One Night Wonder
One Night Wonder
On May 6, 2008, the night of their show’s Broadway debut, Nick Blaemire and James Gardiner sat at a table for three at the Palm on West 50th Street, in the heart of Manhattan’s Theater District. They’d just been served dinner under the beneficent gaze of dozens of celebrity caricatures drawn on the walls. Seated with Nick and James was Eric D. Schaeffer, the director of their show, Glory Days; Nick was the composer and lyricist, and James wrote the book. The trio had been working on the chamber musical for the past four years. The concept was simple: four friends from high school meet up on the bleachers of their old football field one night, during the summer after their freshman year of college. In a few hours, Nick and James would learn what New York’s critical establishment made of their work.
The group was marking this occasion by skipping the performance; eating dinner during one’s opening night is a time-honored Broadway tradition. By then you’re exhausted by your own show, and the audience—all invited, usually all friends—oversells its own enthusiasm for it.
Nick and James were total newcomers, just a year out of college. At 44, Schaeffer was the old pro, the artistic director of the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, which he cofounded in 1989. He had stewarded the show from an early draft through to readings and workshops, then a hit run at his own theater. That night, as he sat at the Palm, Schaeffer’s job was to say something to prepare these two young men for the uncertain hours ahead.
What do you say to these two kids, who’ve beaten the odds to find themselves on Broadway? What do you say when all of you know Glory Days is currently the worst-selling show on Broadway, and might not last much longer than opening night?
When they were high school sophomores, Nick Blaemire and James Gardiner met as singers in an extracurricular choir in Rockville, Maryland, called the Young Americans of Washington. Nick, who went to Sidwell Friends, sang tenor. James, who went to Eleanor Roosevelt High School, sang bass. They became fast friends as they learned “Please, Hello” from Pacific Overtures and “Rhythm of Life” from Sweet Charity. James was struck by Nick’s interest in serious drama and film, while Nick couldn’t believe James’s encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater. “I remember thinking James was serious,” Nick recalls. “He was teaching me stuff, and he knew Sondheim back and front and was talking about the way musicals worked before anybody that I knew.”
Another thing they both had in common: they wanted to make it. They wanted to realize the dream, and that dream, of course, was Broadway. They were 16 years old.
Three years later, during the summer after freshman year of college, Nick’s circle of intimate friends from high school broke apart, as circles of intimate friends do. Nick found himself channeling his own guilt and pain over the crack-up into a song. A song about the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another.
But then an odd thing happened. The song changed, and it became about a road trip. Why was this guy on a road trip? Nick wondered. And then it came to him: What if this guy was on the road and he didn’t know why, but he realizes that he’s on the road because he’s coming out of the closet? What if he’s singing it to his friends—and what if those friends had trouble accepting that their best friend had kept this secret?
The song was called “Open Road.” Nick played it for James, singing as his character, a 19-year-old kid named Jack who has recently had his first kiss with a man. It was a song that fit in the pop-musical tradition of Jonathan Larson’s Rent and Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years:
He kissed me in the car Beneath a starless sky And with that kiss he opened up my mind And we went driving We were driving We were driving Just me A beautiful boy And the open road
“I have this idea for a musical,” Nick said to James. “Would you be interested in writing it with me?”
As James puts it: “We just started writing it. He had sort of a rough outline of what he thought the show should be. We had maybe six weeks, and he had decided that we were going to do a reading of it.” Six weeks later, at a local youth theater called Imagination Stage, they presented what was, according to James, “maybe like six songs, and an hour and a half long.” They called the show Ass Backwards. They were 19 years old.
Nick was the driven one, ambitious, the guy who had been bullied as a kid and who “definitely felt like all of the strange looks people had given me over the last ten years of my life would be fixed if I did something awesome.” So, in 2004, during a summer institute at Signature Theatre, Nick reached out to Eric Schaeffer and asked if he could play him some of Ass Backwards. Nick performed a song called “After All.” In it, Will, an aspiring writer, begins to realize that his friends have grown apart.
Well nobody asked me if we’re allowed to change Maybe I’m the only one who stayed the same And now I am still alone with all these friends of mine The other halves of me who ran away in troubled times And now I feel the shame of holding on to what’s no longer mine Maybe things are different after all And I just never saw it at all
Schaeffer felt the show had real promise. “Someone who was 20 years older wouldn’t be able to write what they wrote then,” he tells me. “It wasn’t manufactured. It was honest, and real, and raw.” The piano-driven pop-rock of the songs sounded like something kids might actually listen to, if their tastes ran to the gentler end of the radio dial. And James’s book was written in their voice. Of course, the show was a mess. But that could be fixed. There was something there, something true. By the end of the summer, Schaeffer told Nick and James he wanted to develop the show. If all went well, they would program it at the Signature. They said yes. They were 20 years old.
