Gurney. He was a prolific off-Broadway playwright who made his Broadway debut in 1984 with The Golden Age and was nominated for a 1988 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Love Letters.

With a director and writer in place, then came Charles Strouse, a talented composer who had taken Broadway by storm with Annie in 1977. In the six years after that huge success, he had six more musicals come to Broadway. However, only one them lasted more than two weeks, while his Annie sequel that I’ve talked about in a previous episode never even made it to Broadway. Strouse wrote in his memoir, Put on a Happy Face, that by this point there wasn’t much on the “Broadway horizon” for him, so he turned his attention to movies instead, mostly animated ones. But by 1988 he was ready for theater again and saw Nick & Nora as his way back to Broadway.

Throughout his career, Strouse was accustomed to working with different lyricists, and this would be no different as the producers brought in Richard Maltby Jr., who had written lyrics for musicals like Baby and Miss Saigon. The two men had previously met while dramaturging together at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, but had never written show together. For Maltby, it was the chance to work with A.R. “Pete” Gurney that really sealed the deal:


"So I was just thrilled. I thought it was a really perfect project for him. And so I went happily into it because I was gonna be able to work with Pete Gurney, but as soon as we started working on it, it was clear that Arthur had lots and lots of writer ideas that he couldn't get past, and Pete quite quickly realized: “Arthur, you really wanna write this, because those are your ideas, you know, and what you're doing is telling me what to do as a writer. Don't do that.” So I had signed on for the sole purpose of working with Pete Gurney, and that was not what I had."


And so in an effort to solidify their new working relationship, Laurents invited Strouse and Maltby over for lunch. Things started off cordial and friendly, until they all sat down to talk about the musical. Maltby got out his a yellow pad and began to scrutinize Laurents' script, showing how the complex who-done-it plot didn’t really make much sense. Well, Laurents retorted that the last song Strouse wrote was “awful." Not sure what to say, Strouse just let it slide and tried to keep the peace, even as Laurents then began hinting that the two men had eaten too many sandwiches at lunch, but neither Strouse nor Maltby felt this petty criticism was worth fighting over.


Well, it was it was complicated. It was from time to time, it was really wonderful. He can be very, very charming when he wants to. He could also be very, very mean when he wants to … Then we had an unholy position because when you have the director and the writer being the same person, there is nobody to turn to. - Richard Maltby

Arthur Laurents in his St. Luke's Place garden
Arthur Laurents at his home in 2000.

So when Laurents wanted his musical team to pick up the pace, he firmly suggested that Strouse and Maltby retreat to his house in Long Island for a week or so. This would offer an uninterrupted environment to craft new songs that needed to be written. Yet, Laurents would interrupt them everyday with phone calls asking how it was going, which only added to the pressure and constraints of delivering the perfect score.


And when it came to the writing, this retreat highlighted the different working styles of these two creatives. Strouse was a rather fast composer, whereas Maltby worked at a slower, more meticulous pace and didn’t often finish his work on Laurents’ timetable. So while Strouse admits in his memoir that these daily phone calls may have been frightening for him, they must have been positively terrifying for Maltby, who bore the brunt of Laurents’ criticism. But of course any mention of how the script could be shortened or changed was immediately dismissed and ignored by Laurents.

Arthur really didn't construct a mystery in which there were clues and which there were things that somebody had to put together in order to solve it and there was a satisfying ending. So, when he finally brought the second act in and it turned out that the house boy—who was the lover of the film actress who was played by Christine Baranski—but it turned out that he was the one who did it for her, it was kind of ludicrous … When I read it for the first time, I called to him and said, "Arthur, are you kidding? The Butler did it. I mean, is that not a joke? Won't that be laughed off the stage?” And, you know, he said, "No, no. It'll be fine.” - Richard Maltby


That’s because while he was busy hatching a rather convoluted case, he was also rethinking Nick and Nora's relationship. He wanted them to not only find problems with the case and suspects, but also in each other—which was a different take on this witty and loving couple.

