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
 

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