Over the next couple of years, Nick and James would juggle school commitments (at the Universities of Michigan and Maryland, respectively) and write together over email and phone. Nick would drive ten hours with actors from college for workshops with Schaeffer in Virginia.
Of course, the show was a mess. But that could be fixed. There was something there, something true.
The show that came to be called Glory Days has four characters and very little story. Four friends—Will, an aspiring writer; Skip, a wry cynic; Jack, the reasonable one; and Andy, the bro-clown—meet at their old high school football field to catch up after their freshman year of college. They’ve taken their first step toward becoming men, and those steps are taking them further and further away from one another. The irreconcilability of their new identities becomes clear when Jack comes out of the closet. Andy feels betrayed and lied to and is less accepting of his gay friend than he—or anyone else—would like. But Will, wanting a perfect night of bonding, makes Andy swear not to tell anyone his feelings. As suppressed feelings have a habit of doing on stage, they erupt. By the end, Andy leaves the group, and it’s unclear whether the trio will continue without him.
“The whole show was about nothing. But what happens in that nothing is actually everything,” Nick says. It takes place in real time. It has a small band and no set to speak of. It requires only the following props: a backpack, two cell phones, a journal, a case of National Bohemian Light beer, and a set of janitor’s keys. It lacks all of the bells and whistles that people expect from a musical. “If you think of even a more character-driven Sondheim musical like Company, there’s still scenery,” Schaeffer explains. “There’s still at least one dance number.”
During the development years, Nick wrote and rewrote and threw out songs. “There was a lot of Eric telling me to cut high notes and big chords,” Nick says. James swapped out dialogue, restructured moments, and worked as hard as he could to make the emotional stakes clear without being cheap. Any moment that felt like a Very Special Episode in either the book or the songs had to go. In particular, they reworked Andy’s arc again and again, removing abuse in his past that felt like too pat an explanation for his homophobia. They also added in a beat where Jack and Will kiss right before the show’s various conflicts detonate.
Over time, they felt they had cracked the code of the show. After a public reading at Joe’s Pub in New York, and a test run at the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, Schaeffer decided to program it into Signature’s 2007–2008 season, in a house that seats 276 people. On January 15, 2008, Nick and James made their regional theater debut as a writing team, bringing them one step closer to Broadway.
Glory Days was a hit at the Signature. It sold well, and audiences seemed to love it. (“Real and surprisingly moving,” wrote critic Peter Marks in his review for the Washington Post.) Producer John O’Boyle especially loved it. “Before Glory Days, I had seen every single show Eric Schaeffer had directed, including the ones in London,” O’Boyle says. “My son had just finished his freshman year at college. I was noticing how much his relationships to his friends had changed. When I watched the musical, it was like, This is my son.”
He also saw a show that was cheap to move to New York. Its unit set was already built, and its cast and creative team would likely work for union minimums. When O’Boyle approached Schaeffer about moving the show, “my immediate response was like, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’” Schaeffer says. “Everyone has big dreams, but the reality is it rarely happens.”
Then, at the last minute, it happened. Circle in the Square, one of Broadway’s smallest theaters, became available starting in April 2008. O’Boyle and his producing partner, Ricky Stevens, had the money, and the show was set to begin performances in New York six weeks after it closed in D.C. The trip Nick and James took by train up to New York at the start of rehearsals for the transfer was documented by the New York Times in an article titled “Next Stop Broadway, Showbiz Youngsters.” In the article, Nick and James are shown, suitcases in hand, looking up in awe at their show’s marquee.
Shortly after that photo was taken, they learned that half of the money the producers thought they had raised hadn’t come through. “We had four entities that were going to each put in half a million dollars,” O’Boyle explains. “One of the entities disappeared. Another one cut their contribution. Suddenly, we’re chasing dollars. We had no reserves, and we had to cut back our advertising.”
As they started preparing for performances in a space with three times as many seats as the Signature, the little show that could started to feel too little.