WIlliam Powell kissing Myrna Loy on the cheek.
WIlliam Powell & Myrna Loy
The thing that worked best about the Thin Man movies was the chemistry between Nick and Nora, and in this musical they decided to give them marital issues. And the fact that they were on the brink of a divorce, she was going to have an affair, and he was being dismissive of her and not including her in things. And they got into a competition with each other. - Mark Robinson

But eventually our detective duo did come together to sort out the alibis, charges, and countercharges. In fact, the script had so much information to relay that at times there wasn't much room for music, especially in the second act which had half as many songs as the first act. And many of the songs that were there got cut up into snippets and interspersed with dialogue. Still, the music did find moments to take center stage.


What we did that was kind of satisfactory was there were big long sessions where the two, Nick and Nora, decide to pick up clues and put them together in very, very long musical sequences with lots of lots of elements. Those are very exciting. One was called “A Busy Night at Lorraine’s" which was all of the people who showed up in the evening before the murder, so any one of them could have done it. - Richard Maltby


Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason posing with guns in hand
Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason

And it was certainly going to take a cast of talented performers to pull this off. Well, you couldn’t have asked for a better set of actors when it came to Nick & Nora. And at the top of the ticket was Barry Bostwick and the magnificent Joanna Gleason. Bostwick was known for originating the role of Danny Zuko in Grease as well as his memorable turn as Brad Majors in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Gleason was just coming off her Tony Award winning performance with Into the Woods. Both of them made a point of seeing all six Thin Man movies before starting rehearsals, but neither was concerned about any comparisons to Powell and Loy. Bostwick said it was “like apples and oranges—two different people and two different decades.”


There was a strong supporting cast as well, featuring Christine Baranski, Thom Sesma, Debra Monk, and one of my favorite actresses, Faith Prince, who was just coming off her 1989 Broadway debut in Jerome Robbins' Broadway. And for Nick & Nora she was given one of the standout numbers in the show.


She had a really good song called “Men” about a secretary who had been kind of used by her employers over her career, and it was a belty song, perfect for Faith's voice. Arthur really, really knows how to write that kind of tough talking girl and wrote a really and I mean, she had really great lines. She was the victim. She was Lorraine, the one who was actually murdered … I mean, there’s Christine Baranski, before she hit her TV stardom, but she was just terrific. And nobody knew that Christine was a great singer—I mean a soprano, she studied opera. Debra Monk, who is as funny as anybody could possibly be. You know, they were spectacularly good. The cast was just wonderful. - Richard Maltby



RAISING MONEY

But despite this impressive cast and creative team, producers Pentecost and Suisman struggled to raise money for the show. So they began courting the Broadway theater owners themselves—the Nederlanders, Shuberts, and Jujamcyn—as well as other corporate investors. And in August of 1990 the producers decided to conduct a two-week workshop at the Manhattan Theater Club, which would result with three performances to entice potential investors.

N.R. Kleinfield was a business and financial reporter, and he wrote an extensive article about Nick & Nora’s financial troubles in the NY Times: "As the workshop proceeded, disputes flared. Grave concerns were expressed that the musical was too long, and some cutting was done. Then true doom struck. Barry Bostwick, who played Nick, had an attack of malaria and was unable to perform for investors. While Mr. Bostwick lay writhing in a bed at St. Vincent's Hospital, Richard Maltby, not yet known for his acting skills, volunteered to play Nick. It was not the wisest decision."

Richard Maltby, Jr performing onstage at 54 Below cabaret space in New York City.
Richard Maltby, Jr at 54 Below in New York City

Now, a little side-note here, I’ve actually seen Richard perform some of his music in a cabaret setting. He’s very charming with a pleasant voice, but to take on a lead role in a new musical, without much rehearsal to speak of would be a huge undertaking for anyone, much less the show’s lyricist. But what else could they do? They had to raise money and this was their way to do it. So the producers sat back, watched, and after 20 minutes of the first performance, Suisman walked out. And Pentecost admitted afterwards that in hindsight they should have just canceled. That’s because not one single penny was raised from that workshop.

Now, to be sure, this was not because of Maltby. The show itself was not a finished product, it was still working out the kinks—with or without Bostwick in performance. I mean, there were a total of eleven songs that ended up being cut from that workshop. And so the creative team went back to the drawing board again.

