A 'Frankenstein' that never lived

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A 'Frankenstein' that never lived
A script for Victor Gialanella’s adaptation of “Frankenstein,” at his home in Bethel Park, Penn., Dec. 18, 2020. On Jan. 4, 1981, the effects-heavy production opened and closed on the same night. Forty years later, the creators revisit a very expensive Broadway flop. Ross Mantle/The New York Times.

by Jennifer Schuessler

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When the curtain went up at the Palace Theater on Jan. 4, 1981, the expectations — and the stakes — were high.

“Frankenstein,” an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, had cost a reported $2 million — at the time a record for a Broadway play. Screen legend John Carradine and a young Dianne Wiest were in the cast, and the unprecedented stage effects came courtesy of Bran Ferren, the wunderkind behind the mind-bending hallucinations in the film “Altered States,” released two weeks earlier.

Opening night had been pushed back three times, including to accommodate a last-minute recasting of the lead, sending gossip swirling. Yet the bells and whistles — like a massive Tesla coil that jolted Dr. Frankenstein’s creation to life — went off without a hitch.

The reviews, however, were eviscerating, including a brutal pan by Frank Rich in The New York Times. By morning, the producers had pulled the plug, ushering “Frankenstein” into the exclusive club of shows that closed on opening night.

The scale of the flop may seem quaint compared with recent catastrophes like the $75 million musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” But it remained the talk of Broadway well past its untimely demise. “If my ghoulish friends are any indication,” Rich wrote a month later, “theatergoers who didn’t see ‘Frankenstein’ are envious of those who did.”

Forty years after opening night, we talked with some survivors, including Victor Gialanella, at the time a 31-year-old first-time playwright on the ride of his life. It may have ended in a crash, but like other partisans, he sees “Frankenstein” as a forerunner of the kind of spectacle common on Broadway today.

“It was never a failure in our minds,” Gialanella said. “The show did exactly what we intended and hoped: provided a spectacularly thrilling and immersive audience experience. If I had to do it over, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

The Creature Rises

“Frankenstein” began life in 1979 at the Loretto-Hilton Repertory Theater in St. Louis, where Gialanella worked as a production manager. It was his first play, written on spec to fill the fifth slot in their season.

Gialanella: Horror was huge. “Dracula” (with Frank Langella) had just had two years in New York. The idea was to do “Frankenstein” as a kind of nonmusical musical, where the book drove to set pieces that were the equivalent of musical numbers.

It got phenomenal response, great reviews. Two days later, I got a call from Joe Kipness. He said, “Hey, kid, I’d like to buy your show.” I thought, “Really? I mean — really?” I didn’t even have an agent. He’d heard about the play from Martin Gottfried, the critic for Saturday Review, who happened to have been in town and seen it. I don’t think Joe had read it. In fact, I don’t think he ever read it.

Kipness, a flamboyant restaurateur who owned the Times Square Polynesian hangout Hawaii Kai, produced hits like “Applause” and nonhits like “One Night Stand,” which closed in previews. To retool “Frankenstein” for Broadway, he hired director Tom Moore of “Grease,” then on its way to becoming the longest-running musical in history at that point. Early on, Kipness envisioned effects of a sort never before seen onstage. But first, he arranged a trial production with a local director at a small outdoor theater in ... Fish Creek, Wisconsin?

Gialanella: It was really low-end summer stock. There was a young director, and the first thing he said was, “I have an idea. I want to have the hunchback, Igor, playing the organ, and he’s going to narrate it like the common man from ‘A Man for All Seasons.’” It was just an unmitigated disaster. I took a nap before opening night and didn’t wake up. Joe came to see it a few days later. He said, “Well, that wasn’t very good. But don’t worry, kid. On to New York!”

Moore: I think my agent sent the play to me. It offered all sorts of opportunities to do things that hadn’t been done before. Joe had already gone into high gear. Two years before it opened, people were already wearing shirts that said “Frankenstein.”

A Big Empty Theater

Casablanca Record and FilmWorks signed on as an investor. After that relationship fell apart, Kipness joined forces with theater owner James Nederlander, who oversaw the Palace, one of the biggest houses on Broadway. Terry Allen Kramer, coming off a Broadway smash with “Sugar Babies,” became lead producer.

Stewart Lane, producer: These were terrible times for the theater industry. New York was in the toilet economically. I was making the transition from being an actor, and I was working with the Nederlanders. We could not find a show that would run a decent length of time (at the Palace). We had to bring in temporary shows like the (Toller) Cranston “Ice Show.” We were desperately looking for something. “Frankenstein” had a great team and a terrific cast. And it had Bran Ferren.