Nick had been cast in the ensemble for the Broadway-bound musical Cry Baby, set to open on April 24, while Glory Days was still in previews. Despite this, he stepped in and tried to raise the missing money. “I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and, well, it’s full of rich people,” Nick says. “Michigan’s full of rich people, so I just went into high gear.” Nick’s day would begin with phone calls to every rich person whose phone number he could get, and then continue with rehearsals for either Glory Days or Cry Baby, a dinner break during which he would continue to make calls, and then a performance of Cry Baby.
“I raised a million dollars,” he says. “It’s confusing, because it did feel good. But was I just orchestrating my own fall? The answer is yes.”
The show’s troubles weren’t limited to money. As they started preparing for performances in a space with three times as many seats as the Signature, the little show that could started to feel too little. “You had to make adjustments that could fill the space,” Schaeffer explains. “Losing that intimacy just changed the whole experience. You say the word ‘Broadway,’ and people’s expectations go to a certain place. Whether that’s fair or not, it doesn't matter.” Once previews began on April 22, they had only sold 42 percent of available seats, and most of those tickets were at a deep discount. Some audiences would stand and applaud, others would walk out.
“The show is so oddly delicate,” James says. “I don’t think I even realized what the show was about until it opened on Broadway.” To James, the show is about: “When do you become a man? When do you let go and realize you have to take responsibility for your choices?”
When I ask him if he realized that on opening night, because that night he was facing his own version of that transition, he says, “Maybe.” And then, “Yeah.”
According to James, as they sat at the Palm, Schaeffer told them, No matter what, I love you guys and this is just the start. You’ll always have a home at the Signature Theatre. After an hour or so, they went back to Circle in the Square to catch the last song, “My Next Story,” which ends with these lines:
This is only who I am today And there’s so much more to see Right here in my story And who knows what that will be But it will be My next story
After the curtain call, they hurried over to the after-party. They laughed. They spoke to the trade papers. They toasted with their family and friends. Then someone pulled Nick aside. “Have you read the review?” he asked, meaning Ben Brantley’s review in the New York Times. Nick said he had not. “It’s good. It’s a B-,” he said, and handed Nick his phone.
The new musical Glory Days may be the youngest-feeling show about being young ever to land on Broadway. Granted, this callow portrait of four friends on the cusp of manhood, which opened on Tuesday night at the Circle in the Square Theater, doesn’t have the raging hormonal current or electrified anguish that made teenage cult favorites out of Spring Awakening, Rent, and, four long decades ago, Hair.
James swapped out dialogue, restructured moments, and worked as hard as he could to make the emotional stakes clear without being cheap. Any moment that felt like a Very Special Episode had to go.
Nick felt dismissed. He didn’t even treat it like it was a real show, he remembers thinking at the time. Soon he met up with James, who had snuck into the bathroom to read the review in a stall. They made eye contact and nodded, acknowledging they had both read it.
Schaeffer tried to put on a brave face. “Inside I wanted to rot away,” he says. “But on the outside, I was trying to be the good, positive, supportive leader. You have to set the example.” James got drunk and went back to the apartment the producers had rented for him. He woke up the next morning and reread Brantley’s review. Then he read the reviews by Peter Marks in the Washington Post (“undercooked”) and Clive Barnes in the New York Post (“It wasn’t long before I found myself wishing that they would turn on the sprinklers and let us go home to read a good book”). Then he decided he had had enough of reading reviews.
Later that day, O’Boyle and Stevens called a meeting at the theater. They announced that Glory Days was closing, effective immediately. “We opened on a Sunday, and we called everybody together on Monday and said, ‘It’s just not going to fly,’” O’Boyle says. “It’s hard, and it’s very hard on them. But with the reviews being that harsh, you don’t feel good about putting young actors on stage. And financially, it was just the right thing to do.” In a grim echo of how out-of-control the last month had felt, several of the actors found out about the closing before the meeting from a press release posted on playbill.com, and the meeting ended before James could even get to the theater.
Nick and James had realized their dream—and it had blown up in their face. They were 23 and 24 years old.
Broadway is a peculiar, difficult, and unforgiving business—and most Broadway shows are failures. As Ken Mandelbaum puts it in Not Since Carrie, his landmark history of the Broadway flop, “Flops are just as much a part of musical-theater history—indeed a bigger part—as hits.” Theater is a live and local art form, which means that the number of people who can see a show on a given night is limited, which in turn caps how much money can be made per performance. As Jennifer Tepper, a producer and Broadway historian, explains, that means “there’s just so many people who work on a show. Most of your money is going to human beings that you have to hire to make the show happen.”