Morris Mechanic Theatre, Charles Center, Charles Street & Baltimore Street in Baltimore, Maryland
Morris Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland

Meanwhile, the producers were trying to raise money for an exclusive pre-Broadway run at the Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore. Pentecost and Suisman had a $5.5 million budget to put up this out-of-town tryout, but unfortunately they fell short by $1 million. So in November of 1990, two months after that disastrous workshop, they had to cancel their engagement at Mechanic Theatre as well as postpone the Broadway opening until the following season. And this delay actually led to a recasting of one of the characters—Nick and Nora’s dog, Asta. The original canine left to pursue other projects.


By this time, Pentecost and Suisman found themselves in a difficult and rather unpromising position—unable to secure the necessary financing to move forward and having now earned a reputation among some in the inner Broadway circles for being stubborn and not cutting good deals. N.R. Kleinfield explains: "At this point, Arthur Laurents, eager to see his work performed, got restless. He dropped in on James Nederlander and mentioned that the play was floundering. Mr. Nederlander said he and Terry Allen Kramer ought to do it. 'I always liked the idea,' Mr. Nederlander said. 'I'm a big dog lover.'"


Eventually, Pentecost and Suisman reluctantly agreed to turn the show over to Nederlander and Kramer. And in January 1991 all the producers gathered in Nederlander’s office to make the transfer official. Everything was going fine until it was revealed that Pentecost and Suisman had actually renewed their licensing rights to Nick & Nora until November 1992. Needless to say, Nederlander and Kramer were both surprised and furious.

When Suisman got home, he found a message on his answering machine from Arthur Laurents, who said "Congratulations. You killed the play." Laurents went on to give the producers an ultimatum: they had until the next morning to accept a take-it-or-leave-it deal.

Later that night, the two men who had birthed this whole project discussed their dilemma for a good hour. They ultimately came to realize they were out of options and honestly were tired of being yelled at. So the next morning, they settled for $35,000, a small stake in the new partnership, and below-the-title billing in the program. When it was all said and done, Pentecost and Suisman lost about $70,000 on Nick & Nora and never again produced on Broadway.

 

Check out my full interview with Mark Hoebee about his time in Nick & Nora...


 

NEW DIRECTIONS

James Nederlander and Terry Allen Kramer were now in charge of Nick & Nora, and gathered a new production team around them that included Daryl Roth and Elizabeth McCann. One of their first acts as producers was to reduce the show’s budget to less than $5 million. They also got the Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore to give Nick & Nora another chance, this time as the opening show of their Fall season in September of ’91.

Producer James L. Nederlander at a soiree for the opening of West Side Story in 2009 with wife Margo and fellow producer Terry Allen Kramer.
Producer James L. Nederlander at a soiree with wife, Margo (on the left) and fellow producer Terry Allen Kramer.

As a preview for this out-of-town tryout, Strouse and Maltby went down to the theater in May of that year to showcase seven songs from the show. During their half-hour presentation, Maltby was at the microphone while Strouse played the piano, on which was perched a terrier stuffed animal representing Nick and Nora's dog, Asta. The audience was composed of group sales leaders, who responded positively to this preview, expressing delight and interest in the show’s 4 1/2-week run at the Mechanic, which was to be a precursor to Nick & Nora’s Broadway opening in November at the Marquis Theater.

Unfortunately, these new producers ran into old problems, and the show’s financial woes remained, leading them to continuously cut costs throughout the production. And so in an effort to save half a million dollars, a run at the Mechanic Theatre was once again canceled, resulting in a tighter overall budget of $4.3 million. And maybe it was all for the best, because according to producer Terry Allen Kramer, Laurents had said that Baltimore and the Mechanic Theatre audiences “would never understand the humor” of Nick & Nora, because it was “too sophisticated” for them.


Well, whether that was true or not, this meant no out-of-town tryout, which isn’t unheard of, but it’s definitely risky to fine-tune a show in New York City, under the watchful side eye of the Broadway community.


If you've never seen it before an audience, you don't know how they're going to react. But they were very confident in this material. But the script kept evolving and getting rewritten, kind of in some major ways.

