by Henry Edwards
"The drama dies unless it is rejuvenated by new life. We must put new blood into this corpse."
So said the great French novelist Emile Zola (who apparently was also very good at saying profound things about the arts).
When it comes to Broadway, the best new blood is a mega-hit, one that draws crowds to The Street where they usually snap up tickets to more than one show, more often than not a musical. The big earners, musicals typically account for 85-90 percent of the gross revenues generated on the Great White Way.
Broadway is New York City's number one tourist attraction with out-of-towners accounting for 65 percent of ticket sales. While the impact of the current economic turbulence is yet to be seen, what is known is that revivals of "Godspell" and "For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is…" have been cancelled after financial backing slipped away, and that the obligatory post-Labor Day box office downturn has been severe enough to encourage "Xanadu," "Legally Blonde" and "Hairspray" to bite the dust.
At the same time, the re-sale companies that scoop up large blocks of tickets for the most promising new attractions are resisting the urge to make large outlays of cash, an indication that the New Year could be especially tough for Broadway.
The theatre is called the "fabulous invalid" because it always seems on the verge of collapse. Yet it always survives, sometimes surviving fabulously.
We're more than half way through the first half of the 2008-2009 theatre season. This is what's happened so far:
"[title of show]" (Lyceum Theatre): After a 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival debut followed by a healthy 2006 Off-Broadway run, Jeff Bowen's and Hunter Bell's mini-musical about the making of their mini-musical made it to Broadway where it ran out of steam after playing 13 previews and 102 performances. Video blogs on UTube and the official [title of show] web site document the writer/stars' unlikely ride from obscurity to their fifteen fantasy-filled minutes of fame.
"A Tale of Two Cities" (Al Hirschfeld Theatre): Critics did not take kindly to composer-lyricist-librettist Jill Santoriello's musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' historical novel. A hard driving promotional campaign and snazzy television commercials are doing their best to keep the show alive at the box office.
"Equus" (Broadhurst Theatre): The revival of Peter Shaffer's 1970's dramatic mega-hit casts Tony Award winner Richard Griffiths as overworked, sexless psychiatrist Martin Dysart and "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe as Alan Strang, the 17-year-old stable boy who blinds six horses. The direction is overwrought, and Griffiths as an
R. D. Laing prototype is saddled with some seriously silly monologues about the ecstatic nature of his surly teenaged patient's religious/sexual worship of horses. Triumphing over the smoke effects and cornball music, Radcliffe delivers a performance notable for its intensity, clarity and emotional truth. One of the most triumphant stage debuts in recent memory.
"The Seagull" (Walter Kerr Theatre): Ben Brantley of The New York Times hailed Ian Rickson's London Royal Court Theater production of Chekhov's masterpiece as "the finest and most involving production of Chekhov that I have ever known." In her Broadway debut, Kristin Scott Thomas repeats her breathtaking performance as wonderfully selfish, hypocritical, self-serving, imperious, ravenously vain Irina Arkadina.
"13" (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre): Edginess is nowhere to be found in this small-scale musical featuring a cast and band made up entirely of teens. Will "13" prove to be Broadway's answer to "High School Musical," "Hanah Montana" and the Jonas Brothers? The marketing question is the thing about "13" that's really intriguing.
"A Man for All Seasons" (American Airlines Theatre): Why did it take forty-six years to mount a Broadway revival of Robert Bolt's 1962 Tony Award-winning Best Play about Sir Thomas More, King Henry VIII's martyred Lord Chancellor? The answer may be that the story of a character that insists on remaining resolute, calm and the ultimate man of conscience while the drama rages around him is not very interesting. Frank Langella, one of the great larger-than-life stage actors, faces the challenge of breathing life into this airless pageant.
"To Be or Not to Be" (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre): Ben Brantley of The New York Times labeled Nick Whitby's stage version of Ernst Lubitsch's fabled 1942 dark screwball motion picture comedy a "walking corpse." Brantley got it right.
"All My Sons" (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre): Arthur Miller's second play (and first Broadway success) translates the social drama of Hendrik Ibsen into the story that illustrates the equation ''doing business'' encourages moral bankruptcy. As far as Miller is concerned the American dream simply fails to create citizens with a sense of responsibility for their fellow human beings. John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson and Katie Holmes (in a much publicized Broadway debut) co-star. Even more interesting is the fact that Simon McBurney, artisti
"The Chairs"; "The Street of Crocodiles") helmed the production, adding Brechtian elements and echoes of Greek tragedy in the process that have provoked violently divergent critical reactions. The production reigns as Broadway's hottest non-musical ticket.