In the 1980s, when porn shops and X-rated theaters edged Manhattan’s Theater District, it was rare that Broadway shows would be filled, night after night. But since the cleanup of Times Square in the mid-1990s, rents are high and every theater is full—they have to be. “Everything is just more expensive, period,” Tepper says. “It starts with real estate and goes from there.” Marketing costs are higher, as are materials and labor. As ticket prices go up, audiences expect more bang for their buck, which increases pressure to have bigger—and more expensive—spectacles. Today, 80 percent of shows fail to make back their investment.
But there are flops, and then there are flops. When you say “flop,” no one really thinks about a show that made back 90 percent of its initial investment but just couldn’t get over the finish line and recoup. They think of shows like Shōgun: The Musical from 1990, or 2011’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, big spectacles that bombed spectacularly, losing millions of dollars and derailing careers in the process.
“We opened on a Sunday, and we called everybody together on Monday and said, ‘It’s just not going to fly.’”
“Flops loom large in the musical-theater imagination,” says Adam Feldman, the theater and dance editor of Time Out New York. Feldman mentions as an example the legendary Theater District restaurant Joe Allen, which began collecting posters for Broadway flops shortly after it opened in 1965. Its first poster was for the musical Kelly, a show that ran for one performance during a protracted legal battle between its producers and its original writers. Now the walls are covered in posters for flops, including Glory Days. “People love flops,” says Feldman. “Sometimes in a mocking way, sometimes in a genuinely affectionate way.”
Sometimes flops, even big financial disasters, are shows of genuine worth that simply failed to find their audience. As Tepper points out, “There are Best Musical winners that didn’t make back their original investment.” Some flops even go on to be rediscovered and cherished, like Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along, which ran on Broadway for 12 days.
In between the schadenfreude flops and the worthy failures, however, are shows like Glory Days—shows that had no business being on Broadway in the first place. O’Boyle initially thought they would bring Glory Days Off-Broadway, but when Ricky Stevens ran the numbers, O’Boyle says, “it just made more sense to do it on Broadway.” Hard numbers are difficult to come by because Off-Broadway shows are not required to publicly report their earnings and losses, but the general consensus is that very few commercial Off-Broadway shows recoup in the 21st century. Off-Broadway costs have grown alongside Broadway’s, but Off-Broadway ticket prices are lower, and there are fewer seats for each performance. “A lot of Off-Broadway commercial runs back in the day relied on New Yorkers and locals,” Tepper says. “If you need to run longer and longer, you're dependent on all kinds of audiences, not just local audiences but tourist audiences.” But to reach those tourist audiences, Off-Broadway shows have to advertise in the same media markets as Broadway, and they get charged the same rate.
Feldman is unsure if a smaller theater would have helped. “The problem with Glory Days,” Feldman says, “is that there was no reason to see it compared to the available options.” A slew of “underdog musicals,” as the New York Times described them, opened on Broadway in 2008, including Xanadu, based on the 1980 film; Passing Strange, which would go on to win the Tony for Best Book; and In the Heights, which launched the career of then-28-year-old Lin-Manuel Miranda, garnering the Tony for Best Musical that year. Those shows, according to Feldman, “were flashier and newer in their sensibilities,” while Glory Days “was sincere and well-meaning, but not must-see. As theater gets more expensive and tourist-oriented, everything has to be must-see.”
While no one was particularly shocked that Glory Days closed without recouping, Feldman says, “everyone was gobsmacked that it closed overnight.” Feldman wasn’t a fan of the show, writing in Time Out that its “dim sparks of promise are washed out in the harsh glare of Broadway lights.” Still, he took no pleasure in its downfall. “It was not fun writing a bad review of this show,” he says. “I was mean to it, but I didn’t know it was going to close the next day! This was not an instance where they had it coming. They were lambs to the slaughter, those kids.”
On May 19, 2008, two weeks after the show opened and closed, the New York Times published a follow-up piece about Glory Days. In it, Nick and James tried to put on a brave face. “It’s all so ridiculous that we’re 23 years old and any of this happened at all,” Nick said at the time. “All of this has been icing.”
But in reality, they were reeling. Being forever associated with a historic bomb could negatively impact their careers going forward. And being introduced to the New York theater world via a gigantic flop on Broadway was humiliating. You can get a sense of how defensive everyone felt at the time by a quote Schaeffer gave the New York Times for the piece: “If a producer comes along and says we want to take your show to New York, what are you going to do? Say no?”
