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:

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.