At 25, Ferren had already staged rock spectacles for Emerson, Lake and Palmer. And in 1977, he had created an impressively realistic thunderstorm for the Sherlock Holmes adaptation “The Crucifer of Blood” on Broadway.

Mike Martorella, production stage manager: Marvin Krauss, our general manager, asked me to come to his office while he met with this special effects director. In walks this burly mountain man with reddish orange hair, a floor-length fur coat. Bran said, “I think we’ll do three kinds of fog, with different densities: ground fog, then another fog, then one at the top.” Another idea was to send a shock wave through the audience. Marvin kept looking at me like, What’s going on?

Ferren: I had been working in rock, on things that were spectacular. Here, we had a 1.5-million-volt Tesla coil, throwing 8-to-12-foot real sparks. And we had the biggest sound system ever used in the history of Broadway at that moment. The intent was to do the cataclysmic moments of destruction and creation at a scale people hadn’t seen before.

Gialanella: The first time I saw it all work, it was just mind-blowing — the fog, the Tesla coils, what we called the Ding Dong: a giant thing that lowered from the ceiling, kind of like a reverse phallus, with concentric rings that lightning traveled down to bring the Creature to life.

Playing the Parts

The show’s human stars included Carradine, in what would be his last stage role, as the blind beggar.

Gialanella: Carradine had been doing such crap — B-movies, commercials. He was an old man, but he still had that deep, rich, whiskey voice. During previews, Joe rented a screening room and showed us “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” (from 1935, in which Carradine had an uncredited bit part). Someone turned to him and said, “That’s such a great film. What’s your memory of it?” He stood for a minute and said, “Two days’ work.”

Carrie Robbins, costume designer: His hands were so riddled with arthritis he could not dress himself. I had a lovely small-of-stature dresser who was able to hide in the “fireplace” of the old man’s hut and help him out.

The role of Victor Frankenstein went to William Converse-Roberts, a recent Yale Drama School graduate who would be making his Broadway debut. After extensive auditions of other actors, the part of the Creature went to Keith Jochim, who had originated the role in St. Louis.

Gialanella: Nobody was nailing it. I went to Joe and said, “You’ve got to bring in Keith.” They didn’t want to do it. They wanted someone with at least New York credibility.

Martorella: Keith’s audition was incredibly moving. We had 10 minutes, and he ended up reading for a half an hour. Then he came back in the afternoon in the makeup he had designed (for St. Louis). I wrote in my diary, “He had totally transformed himself into a heap of horror.” I can still see the faces of Tom, Joe and Victor. They were in awe.

The show, began loading in at the Palace on Oct. 23, 1980. The crew started with 15 stagehands, which quickly swelled to three dozen. The start of previews was delayed by the complexity of Douglas Schmidt’s sets, which rotated on a giant turntable, and by issues with effects like the Tesla coil, whose full intensity was ratcheted up over the course of rehearsals.

John Glover, actor: The first time (the Tesla coil) went off, it scared the crap out of me. Instead of falling into the orchestra pit, I jumped all the way over it.

Martorella: Bran would say that the key to a special effect was to create a feeling it was either out of control or has a personality and a mind of its own. I remember him saying that if people think it’s out of control, then it’s doing what it needs to be doing. But it was never out of control.

Jochim: As the machines turned on, I felt the temperature actually change onstage. It was wild and wonderful and crazy. But the larger things got onstage, the smaller I felt.

Is There a Doctor in the House?

By the time previews began Dec. 9, 1980, the budget for the show, originally capitalized at $1.25 million, had swelled to more than $2 million.

Gialanella: Early in previews, Mike and I were called to a meeting in the Nederlander office, upstairs at the Palace. The producers weren’t happy with William Converse-Roberts. And they were thinking about firing Tom.

I was out of my depth. Mike was the one who really sold it. He said, “If you take Tom out, the whole thing’s going to fall apart.”

Converse-Roberts was fired after five previews. (He could not be reached for comment.) Two possible replacements, David Dukes and Len Cariou, both came to see the show with an understudy Dec. 17 (and crossed paths in the lobby during intermission). Dukes, who had won raves in “Bent,” got the role.

In an interview in the Times published two days before the opening, Dukes (who died in 2000) described getting a script that was so scribbled over it was “unreadable” and having just five days of rehearsals, some of which were held in the theater lobby because the set was being redone.