James describes himself as a “mess” in the days after the closing. “I was pretty down on myself and pretty down on the whole situation.” His apartment in New York was rented until the end of the month, so he sat around, feeling awful and watching reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond. “What I felt at the time is that we weren’t given a fair shake. And I was angry at myself. Because of a fear of failure, I couldn’t fix the problems.”
According to James, Nick was angrier, particularly about the business end of the show. Nick, however, doesn’t really remember. “I don’t feel like I was quite present throughout that whole period,” he tells me, beyond feeling the sting of humiliation. He took solace in the kindness of the larger Broadway community. With so many shows flopping, everyone had a sense of what he was going through.
Looking back, Nick feels that the differences in his and James’s personalities shaped their experiences of Glory Days. “I think James was realizing that he didn’t have the same hell-or-high-water ambition that I did. I was just running, running, running towards my future. And James wasn’t. I dragged him into that in a lot of ways, and I feel badly that he got so shat on the minute the thing ended.”
Schaeffer knew that Nick and James had to be hurting. New York’s rejection of Glory Days stung. “You’re embarrassed. You’re like, Oh, my God, were we really that off the mark?” he says. He thought of the advice Fred Ebb, the lyricist of Chicago and Cabaret, once gave him: You open the show, and then the next day you have to have a meeting on the next one. No matter what, Schaeffer thought, “You can’t get stuck.” He encouraged Nick and James to get on with the next thing.
In June, James lost the apartment the producers rented for him and moved to the Upper West Side. Broadway Across America, a touring production and presenting company, approached Nick and James to commission them to write a new musical. They started working on an original story about two brothers in their 20s who find out after their mother’s death that she had been having a long-running affair. But the magic just wasn’t there anymore.
It turns out that you can suffer a huge failure when you’re just starting out, and your life won’t end. You can watch your dream explode, and find a new dream.
“We found that the distance made it much harder to maintain,” James says. “Our friendship started to really strain as a result of our writing, and probably the Glory Days experience, too. Eventually, I just said, ‘I don’t love working with you as much as I love my friendship with you.’”
That friendship has endured. James and Nick still make time to see each other amidst the chaos of their lives in two different cities. A year ago, they went to eat dinner at Joe Allen. Their waiter, not knowing who they were, sat them underneath the poster for their own show. When James tells me this, we both laugh. That’s showbiz, right?
It turns out that you can suffer a huge failure when you’re just starting out, and your life won’t end. You can watch your dream explode, and find a new dream. For Nick, that meant changing how he approaches his career. He’s still ambitious, but those ambitions have changed. “When I was younger, I cared about achievement and credits,” he explains. “The road I was on was toward a salesman more than an artist. My dream is to make art. It’s not to make money. I owe that to the fact that this show didn’t accomplish its commercial goal.”
Nick still writes and acts. He’s been back to Broadway in the ensemble for Godspell, and he’s just wrapped up the national tour of William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos. He finished that musical about the two young men reeling from an unexpected death, and he called it A Little More Alive.
As for James, three years after Glory Days closed, he moved back to D.C. Today, he works at the Signature, as the deputy director of creative content and publicity. He no longer acts or writes. When I ask him if that was because of Glory Days, he at first says no. He and his wife wanted to start a family and needed some stability. At the same time, he realized the product of theater didn’t interest him the way the process did. So he quit.
But as we talked, he changed his mind about Glory Days and its impact on his career. It’s not that he was so traumatized by the experience that he quit theater. It’s that, having been to Broadway and having experienced failure, he found that letting that dream go was much easier. “I see a lot of people that are still doing this, and I feel like they’re doing it out of fear. They’re afraid people will think that they’re a failure.” Having failed, he finds failure far less frightening. “I didn’t get to the top of the mountain—it’s not like I wrote Hamilton—but the dream for me was to be on Broadway. And once I got to Broadway, I saw ways that it wasn’t as fulfilling as I’d made it out to be in my head.”
These days, James even finds himself questioning whether Glory Days was really a failure. Not the Broadway production—the failure there is indisputable—but the show in general. He got to make a musical with one of his best friends. It was a hit at the Signature. It was beloved when they did it in college. Kids still use songs from it for auditions all the time. Shortly after the Broadway production, a company in Japan produced Glory Days, starring the lead singer of a boy band called Attack All Around, and flew Nick and James out to see it. They used the money from that to make a cast recording, which has led to dozens of productions in the decade since it flopped on Broadway.
Every year, on May 6, they all email each other, James and Nick and Eric and the cast, to mark the day—the day their dreams came true and blew up and became other dreams, the day they all call Glory Day.