- Mark Hoebee, dance captain and swing in Nick & Nora


Hoebee has since gone on to become artistic director of the Papermill Playhouse, which has become an out-of-town tryout destination these days for many shows with an eye on Broadway. So he understands the back-and-forth collaboration it takes to produce and create a new musical.

And even back in 1991, he recognized the wonderful group of actors assembled for Nick & Nora, and these talented actors were the ones who really raised the level of expectation and potential for what Nick & Nora could become. So significant adjustments were made by the creative team to give them a better show. However, these changes came at a price…literally.


We did a lot of rewriting of the score. Arthur didn't do a whole lot of rewriting of the script, but, what she could have. But we did change a lot. There were a number of songs that went in and came out in and came out in different times. Jonathan Tunick, who is the orchestrator of the show, said it was one of the shows he made the most money on ever because every time you re-staged a number or rethought a number, you'd have to re orchestrate it. Oh, god, you know. So he was doing very, very well. I think Jonathan is the only person who did do well on that show. - Richard Maltby

And as the music changes, so does the choreography as well. But for all his talents as an actor and singer, Bostwick wasn’t exactly the best dancer, which is not uncommon for tall men like him. Sure, there’s the 6’6 Tommy Tune who puts all of us tall performers to shame, but being a tall actor myself I can relate to Bostwick’s hesitancy and concern when it comes to dancing.


Joanna Gleason, Debra Monk, and Barry Bostwick onstage in Nick & Nora.
Joanna Gleason, Debra Monk, Barry Bostwick

Hoebee had heard stories of Laurents’ temper and being hard to work with, but was surprised at how helpful he was with the cast, including with Bostwick and his dancing worries. Mind you, this was Bostwick’s return to Broadway after 13 years of doing television, so he probably had his own internal pressure regarding this comeback to the stage. But to be honest, there was pressure on everybody to get this right, which led to certain squabbles and disagreements as well.


Faith Prince and Josie de Guzman posing head to head outside.
Faith Prince and Josie de Guzman

The original actress who played the Spanish maid was Josie de Guzman. And she and Arthur were at odds about how the character was to be played, and he wanted it at kind of Charo / Carmen Miranda, and she refused to do that. So she wound up getting fired. She was fired when we were in previews, which was interesting for me as the dance captain, because I used to get the show started, then run across the street to the Lunt Fontaine and rehearse her understudy and the understudy's replacement and then go back to the show, because we couldn't fire her until there was a new person ready to go. - Mark Hoebee

Previews began on October 8, 1991 and this marked the first time the show was being performed onstage—so every travail or triumph would be in plain view of a discerning and at times caddy theater community. This was especially true for that very first preview, which for some reason was chosen to be an Actors’ Fund benefit performance. That meant it was going to be a house full of industry people. So they get to the end of the show, and it was now revealed that Tracy (Christine Baranski) was the one who murdered Lorraine. She did it to hide a secret affair she was having with the Asian houseboy played by Thom Sesma.


Christine Baranski with Gleason and Bostwick

And she stepped out onto stage, and when they asked, “Now, why did you do it and why would you do it for him?” She sang this song called "He Sees Me." And that first performance, it was like The Producers. It was supposed to be a very serious moment, and the audience started to laugh and laughed and laughed and laughed. And I remember seeing the cast on stage just horrified, because it was not supposed to be funny. And that was the ending of the show. So you can imagine, after your first preview, realizing the whole end of the show needs to be rewritten and rethought and refigured out. And so there was a lot of tumult. - Mark Hoebee

To make matters worse as previews started, the rumor mill began to churn about the show’s troubles and gossip about the people in it. But once these insider stories began to show up in the newspaper, that’s when things really took a turn for the worst.


We had this horrible meeting once where he called the company into the green room at the Marquis Theater. And we were all sitting there, we didn't know what it was. And the evil Arthur came out and with Joanna Gleason and Debra Monk, Faith Prince, all of them in the front row. I was in the back, him screaming at the company about there's a Judas among us and one of you is going to the press and telling inside family secrets. And it's broadcast all and ripped into the company and that's where he lost them. Because I remember Joanna and Barry stood up and said, we won't be talked to like this. And they walked out. And from then, there was kind of no saving the show. - Mark Hoebee

But the rumors and gossip were really just a symptom of a bigger problem: the show itself, which was constantly being rewritten. And so Nick & Nora missed its scheduled opening date of November 10th and didn’t actually open for another month.

