I made my feelings about the musical Baby, It's You! quite clear already. Great cast, terrible book, eye-straining curtain design. I also figured the show would run for the better part of a year before closing. I was wrong. Baby, It's You! will play its last performance on Broadway on September 4. This surprises me. I feel like, even though it wasn't close to being a perfect show, it had an audience. I wasn't so much baffled by the audience participation during every song as I was saddened. With this catalog of music, that story, and those actors, Baby, It's You! could have been something truly special. The target audience* was loving every minute of it. They didn't care that the book didn't make sense because they knew the music.
So what went wrong with the show? Other than the book, it's hard to pinpoint exactly. I know they've been heavily discounting tickets for weeks through flyering and discount sites. It doesn't look like a particular expensive show to produce--a lot of similarly shaped costumes, a few projection screens, only one big-named star--but that doesn't mean there aren't huge hidden costs.
Baby, It's You! is a jukebox musical. That means they have to pay theatrical licensing fees to the songwriters and current rights holders to every song in the show. They did not choose obscure songs for this production; these are big hits. They didn't even stick to one artist's catalog. They include "Shout," "Twist and Shout," "Duke of Earl," and even "It's My Party" just to pad the evening a little longer.The narrative reason was tenuous--these acts toured with The Shirelles, so they need to be in the show. If they had any dramatic impact other than "OMG I LOVE this song," it might have been worth it; they didn't. That's just the top of Act II. The show ends with a medley of Dionne Warwick songs that aren't even close to being sung in full. They paid for every number. This part of the show made more sense from a dramatic perspective, but was still a bit of a let down to see those songs come and go so quickly. The show spent a lot of money in the hopes of becoming a big Jersey Boys/Mamma Mia!-sized hit right out of the gates. It backfired.
I should have realized something was off when a big promotional tool was saying that "x" recording artist was going to join the post-curtain call music performance. I was one of the people who knew that stunt-casting Melissa Etheridge in American Idiot (as St. Jimmy) was the death knell of that production. Same with the continued emphasis on this guest or that guest performing with Million Dollar Quartet. Baby, It's You! had to start pulling in actually performers from the era to try and sell more seats. I doubt original Shirelle Shirley Alston Reeves was performing for free on Broadway. Same with getting the rights to promote the show by saying someone like Aretha Franklin was in the audience and loved it. I can't fault the producers' hustle on this one, but the fees might have added up a bit too quickly.
Then there's the big hidden cost: the orchestra pit. The orchestra is onstage the entire show. This normally isn't a particularly expensive proposition. Who knows how much it cost to build that costume amusement park-esque rotating bandstand. Different soloists on different songs would rise above or fall back into the orchestra. The set piece moved into a different position for every song in the show. The bright pink and purple metal behemoth could not have been cheap to build, run, or maintain for the safety of musicians in the pit.
There's a wildcard in this show's closing, as well. One of the members of The Shirelles and Dionne Warwick, among others, are suing the producers of Baby, It's You!. They claim that no one approached them to get the rights to use their names, likenesses, or life stories for commercial gain. The lawsuit was filed on the opening night of the musical. Back then, quite a few people dismissed it as opportunism; now, I'm wondering if maybe they were making good progress in their claims. Who know how much of the weekly operating cost would now have to be given to the surviving members of the group and their estates to appease a court order?
Here's what I'm hoping happens with the show. I would love it if book writers Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott would take a step back and reevaluate their work. There is no shame in revising the book or score of a musical until you get it right. Even Leonard Bernstein did it. If they take the time to add in some more exposition (which is when the show actually shined and gave the actors something to work with) to clarify the scene and time changes, this could be a good show for regional, summer stock, and community theater groups to perform. The way the performers defend the story lets me know that the stage action in the book explains what is going on for the performers; they just need to bring that detail out so the audience know what's happening.
If you want to watch Baby, It's You! to see Beth Leavel try like hell to sell this show**, you only have one month of performances left before it leaves Broadway.
Are you said to see Baby, It's You! close? Relieved? Happy? Sound off below.
*I assumed by virtue of absolutely loving The Shirelles and the rise of the girl group that I was a part of it. I was sadly mistaken. **It bears repeating that Beth Leavel gives an amazing performance in a bad show. She deserves better than this.