Glover: I remember cutting a lot from the script. Tom was tense. You could tell. There was a feeling we weren’t giving them what they wanted.

Moore: Once David came in, it started moving forward. All the effects were working. You may not have liked it, but there wasn’t a dull moment.

Howard Sherman, audience member at a preview performance: I remember the set design and special effects vividly. The play? Not so much. The final moment, when the monster destroys the laboratory, was extraordinary.

Glover: In one scene, a curtain fell, revealing the monster. On one of the critics’ nights, right before it fell, someone shouted (an obscenity). It really threw things off-kilter.

‘Your Heart Just Sinks’

“Frankenstein” finally opened Jan. 4, 1981. About an hour into the opening party (held at one of Kipness’ restaurants), the reviews hit.

Moore: A couple of people pulled me over and said, “It doesn’t look good at the Times.” Your heart just sinks.

Gialanella: I had gone upstairs to the room where my friends from out of town were staying. I wanted to see the first reviews on TV. They were not good. I went downstairs, and the Times had hit. Tom gave me a copy. I stood and read it. It was devastating.

Lane: We had a marketing meeting the day after, with Terry Allen Kramer and her father (Wall Street titan Charles Allen Jr.) and Jimmy (Nederlander). Jimmy said, “What are the advance sales?” I said there were no advance sales. “Is there a line at the box office?” I said, Jimmy, there’s not even a line. “Did the critics like it?” No, they hated it. He said, “Let’s close the show.”

A Last-Gasp Reanimation?

For the next 36 hours, Kramer led an intense effort to bring the show back to life.

Moore: Terry’s father offered to pay the expenses of running another week. 20th Century Fox wanted to film it. But our lead (Dukes) had signed a TV deal (for “The Winds of War”) and wanted to leave the show. He’s the one person in my life I never spoke to again.

Lane: Terry and Joe said, “How much would it cost to make an ad?” We figured it would take a half a million or more to start a (television) ad campaign — and add on top, to cover losses while the public gets to know it, another million. Jimmy shook his head and said, “Let’s cut bait.”

Moore: I put the blame squarely on the Nederlanders. I don’t think Jimmy Sr. had any fondness for the show. And “Woman of the Year” was waiting in the wings.

Gialanella: Lauren Bacall had done “Applause” at the Palace, and her dressing room still had the paint color she had wanted. “Woman of the Year” (also with Bacall) had a huge advance and no theater. We were an unknown entity with dreadful reviews and high running costs.

Moore: The influx of the great gigantic English musicals was just about to happen, but it hadn’t happened. The tragedy of “Frankenstein” is, I know full well there was an audience for it. We saw them; people kept showing up at the box office the next week.

Lane: Maybe five years later, with chandeliers falling and junkyards being recreated to accommodate “Cats.” But as for plays, the public was looking for something else.

Martorella: After we closed, Meat Loaf’s agent or manager called me up and said he wanted to buy the set. But that never happened.

The Museum of Modern Art acquired Gilbert Lesser’s poster, which went onto the so-called flop wall at the theater district restaurant Joe Allen.

Gialanella: Every year since then, on Jan. 4, I have talked to or emailed Tom. Today, it’s mostly positive memories. On the 30th anniversary, a number of us met at Joe Allen’s. Tom called ahead and asked them to pull out the poster. They hung it with the hand pointing up (instead of down). That cracked me up!

Moore: It’s like having a shared war together. Our lives were changed so greatly, both by the pleasure of doing it and the horror of its early demise.

Gialanella: After it closed, I was broke. A friend gave me three understudy roles out of pity. I was in my own private hell. At one point, I sold shoes. I wrote “Ivory Pawns” — two guys on a park bench, very soft and personal. (The reported budget: $35.) It won best new play at the Washington Theatre Festival in 1983. I wrote two or three other plays, but nobody was interested.

A Treasured Souvenir

Moore publicly vowed never to direct in New York again. Two years later, he was nominated for a Tony Award for “’night Mother.” Kipness died in 1982, but Kramer went on to produce a string of Tony-winning hits — along with flops like “Escape to Margaritaville,” her last show. She died in 2019.

Gialanella began writing for soap operas and won the first of several daytime Emmys in 1986. He walked away from “Frankenstein” (which still gets a handful of local and school productions a year) with a very different trophy: the fake dog killed by the Creature.

Gialanella: It had glass eyes and hand-implanted yak hair, cut and dyed to match the real dog in the play. I went and got it. That’s the way I left Broadway — on a bus to my parents’ house in New Jersey, carrying the dead dog.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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