Thursday, January 8, 2009

Broadway Bloodbath

I haven't seen a Broadway show in several years, and though I'm in New York several times a year, I often lose touch with what's going on there, but this month's exeunts deserve mention; much of the Great White Way is going dark . Thirteen shows are shuttering in January, and though some were always scheduled to be limited engagements, and two others were seasonal attractions, there are more than a handful which seem to be victims of the current economic freefall.

Nobody really wants to see White Christmas anytime other than during the holidays, do they? I wouldn't think so (though the show has been making the rounds in the regions for several years, and not always at Christmas). I've written a bit about my love of the film, but I wouldn't mind seeing the stage version; I may yet get my chance, as the show's box office overcame lukewarm reviews to become a bona fide hit. I imagine it will be making return visits to New York in upcoming years. Another seasonal show closed this month, an entertainment centered around some Russian clowns. The show, Slava's Snowshow, had a successful run off-Broadway last year, and made the leap uptown this year. I read almost nothing about this piece, so who knows if it will be back.

Two more limited run shows are closing this month. Liza Minnelli returned to Broadway and wowed the critics with her stamina, her drive, and her attendance (like most of her career, she missed a few performances on doctor's orders, but graciously added shows to make up for it). I saw Liza at Radio City many years ago; she was on her decline at that point, and shouted the songs. This year, though, she seems to have made it work for her.

The All My Sons revival was also a financial success, and the stage debut of Mrs. Tom Cruise may have had a little something to do with that. Katie Holmes got mixed reviews, from what I read, but she was surrounded by real pros, and I've heard from folks who saw the play that it was terrific. I have a lot of respect for TV actors who return to the stage (John Lithgow, also in the show, is one of them), but I have absolutely no respect for producers who hire TV names for marquee value, without regard for their ability to actually deliver a performance. Ms. Holmes had never been on a stage before. I wonder what's next: Tori Spelling as Hedda Gabler?

All the other shows closing this month are commercial ventures which, I'm sure, would prefer to be hanging around a bit longer. Dividing the Estate is the latest Horton Foote family drama, with a large cast headed by Elizabeth Ashley. I wonder if some of their thunder was stolen by last year's Tony winner for Best Play, August: Osage County, which is still playing. Word is that most of the cast of Foote's play will be reprising their roles in an upcoming production at Hartford Stage. But for now, they're history.

The other straight play which is closing this month is Boeing-Boeing, a revival of a 60s flop which has been running for about a year. I would have loved to see this one, as the original cast included Christine Baranski, Bradley Whitford, and a Brit who is apparently a comic genius, Mark Rylance. A national tour is in the works, according to their website. I read an interview with one of the producers of the show, and was reminded that, in the old days, plays were really only meant to last a season, then tour a season, then disappear. Broadway economics eventually put a stop to that, and now a show has to run and run and run to turn a profit. Anyway, doesn't this show look fun?
Lots of musicals are calling it quits this month, including a show called 13, which stars actual teen-agers. Here is another show about which I had heard very little, though the picture reminds me of a show I saw decades ago, Runaways (this show's cast looks much more clean-cut).
Spring Awakening, 2007's Tony winner for Best Musical, definitely seems to be a victim of the economy. It received very good press, and though I've never heard the score, I certainly heard ABOUT the score, from the guys in the dressing room at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre. When I was there during the summer of '07, all of them were enamored of this show about youth and sexual tension. I doubt I'll ever see this piece, as I have it on good authority that people in my generation just don't get it.

Another musical about youth and sexual tension bit the dust this week. This umpteenth revival of Grease was a little unusual, as the leading players were chosen on a Reality TV Competition. Apparently they were pretty good, but did we really need yet another revival of that warhorse? When we have yet to see a revival of A Little Night Music? I was in a summer stock production of Grease back in the 80s (in fact, I earned my Equity card playing Teen Angel), so I can state without hesitation that the show is more fun to be in than to watch. (Off the top of my head, I think Godspell and The Lion in Winter also fall into that category. Lots of fun to perform, not so much fun to attend.)

And while we're talking about winners of Reality Show Competition, it's worth noting that American Idol's most famous loser, Clay Aiken, returned to Spamalot for its final performances. I have enjoyed listening to the score of this long-running hit, but was never a Monty Python fanatic, so never took the time or money to see the national tours as they rumbled through DC. This show may just have run out of steam, rather than being an economic victim, as it's been running since 2004.

The longest running show to be closing this month is Hairspray, which won lots of Tonys back in 2003, and topped 2600 performances before closing last week. Original stars Harvey Fierstein and Marisa Jaret Winokur returned to close the show, and composer Marc Shaiman clearly blamed the economic downturn for the show's demise. "It's not like the show was ailing," he complained, "it's like putting a dog to sleep, not because he's sick, but because you can't afford the dog food." Still, the show had a phenomenal run, and clocks in as the 19th longest running show in Broadway history. It's actually a tribute to the piece that it continued to run several years after the film version was released.

The biggest budgeted Broadway Musical to be closing is Young Frankenstein (excuse me, I mean The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein, the actual title. He has no ego, has he?) The New York Times ran a piece as soon as this show posted its closing notice, regarding the fact that the Broadway community will not be sorry to see this monster go. The hubris of charging 400 bucks a ticket may have caught up with the producers, and the Times review was very very poor. Still, the show hung on for a year, and I'm sorry that its star, Roger Bart, did not receive better notices. He may be one of those actors who are just better "in support."

In my opinion, which holds no weight because I have not seen ANY of the above shows, the greatest loss this month is the premature closing of Gypsy. This revival won raves, and all three leads won Tonys.
The producers had already decided to close the show in March of this year, when the contracts were up for their Tony winners, but the gloomy financial situation forced them to shut down this week instead. Patti Lupone's performance, I've heard, should be preserved on film, for posterity to see how Mama Rose should be played. I've seen Angela Landbury, Bette Midler, and Tyne Daly play the role, and would pay top dollar to see Lupone chew it up.

So, 13 shows will be gone this time next month. Actually, 15, as the limited run of Equus, starring Harry Potter and his uncle, will be ending in early February, and Mamet's Speed-the-Plow departs next month as well. So, almost half of the current Broadway offerings will have closed. It remains to be seen how long their theatres will be vacant. Dolly Parton's first stage musical, 9-5, seemed to do well in Los Angeles and is surely on its way in. I've already mentioned excitement over the Waiting for Godot revival (though that's being presented as a limited run). The Public's revival of Hair, which was a big hit in the park last summer, has faced trouble with the cast and the backing, but they seem to be forging ahead as well. Broadway is experiencing the same financial dilemmas as the rest of the world, so who knows what will happen next...