Why did opening-night joy fizzle fast?

Photographer: Walter McBride/Getty Images

Terrific Broadway Show, Terrible Signaling

Mohamed A. El-Erian is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the chief economic adviser at Allianz SE and chairman of the President’s Global Development Council, and he was chief executive and co-chief investment officer of Pimco. His books include “The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability and Avoiding the Next Collapse.”
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My daughter and I love what has become a yearly trip to New York for Broadway shows. We had a delightful time over the last few days seeing some classics, together with the “Christmas Spectacular” at Radio City Music Hall. Yet nothing prepared us for a musical we decided to see at the last minute based on my daughter’s on-the-ground research.

Despite being terrific, the production is closing next week after only two and a half months on Broadway. Reinforcing old-fashioned economic insights on signaling and asymmetrical information, this says a lot about the power of brand over quality in this curious world we live in.

Side Show” is based on the true story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who are discovered by an agent visiting a “freak show” in Texas. Seeking to shed the chains of an awful exploited life in which people stare at their abnormality, they leave Texas in an attempt to become musical stars and national celebrities.

Through powerful songs and engaging dances, this production shares with us the twins’ highs and lows. It pays particular attention to whether, through talent and hard work, they can escape society’s pull to classify and treat them as “freaks.”

Much of the musical is devoted to highlighting the complexities of two potentially life-changing decisions for the sisters. Should Violet marry and, if so, how can the marriage work given that the twins are conjoined? Should they agree to a medical procedure that would separate them but, in the process, might prove fatal to one or both of them?

I won't say more about the plot given that some of you may still be able to see "Side Show" before Jan. 4, when it is set to close. Instead, let’s consider why such a production -- with superb lead actors, beautiful songs and a powerful plot -- is closing so quickly. 

Bad reviews aren't the problem; if anything, the reviews we read on the Web were favorable. Nor is the problem one of current sales. The performance we attended was sold out, and the audience included not only first-timers from out of town such as ourselves but also New Yorkers who had already seen it at least once.

“Side Show” suffered from poor signaling (in economics, this is the ability of one party to relay credible information about itself to another), and, as such, had difficulties securing robust advanced sales. It lacks the history of “Les Miserables” and “Phantom,” or a Disney affiliation (such as “Aladdin” and “The Lion King”) or the precedent of a popular movie version (“Matilda”). The resulting advanced-revenue uncertainties made it impossible for the production to secure a big-show venue on Broadway for more than a few months.

It turns out this isn't the first time “Side Show” has been set to close prematurely. In a previous incarnation on Broadway, in 1997, it ran for only three months -- and its last performance was also on Jan. 4 (to add to the unfortunate coincidence, that was the day the twins passed away, in 1969).

At the theater, when we lamented the coming closing of the current show, one of the staff told us that "they want a blockbuster for this theater.” For that, you need a lot more than superb plot, content and actors. You need a loud signaling mechanism that many shows, no matter how worthy, find hard to secure.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mohamed A. El-Erian at melerian@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net