ON THE WAY
"Speed-the-Plow" (Barrymore Theatre): Desperation, insecurity, ambition, terror, hollowness and the fear that pervades American capitalism pervade David Mamet's 1988 satirical take on the movie business. Jeremy Piven, Raul Esparza and Elisabeth Moss portray Mamet's high-octane characters, giving hem what so many actors crave: the opportunity to spit out Mamet's rapid-fire, often overlapping, expletive laden dialogue.
"Billy Elliot" (Imperial Theatre): Everyone loved Stephen Daldrey's 2000 film about the motherless working-class eleven-year-old boy who abandons boxing to train as a ballet dancer during the 1984-85 coal miners' strike. Everyone loves the musical version of the film, also directed by Daldrey, with a score by Elton John and book and lyrics by screenplay author Lee Hall. The show earned four 2005 British Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical. It's this season's big one, no doubt about it.
"American Buffalo" (Belasco Theatre): The third Broadway revival of David Mamet's first Broadway play co-stars John Leguizamo (who will do undoubtedly do his best to erase memories of Robert Duvall and
Al Pacino who previously played the role), and Cedric The Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment (in their Broadway debuts) as a trio of inept hustlers who pit business against friendship in a desperate scam to obtain what they believe to be is their share of the American dream. Recipient of the 1977 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.
"Dividing the Estate" (Booth Theatre): Written in 1987 and set in the same year (the year of the Savings and Loan Crisis, no less!), 92-year-old playwright Horton Foote's comedy-drama did not make it to Off-Broadway until last season. The wait was worth it when "Dividing the Estate" created a sensation. Foote once again transports audiences to the fictional Gulf Coast town of Harrison, Texas (based on his own birthplace), where three generations of the Gordon clan attempt to divvy up the family's incredibly shrinking fortune, efforts that are as hilarious as they are touching. Michael Wilson once again directs a superb company of thirteen led by Elizabeth Ashley as the 85-year-old matriarch of the cash-poor brood.
"Irving Berlin's White Christmas" (Marquis Theatre): Since its 2004 debut, prior to New York, this stage adaptation of the affable, 53-year-old Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye Vistavision film musical has enjoyed successful holiday run in six cities. For those who missed the movie or have chosen not to rent it, "White Christmas" offers two World War II vets who form a song-and-dance act, woo a pair of beautiful singing sisters and who have a Christmas gig at a picture-perfect Vermont lodge (owned by their former army commander, no less!) Out of town critics hailed the "visually sumptuous presentation" and "elaborate tap-dancing sequences," pronouncing it "pitch-perfect for the holidays."
"Pal Joey" (Studio 54): When the Rogers and Hart musical opened in 1940, Brooks Atkinson, the distinguished drama critic of The New York Times, responded in dismay. Adapted by John O'Hara from his series of "New Yorker" fictional letters, the song-and-dance show, essentially the first realistic musical, offered up an anti-hero protagonist who was a womanizing heel. From Atkinson's point of view, the show "offers everything but a good time… Although 'Pal Joey' is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?"
Twelve years would elapse before a 1952 revival established the musical as a masterwork.
Roundabout Theatre Company revival co-stars Tony Award winner Christian Hoff ("Jersey Boys") as Joey and Stockard Channing, returning to the Great White Way after an eight-year absence, as bewitched, bothered and bewildered Vera Simpson, the rich older woman who uses Joey as her personal sex toy. Broadway hasn't seen the musical since a disastrous 1976 Circle-in-the-Square Theatre revival. This time around, Richard Greenberg's new book should help things along.
"Shrek the Musical" (Broadway Theatre): Seattle critics had nice things to say about the pre-Broadway tryout of Jeanine Tesori ("Thoroughly Modern Millie"; "Caroline, or Change") and Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire's musical version of the DreamWorks animated blockbuster ("full of heart"… "a disarming comic fable"… "warm and funny"). Main Stem fave-raves Brian d'Arcy James and Sutton Foster portray the hulking, bright-green swamp ogre and the love of Shrek's life, Princess-With-A-Curse Fiona. Five years in the making and rumored to cost in excess of $15 million, "Shrek the Musical" represents DreamWorks' first attempt to replicate the success of the Disney Company's hugely profitable stage versions of its animated family movies. To that end, Tony Award nominee Daniel Breaker ("Passing Strange") has assumed the role of Donkey, the role of the Dragon has undergone revision and director/ choreographer Rob Ashford has signed on to the creative team. Meanwhile, another question remains: Will the success of "Billy Elliot" help or hinder another big musical arriving less than a month later?