How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Fail, Fail, Fail

Tim Harford, Britain's answer to Malcolm Gladwell, explains how one of the biggest turnarounds in Broadway history, Movin' Out, teaches us a fundamental lesson about our ability to adapt.

"Wildly uneven"


"Fuzzy and confusing"

These are not the type of reviews you want to receive if you are bringing a multimillion dollar musical production to Broadway. Words like these don't look particularly good on a Times Square marquee.

These negative reviews were aimed at what appeared to be a certain flop: Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out, a musical based on the songs of Billy Joel that premiered at the Schubert Theater in Chicago in 2002. In the theater world, what happens in Chicago is supposed to stay in Chicago. In other words, a producer can try a show out in another town and expect to bring it to Broadway with a clean slate. However, Billy Joel is a big name and Tharp is a well-known choreographer, and sometimes people delight in others' falls from grace.  

The bad buzz actually rose to such a level that New York City theater critics started to smell blood. New York Newsday chose to reprint a blistering review from the Chicago Tribune, breaking what The New York Times called "a longstanding tradition in the New York press of not reviewing a show's out-of-town tryout." The knives were clearly drawn.

Then something remarkable happened. After weeks of delays, Movin' Out finally opened on Broadway to rave reviews. Ben Brantley of The New York Times gushed that in this "shimmering portrait of an American generation" Tharp had staged her dances "with such infectious New Age-flavored glee that you can feel the audience members loosening up gratefully."

Words like those look much better on a theater marquee. So how did Tharp turn it around?

The original poster for Twyla Tharp and Billy Joel's Movin' Out

In his provocative and highly counter-intuitive book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, the economist Tim Harford points to Tharp as one of a few highly successful adapters such as U.S. General David Petraeus and the engineers in Google's labs. Harford, who has been dubbed 'Britain's Malcolm Gladwell,' argues that "success comes through rapidly fixing our mistakes rather than getting things right the first time."

According to Harford, Twyla Tharp could have reacted to failure in a number of unproductive and self-defeating ways. He writes, "It would have been easy for someone of her stature to reject outright the critics’ views, refuse to change the show, lose her investors’ money, set back the careers of her young dancers, and go to the grave convinced that the world had misunderstood her masterpiece."

Instead, Tharp made rapid changes to her production, all in thr name of winning back the critics and the audience. As Harford tells Big Think:

Her dancers were performing every night in front of dwindling audiences with these terrible reviews and every morning they had to learn new steps as she altered and adjusted things. One of the things she did was seek out very detailed advice from colleagues. She said 'I want you all to read the reviews, cut out the stuff that burns, cut out the stuff that hurts, but focus on the actual criticism. What do I need to change?'

Tharp continued making adjustments on Movin' Out right up until the show's New York premiere. A Vietnam battle scene had confused audiences. She revised the scene fourteen times until it worked.

What's the Significance?

In an important sense, what enabled Tharp to fix Movin' Out is the show business institution of the out-of-town tryout itself. Movin' Out was allowed to fail to a certain point. But it was still recoverable. In fact, Tharp later wrote in her book The Creative Habit, “The best failures are the private ones you commit in the confines of your room, alone, with no strangers watching." Since theater is not a private endeavor, Harford points out that the next best thing is to "fail in front of a limited audience. If your new show is going to fail, better that it does so away from Broadway, giving you a shot at recovering before it hits the big stage."

When it opened, Movin' Out became a smash hit.  It won multiple Tony Awards, including Best Choreography and Best Direction of a Musical for Tharp. 

Here is a medley from Movin' Out performed at the 2003 Tony Awards:

 What makes this story more unique is that unlike General Petraeus cleaning up Donald Rumsfeld's mess in Iraq, Harford points out that this was Tharp's own mess.

"When you’re fixing your own mistake," Harford tells Big Think, "you’re challenging a status quo that you yourself made. That’s a terribly difficult thing to do, but it’s a brilliant skill if you can acquire it."

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @DanielHonan
 

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

What’s behind our appetite for self-destruction?

Is it "perverseness," the "death drive," or something else?

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Each new year, people vow to put an end to self-destructive habits like smoking, overeating or overspending.

Keep reading Show less

Can the keto diet help treat depression? Here’s what the science says so far

A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.

Photo: Public Domain
Mind & Brain
  • The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
  • Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
  • Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
Keep reading Show less

Douglas Rushkoff – It’s not the technology’s fault

It's up to us humans to re-humanize our world. An economy that prioritizes growth and profits over humanity has led to digital platforms that "strip the topsoil" of human behavior, whole industries, and the planet, giving less and less back. And only we can save us.

Think Again Podcasts
  • It's an all-hands-on-deck moment in the arc of civilization.
  • Everyone has a choice: Do you want to try to earn enough money to insulate yourself from the world you're creating— or do you want to make the world a place you don't have to insulate yourself from?
Keep reading Show less