This affected advance ticket sales for Nick & Nora, which had been going well, as they began to dry up during this long preview period, and increasingly some theatergoers would walk out midway through the show and grumble about having to pay full price for a show that was only half ready. Especially when there was another gumshoe detective musical already on Broadway at the same time: City of Angels. It had been running for two years and had won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The stark comparison between these two musicals was not lost on audiences.


Frank Rich of the NY Times attended one of the designated press performances near the end of Nick & Nora’s ninth week of previews, and he overheard this exchange between a father and his young son:

Father: "They made a mistake being so similar to City of Angels."

Son: "But City of Angels was different. It wanted to be funny."

Father: "Yeah, and this one, well, it wants to be . . . "

Son (sarcastically): "Dad, I think they're going for sophistication."

Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason sitting on a bench onstage with dog Asta.
Asta, Bostwick, Gleason

Well, whether it was sophistication or humor, Nick & Nora was still trying to find that missing ingredient just ten days before their December 8th opening. By that point, three new songs had been put into the show, some scenes had been completely thrown out and new ones inserted, and more revisions were still to come. In an interview with the LA Times, Bostwick said: “I’ve put my two cents in. I had my meetings with Arthur, I’ve written my letters, I’ve argued all I can. Now, it’s a matter of acceptance and making the most of what I have—which is considerable. My ego’s not involved in thinking that I can really change this thing. I’m an employee. It’s Arthur Laurents’ circus. He’s the puppeteer, and I’m just one of the puppets.”


Opening Week

But eventually previews had to end, after a record-breaking 71 previews—a record that stood for 20 years until the Spider-Man musical smashed it with 182 previews, a number that will likely and hopefully never be broken. And so for Nick & Nora, the script and story and music would have to come together into a finished show, whether the show was actually finished or not. And come opening night, the writing was on wall—or more precisely in the papers.


The other swing was woman named Cindy Thole, and we were very close, and we were in our opening night outfits, and we ran out to the front of the Marquis Theater, and you go through those glass doors, down the steps, into the back. We didn't have seats. We were just standing in the back. And as we walked down those stairs, Liz McCann was lying, kind of lounging back, on the steps, and I think she had either read the reviews or gotten tipped off, talking about how we were sunk. And we overheard that walking into the opening night performance, and I was like, I knew even before the curtain went up that I should start looking for another job. - Mark Hoebee


The reviews were not kind to say the least: The LA Times called the show “a mess…long, flat, and boring.” The New York Post wrote, “what we have here is a bad idea turned sour.” The Associated Press said it was “a half-hearted, sporadically entertaining show, marred by an unsavory, almost schizophrenic book, an unfocused score, and one piece of major miscasting.” And The Baltimore Sun cheekily said, “Maybe it should of previewed in Baltimore.” But it was Frank Rich at the NY Times who put the final nail in Nick & Nora’s coffin:

“Like the less-than-gifted celebrity who is famous for being famous, this musical will no doubt always be remembered, and not without fondness, for its troubled preview period, its much-postponed opening, its hassles with snooping journalists…Indeed, the story of Nick and Nora in previews, should it ever be fully known, might in itself make for a riotous, 1930's-style screwball-comedy musical. But the plodding show that has emerged from all this tumult is, a few bright spots notwithstanding, an almost instantly forgettable mediocrity. As no one will confuse it with the hit musicals its authors have worked on in happier times.”

“That kind of review doesn’t hurt,” wrote Arthur Laurents in his memoir. "It might anger, but my anger had been spent on my colleagues who had betrayed me (and thus their own show!) with the items they had secretly said like dead fish to the newsroom sharks. Instead, I felt relief that the nightmare was over.”

Nick and Nora finally came to an end on December 15, 1991—after 71 previews and only 9 performances. When it was all said and done, Strouse and Maltby had written nearly 60 songs for the musical, yet only 15 survived. Nick & Nora was the only American musical slated for the 1991-92 Broadway season, so it’s quick dismissal was further evidence of a continuing decline in original musicals from the US at that time; the European invasion was in full swing.


