Moose Murders: “the standard of awfulness against which all Broadway flops are judged”

This great NY Times article by Campbell Robertson made me laugh out loud. Moose Murders, a play that ran on Broadway for one night only (not counting 2 weeks of disastrous previews), garnered some of the worst reviews in recorded theatrical history – they’re even worse than the reviews for, oh, Waterworld … … and the show has now passed into theatre mythology. It was the biggest flop ever – not so much monetarily but because of the vitriol it spawned. People wonder: “Was it really that bad??” Since no one saw it but that first night audience, who can tell? It’s now just part of the oral history of Broadway. Anyway, it’s a wonderful article – where they track down the original players, and talk about what, exactly, it was that went so wrong.

I mean, listen to the opening lines of Frank Rich’s original review in 1983:

From now on, there will always be two groups of theatergoers in this world: those who have seen ”Moose Murders,” and those who have not. Those of us who have witnessed the play that opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theater last night will undoubtedly hold periodic reunions, in the noble tradition of survivors of the Titanic. Tears and booze will flow in equal measure, and there will be a prize awarded to the bearer of the most outstanding antlers. As for those theatergoers who miss ”Moose Murders” – well, they just don’t rate. A visit to ”Moose Murders” is what will separate the connoisseurs of Broadway disaster from mere dilettantes for many moons to come.

Holy crap! Even THEN people seemed to know that they had witnessed something historic! There are lots of flops, sure, but only a precious few become historic flops. I got one word for you. Ishtar. Or no, how ’bout two words. Heaven’s Gate. I know it probably wasn’t funny at ALL to be in such a play – but still, some of Rich’s language here is hilarious:

This loathsome trio is quickly joined by a whole crowd of unappetizing clowns.


Frank Rich wrote another piece about Moose Murders, with a bit more distance (oh, say, a MONTH) – it’s a rumination on the “particular pleasure” of seeing “a legendary flop”. Only a month had passed since Moose Murders had closed and it had already passed into legend. Now that is a bad show.

Rich writes:

What makes certain bombs into legends? It’s hard to say, precisely – they don’t wear fur coats. Once it was a mark of distinction for a play to close in one night, but in these troubled times even that phenomenon is a sad commonplace. Some theater people define legendary bombs by the amount of money that went down the drain, or the high caliber of talent expended, or the extravagant foolhardiness of the esthetic mission. Others let Joe Allen, the theater district bistro, be the final arbiter: that restaurant has a whole wall bedecked with posters from a select group of famous turkeys. Whatever the definition, it can’t be quantified – a flop just must have a certain je ne sais quoi to rise to legendary status. But what I do know is this: the only Playbill I’ve saved thus far in this decade is the one from ”Moose Murders.”

But now, with over 20 years having gone by, the stories of Moose Murders have grown and it has now become a badge of honor to have been in the damn things. Which I think is so hysterical as well. Campbell Robertson writes:

The reviews, which were not helped by the man reeking of vomit who sat in the third row during a press preview, made the 14 performances of “Moose Murders” legendary in theater history. Cast members trumpet their involvement in Playbill biographies. The number of people who claim to have seen the show, at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, seems to have multiplied beyond physical possibility, like those who claim to have seen the Beatles at Shea Stadium or Game 5 of the 1956 World Series.

Reading the kind of grimly humorous present-day comments from everyone involved – what a delight. Arthur Bicknell, who wrote Moose Murders, was asked if the play was really that bad! He replied, “Was it really that bad? The simple answer is yes.” One critic at the time suggested that Bicknell change his name, that was the only way he would survive such a disaster.

Holland Taylor had replaced Eve Arden after a preview – because Eve Arden had basically said, “Fuck this, I’m outta here.” Holland Taylor was reached for comment for the present article and she said that stepping into that nightmare was quite an experience.

“There were things that I put my foot down about and changed,” she said in a telephone interview. “But there were things I couldn’t change. Like the play.”

I love her.

Taylor said that the play was “a misshapen thing at an almost Shakespearean level” (I’m laughing out loud) – but that it also taught her a lot. You always learn more from the bombs than from the successes.


I so wish I had been there.

Great article (read the whole thing). Kudos to the writer for getting such great quotes from everyone, and kudos to all the original players who were so forthright in their memories about such a colossal bomb.

UPDATE: Just found another eyewitness account.

So when people ask me if I saw Moose Murders, I have to answer: “Yes and no.” For I lasted–I mean this–11 minutes, still the shortest time I’ve ever spent at a show. Had I known the play would become infamous and not just another quick closer, I might have stayed on. But I’d been on a business trip, had schlepped my luggage to the theater, was sweaty and hungry and not in the mood to have my intelligence insulted any more than it had to be. So I missed the second-act scene that I heard about later, where the quadriplegic magically bolted from his wheelchair and kicked a moose-suited man below the belt.

And June Gable, who was in the show, is quoted as saying:

“You know, thank God, I have very little memory of the show. It was an outrageous experience and it was one reason why I left the business shortly afterwards. I actually went to India and spent a year there searching for the meaning of life.”

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16 Responses to Moose Murders: “the standard of awfulness against which all Broadway flops are judged”

  1. That was hilarious. I wasn’t even familiar with this production until reading the article. Bad plays suck when they’re happening but afterwards, they bring nothing but joy. In fact, good or bad, most of my memories from productions I’ve been in center around things that went wrong, for whatever reason.

