A Monstrous Disaster

English author Mary Shelley first published “Frankenstein” in 1818, the story of a mad scientist (Victor Frankenstein) who creates a monster which rages out of control. Shelley’s story has been adapted and modified many times over since — not only have others written novels using Shelley’s monster, but her story has been transformed into movies, television shows, and stage plays as well. You may have experienced some of them, but there’s one you almost certainly missed — a large-budget, Broadway production which debuted on January 4, 1981 at the Palace Theater in Manhattan.

Titled “Frankenstein,” the Broadway show’s storyline was similarly familiar — mad scientist makes a monster he can’t control, the monster does bad things, everyone gets scared, some people die, and so on and so forth. There was little need for an update of the tried-and-true classic. But adapting it for the stage, at least in this case, came with a big price tag because of the scenery and special effects the producers and writers desired. The massive set changes required nearly three-dozen stagehands, which was roughly triple what a typical Broadway show required, and the monster creation scene was centered around expensive machinery which flooded the hall with light and sound. The show’s price tag, at about $2 million just to get to opening night, was four times what producers originally budgeted for two years prior, and well outside the bounds of what was typical for a Broadway show back in the day.

And for all that money and effort, the show was a bomb.

Frank Rich, the long-time writer for the New York Times, published a review of the show the day after it opened. His full write-up is here, but here are some scathing parts:

[The] playwright has merged the most memorable scenes from James Whale’s 1931 Hollywood version with random scraps from the 1816 Shelley novel only to end up with a talky, stilted mishmash that fails to capture either the gripping tone of the book or the humorous pleasure of the film.

This show’s monster, like the one in the book, learns to talk – and once he does, he refuses to shut up. If nothing else, one leaves the Palace firmly convinced that man should not usurp God’s role as creator of the universe.

Keith Jochim, who plays this potentially rich role, is not a campy tragedian like Boris Karloff, and he isn’t witty like Frank Langella’s Dracula or Peter Boyle’s creature in Mel Brooks’s ”Young Frankenstein.” Though elaborately made up with the requisite cranial fissures, Mr. Jochim lacks a commanding physical or vocal presence. He’s just a beery lout in a Halloween costume.

And after noting the “colossal sets and rafter-shaking special effects” and their obvious expense, Rich summed up his review by bemoaning that “we feel nothing except the disappointment that comes from witnessing an evening of misspent energy.” The Broadway production of Frankenstein, Rich concluded, was as gruesomely awful as the monster the story focused on.

And he wasn’t alone in panning the production — not by far. Producers staged 29 previews running from early December 1980 until opening night, bringing in wave after wave of critics to watch their creation, and almost all of them similarly found the show lacking if not just plain bad. Ticket sales were adversely affected and it was clear that, unless more money could be found, the show was doomed to fail. Another New York Times article noted that the producers considered trying to raise an additional $400,000 to cover anticipated losses and to run ads on television, hoping to gain audience in spite of the bad reviews. Further, cast and crew offered to take pay cuts and forgo royalties.

But it was all for naught in the end. The Broadway production of Frankenstein — two years and two million dollars in the making — closed up shop after opening night.


Bonus Fact: Why did Mary Shelley write “Frankenstein”? To some degree, it was out of boredom. While the story was first published in 1818, she wrote the story two years prior. She and her future husband were guests of Lord Byron, the English poet, that summer — but, unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a summer that year. A volcanic eruption causes a large amount of volcanic ash to enter the atmosphere, resulting is an abnormally cold season which was colloquially known as the “Year with No Summer.” Per Wikipedia, Shelley and the other guests spent much of their time inside due to the weather and took to telling ghost stories to pass the time — Shelley concocted the Frankenstein tale during this time.

From the ArchivesNo Summer: The story of the “Year with No Summer.”

Related: The original Frankenstein, free on Kindle.