AFTER CLOSING

However, months later Strouse and Maltby were Tony-nominated for Best Original Score—the only award nomination of any kind for Nick & Nora—and I asked Richard if that was at least some validation of the work and effort put into this short-lived show...


Yeah. I mean, you know, it becomes kind of an inadvertent joke, because, here you are a show that ran one week, and yet the score gets nominated. I think it was not a strong season for new scores, you know, and you have to fill out four slots. But there were people who liked the show, particularly those big long solving-the-murder-mystery sequences, which were very fresh and the sort of thing that, you know, people do more of now, but really didn't do back then.

Faith Prince would also be nominated that year and go on to win a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, but that was for her career-defining performance as Miss Adelaide in the big revival that year of Guys and Dolls. Still, Faith has a special place in her heart for Nick & Nora and the role she played.



With Nick & Nora being such a notable and dramatic failure, so many have their own theories of what went wrong and why. The show has become legendary, not so much for the show itself, but for all the creative blunders and backstage turmoil that surrounded its short run on Broadway. But 20 years after Nick & Nora ended, Arthur Laurents sat down with director David Saint and reflected back on this difficult moment in his career.

First of all, it showed me how I let my ego get in the way. Once the thing was underway, I knew it was never gonna work. I knew the collaboration was awful. I started it for the wrong reason. Tom kept saying, ‘Get out of it!’ But the ego was ‘No, I can make it work.’ Well, I couldn’t. - Arthur Laurents interview

Well, in recent years, Nick & Nora has been shown a bit more love and attention. San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon theater remounted the show for the first and only time in April 2015. Two years later, members of the original company reunited for two concerts at Feinstein’s/54 Below here in New York City for a special “radio play” presentation of the musical. They sang songs from the original cast album as well as numbers from those workshops and previews. Here’s one of those songs that made it onto the cast recording but was eventually cut by opening night. It’s a duet with Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason called “Married Life.”


When Nick & Nora closed with a final Sunday matinee performance, David Richards of the NY Times revisited the show one last time and wrote: “If it could just free itself from the nasty goings-on, I have an inkling that the score by Charles Strouse might actually prove rather engaging. The lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. aren't half bad either.” And you know, after such a messy and disastrous process that is probably the best way to remember one of the most notorious flops in Broadway history.

 

I mean, there is a movement afoot to to do another version of it. And I must say I have an assistant who came to me by way of his love of Nick and Nora. And, we sat down and said, "Well, how do we fix the murder mystery?" And we did actually come up with an ending that was really great, which is not that which is an event a character. It wasn't even there who was the screenwriter because The one person who could write a mystery that would outfox Nick and Nora would be a writer. If they figured out that the mystery that they solved was too pat. The only reason that it was too pat was that a writer wrote it, and in the process covered up his own tracks. It was a really good idea. - Richard Maltby


Check out my full interview with Richard Matlby, Jr. about Nick & Nora and his other shows...


 
Closing Night theater history podcast cover art

Closing Night is a production of WINMI Media with Patrick Oliver Jones as host and executive producer. Dan Delgado is the editor and co-producer, not only for this podcast but also for his own movie podcast as well called The Industry, which I highly recommend. Maria Clara Ribeiro is co-producer. A special thank you to Richard Maltby, Jr. and Mark Hoebee for their time and candor in discussing the difficult undertaking that brought Nick & Nora to Broadway. Join us next time as another production makes its way to closing night.

 

Sources and materials used to create this episode...

THE THIN MAN

THE MUSICAL


  • “This is a rare four-page program from one of the first readings of the CHARLES STROUSE, ARTHUR LAURENTS and RICHARD MALTBY, JR. musical comedy "NICK & NORA" held in 1990 in New York City. The list of musical numbers includes "Now You See Me", "Quartet in Two Bars", "It's Easy", "Battlecry", "Hollywood", "People Like Us", "Cocktails For One", "A Dangerous Man", "The Road To Guadalajara", "See Me" and "Time To Go" (none of which made it into the Broadway production).


THE CREAITVES

THE SONGS

RETORTS AND REVIEWS


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