Playwright Confesses! Moose Murders, the Broadway Fiasco, Grows New Antlers for Revival

By Robert Simonson
09 Dec 2012

Eve Arden in the original production; she dropped out after one preview  a sign of woes to come.
Eve Arden in the original production; she dropped out after one preview a sign of woes to come.
Photo by Gerry Goodstein

Playwright Arthur Bicknell is returning to the scene of a crime — his famous Broadway flop Moose Murders, which he is a revising for a New York City staging. With good nature intact, he talks about the bomb, his new book and his enduring passion for theatre.

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Theatre fans have a macabre fascination with flops. The more celebrated the turkey, the harder it is for the stage aficionado to let it go. Last season, Off-Broadway's MCC Theater received a considerable amount of national publicity — and an infusion of new theatregoers — for reviving the notorious musical bomb Carrie, employing a revised script and score. Perhaps the artistic director of the tiny Beautiful Soup Theater Collective in New York City took note, for this winter it will revive Carrie's only modern rival in the annals of Broadway flopdom: Moose Murders.

Moose Murders, a would-be murder mystery/farce hybrid by Arthur Bicknell, closed on its opening night, Feb. 22, 1983, at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, and has lived on since as one of the most spectacular man-made disasters ever, primarily due to an infamous, and oft-quoted review penned by then New York Times drama critic Frank Rich. "From now on, there will always be two groups of theatregoers in this world: those who have seen Moose Murders, and those who have not," ran his lead.



Only Rich and the few others who attended the show can really attest as to how bad it was. But that has not prevented others from embroidering a bit on its ranking as a catastrophe. In 2000, AARP magazine listed it among the biggest flops of the 20th century, along with the Edsel and New Coke.

"This play won't die," said Bicknell, who lives in Ithaca, NY, and whose stage career never recovered from the disaster. "It will not die. I thought, well, this is not the only bad play that's ever been on Broadway. I thought it would be forgotten. Just it just keeps going and going."

Bicknell has made peace with his status as the author of a monumental bomb. Indeed, he seems to relish it. Not only did he make revisions to the Moose Murders script for the upcoming revival, but he has written a memoir of his experience shepherding the original production to its Broadway doom. It's titled "Moose Murdered: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love My Broadway Bomb," and is self-published. The book's release is timed to coincide with the Beautiful Soup production at the Connelly Theatre in the East Village. Strike while the iron is hot, seems to be Bicknell's motto. "We can't expect there will be a lot more revivals," he reasoned. "So now's the time!"

The writer hadn't read Moose Murders for some years when he became aware of the interest of the Off-Off-Broadway, non-Equity Beautiful Soup company. (Read about the coming production, directed by Beautiful Soup founding artistic director Steven Carl McCasland.) "Knowing there was going to be a revival of a play of mine that was a big flop on Broadway 30 years ago, I thought, 'Well, I better take a look at this again. Is there anything I can do about it?'" said Bicknell. "I mean, this is bigger than I am. Moose Murders is a legendary flop. It's the standard by which all Broadway turkeys are measured. There's very little I can do about that. But maybe something I could do is take a look at the Samuel French script."

He said he was appalled by the number of structural mistakes in the text. "I thought the least I could do was address these gaping holes in the plot and maybe create some guidelines. I mean, it's a murder mystery for God's sake."

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