    But I do believe every actor has a “Moose Murders” on their resume somewhere. I know I do. I’ve got an outright catastrophe that I, unfortunately, had the lead in. There were so many problems that I could not do it justice except in a lengthy post. Eventually I’ll get around to it.

    Any “Moose Murders” on your resume?

  2. red says:

    I’d love to hear about the catastrophe sometime! And how awful to be the LEAD in a catastrophe!

    I think my biggest Moose Murders was the production of a new play called “Sitcom” in Chicago. The theatre was tiny. That was the production where while I was up onstage acting, a man in the audience stood up and shouted up at the stage, “WHO WROTE THIS SHIT?”

    The guy who “wrote this shit” was also IN the play and he has gone on to some nice success – but there is one reviewer in Chicago who will never EVER let him forget Sitcom – it made the reviewer that angry. The playwright could go on to get a Best Screenplay Oscar and that Chicago reviewer would use as his lead:

    Unlike the disastrous ‘Sitcom’ …”

    It haunts him to this day. It was that bad.

    As I was up onstage, I could feel the waves of anger coming up at me from the audience. Never experienced malevolence like that and I hope never to again!

  3. I remember that story now. That’s the one where the guy who said “Who wrote this shit” couldn’t get out of the theatre. That was laugh out loud funny.

  4. red says:

    Yes! The door was locked and he couldn’t get it undone – so I’m still up onstage acting and I hear from the lobby his increasing rage….

    Will someone get me OUT OF HERE???”

  5. Dave E. says:

    This is hilarious. I’ve been in some debacles, mostly business stuff, that I can laugh about now, but nothing like “Moose Murders”. That’s world class stuff and that line about India just slays me. I’m likely to burst out laughing at inappropriate moments for the rest of the week.

  6. Emily says:


    That’s still one of my favorite stories of yours, Sheila. And reading about this play reminds me of the time I was offered some grappa after dinner and asked what it was. My dad said “it’s the most disgusting thing I have ever tasted,” to which I promptly and enthusiastically replied “I want to try it!” This is kind of the same thing. If it’s really that bad, I simply must read it.

  7. red says:

    Dave – ha! I know – the India line just kills me. And if you look her up she actually DID get back into the business, but still – it was a flop of such proportions that she had to go to India. Ha!!!

  8. Brendan says:

    I wrote an entry on my blog about doing a play called ‘Angel Wings’ that was excruciating. I called the entry ‘Pratfalls for Crickets’. Huge comic gestures met with hostile silence.

    But, as bad as that was, the worst show I’ve ever been in was in Providence working for a children’s theater. Every other production I did for that compnay I would be proud to have anyone of any age see, but this show could have gone into a time capsule as an example of why the very words ‘children’s theater’ bring up such bile.

    We only did the show for a couple of weeks before they pulled the plug on it. It was called ‘The Search for Delicious’. By the end of the second week, kids were actively not paying attention and we were trying things like “Hey, let’s see how it feels to do it as fast as we can!” That was the one that eventually got the show canned because the school was like, ‘Um, you were supposed to be here for 2 hours at least and you packed up your van after 37 minutes.’


  9. red says:

    Emily – yes! I mean, I paid money to see GIGLI – in the movie theatre. I HAD to see the disaster. I HAD to see it for myself!

  10. red says:

    Bren – The Search For Delicious is legendary to me!

  11. tracey says:

    Touring company. Junior year in college. We’re doing a show at a nursing home (note: never do shows at a nursing home).

    We’re down on the same level as our audience so they are mere inches away from us. At THE critical moment in the show, a old lady in the front row lets out the hugest loudest fart I think I’ve ever heard. Like I honestly don’t know how she was still alive after that. It sounded urgent and deadly, like “Call 911. This woman has clearly just expelled some vital internal organs.”

    And the six of us onstage ALL started shaking at once. Trying to hold our laughter in. We said our lines shaking. We did our blocking shaking. We could NOT look at each other. None of us. For the rest of the show. It was so SO bad.

    I’ll never forget how completely oblivious that old lady looked. The sound, the smell. None of it registered to her at all.

  12. red says:

    I’m dying!!!!

  13. Sal says:

    Oh, these are wonderful.
    When the Philia in our Forum last summer mentioned she went to a certain high school, I asked, “Omigosh, were you in Suessical?” exactly as if I were asking if she’d been on the Titanic. Or the slopes of Mount St. Helen.

    “Yeah,” she said. “I was Getrude McFuzz. But I never barfed onstage.”

    Most of the cast was felled with a virulent gastric virus, and being high school, there were no understudies, so they had to go on, regardless.
    It’s a local legend.

  14. red says:

    Or the slopes of Mount St. Helen.

    HAHAHA yes – like a survivor of some horrible catastrophe!!

  15. nightfly says:

    I can’t remember who recommended it to me, but I recently read a Joe Queenan article about what makes a movie an historic bomb, as compared to either a merely bad movie or a “so bad it’s funny” movie. Can’t find it online now because I had printed it for later reading. It may have been one of Sports Guy’s links of the week, now that I think about it.

    I was gratified when I read the mention of “Dance of the Vampires” in the article. I heard the radio commercial for that and nearly wet myself laughing, it sounded so ridiculous. (Full disclosure – I HATE Jim Steinman’s music like Jake hated Illinois Nazis.) Good times. And this comment thread is brilliant! I’m laughing about everything and I’m not even a performer.

  16. richard weishaar says:

    I was there and – thank god – I saved the playbill.
    Wonder how much it’s worth 25 yrs. later. Anybody know? Let me know at bsbee85603@yahoo,com.

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