Are we surprised that “A Chorus Line” is back on Broadway? Not really. It all started when this record-breaker moved to Broadway in 1975 and ran for 15 years. It became a cash cow for the Public Theater, creating an endowment for many years to come for the adventurous non-profit theater. The rock musical “Rent” is only 10 years old and doing much the same for the New York Theater Workshop where it began. In recent seasons, “Avenue Q,” direct from the Vineyard Theater, and “The Twenty-Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” from the Second Stage Theater Company, are likely to produce long-term dividends for their Off-Broadway parents. Is there another cash cow in the making? It looks promising once again for a select few of the non-profit theater companies. More importantly the question is: What would Broadway be today without the new musical that began life Off-Broadway? The answer: Pretty pathetic.
Only rarely do Off-Broadway shows get the kind of high profile coverage that accompanies a Broadway opening. 2006 was particularly notable for the move to the Great White Way of such unusual musicals as “Grey Gardens” (the recipient of Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for Outstanding Off-Broadway musical, as originally produced by Playwrights Horizons) and “Spring Awakening” from the Atlantic Theater Company (recently opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theater to unanimous rave reviews). Both were buoyed by highly encouraging initial reviews. “Grey Gardens” was inspired by the Maysle Brothers’ documentary about the eccentric and reclusive mother and daughter Bouvier-Beales (known as big Edie and little Edie) and “Spring Awakening” has virtually all the critics doing cartwheels over this sensational rock musical version of German playwright Frank Wedekind’s scandalous (at the time) 1891 drama about teenagers, sex, suicide, school, and other things that make life “a bitch” (to quote a lyric) in a socially repressive society. It has the edge to land this season’s Tony for Outstanding New Musical.
Plays that made the daring move to Broadway include “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” (also from the Atlantic Theater Company), another hilarious chiller from Martin McDonagh (“The Beauty Queen of Leenane”) that sadly failed to find a receptive public, and Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed” (Second Stage Theater Company), about the making of a Hollywood hunk, which is currently struggling to stay afloat despite raves for its star, Julie White.
Two one-person shows, “Bridge and Tunnel” and “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only,” also made the move to Broadway. The former was originally produced by actress Meryl Streep in association with the Culture Project. In it, the incomparable Sarah Jones played many ethnically diverse characters at a poetry jam. In the latter entertainment that was originally presented by the Atlantic Theater Company, the ventriloquist spent time with a bunch of dummies (take that as you will). All of these shows were initially produced by non-profit theater companies, whose restricted budgets and missions rarely allow for extended or open-ended runs.
In recent years, the Manhattan Theater Club and the Roundabout Theater have significantly expanded their vision and producing capabilities by having their own permanent Broadway theaters for their more high profile productions. Of the more notable, “Rabbit Hole” was produced by Manhattan Theater Club at the Lyceum Theater and starred Cynthia Nixon and Tyne Daly. Both Nixon and Daly won Tony’s. The Roundabout’s jump-for-joy, award-winning production of “The Pajama Game” was given a box-office boost by Harry Connick Jr., making his Broadway debut at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater.
The Lincoln Center Theater is also apt to secure a Broadway house in addition to its home base, as with “Awake and Sing,” the excellent award-winning revival of Clifford Odet’s classic Depression-era play presented at the Biltmore Theater. The current big noise at Lincoln Center Theater is “The Coast of Utopia,” Tom Stoppard’s mammoth three-part epic of pre-Revolution Russia already extended to May 13. A hit in London, the first two parts have already opened here with all three scheduled to play in repertory with some days geared to a marathon performance of all three.
Broadway has traditionally been receptive to British imports and this year was no exception. Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” made a big splash as a purely commercial venture on these shores and was adored by almost everyone (but me) and won the Tony for Outstanding Play. However, two other imports, “Festen,” by way of London’s fringy Almeida Theater Company, and “Losing Louie” (courtesy of the Manhattan Theater Club), fared poorly.
The critics were unkind to film mega-star Julia Roberts, who made her Broadway debut in Richard Greenberg’s very fine play, “Three Days of Rain.” They were only a bit more receptive to another film star, Julianne Moore, although the major shots were aimed at David Hare’s disappointing diatribe, “The Vertical Hour.” Moore is also making her Broadway debut and expectedly providing the play with box-office clout. Hare’s bent for political exposition was better served in the incendiary Off-Broadway play about the machinations and mechanics behind Bush’s war, “Stuff Happens,” as produced by the Public Theater.
Although the Public Theater didn’t see any of its productions move to Broadway this year, it did offer subscribers and the public many fine plays, notably Diana Son’s play about mixed race marriage, “Satellites.” Economics played a part in the number of one-person shows, many of which were outstanding including Neil LaBute’s “Wrecks” (a sellout at the Public), starring a brilliant Ed Harris playing a man with a dark secret revealed at his wife’s funeral; and “No Child,” about an inner city school teacher coping with incorrigibles. It is beautifully written and performed by Nilaja Sun, who also assumes multiple roles. “RFK” (Culture Project) with Jack Holmes, perfect as the late senator, was a special treat.
There were only two major Broadway revivals this year: Brian Friel’s hypnotic but talky “Faith Healer” was a sellout in its limited run due to the triple threat casting of Cherry Jones, Ralph Fiennes, and Ian McDiarmid. Despite the presence of David Schwimmer, Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial” failed to find favor with either the critics or the public.
The surprise smash musical hit of the year was the Canadian import “The Drowsy Chaperone,” winner of the Tony for Outstanding New Musical. Producers Disney and Cameron Macintosh spared no expense to make “Mary Poppins” as spectacular and entertaining as possible. Some major new musicals were huge disappointments: Disney’s marketing department is helping keep the terrible “Tarzan” open. Nothing could help Twyla Tharp’s nightmarish ode to Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are a Changin’” or “Ring of Fire,” another misguided venture this one trading on the Johnny Cash canon.
The thoroughly enjoyable, if lightweight, “High Fidelity” (based on Nick Hornby’s book and the cult favorite film), brightened by the wittily raunchy lyrics of Amanda Green (daughter of esteemed lyricist Adolph Green), had a quick demise. A surprise delight was the marvelously self-aggrandizing “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me,” a very funny and genial entertainment (just closed). A limited run of “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” was a hit with family audiences with hopes to become a holiday tradition. At the bottom of the musical barrel were “Hot Feet,” a frenetic dance-ical that decimated the film classic “The Red Shoes,” and “Kiki & Herb,” a stultifying evening of inebriated singing and enervating chatter.
Musical revivals were in super abundance this year. Joining the exuberant “The Pajama Game” was a re-envisioned “Sweeney Todd,” in which the cast played their own musical instruments, and a sterling “Company,” in which the cast also played their own instruments. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that both shows were directed by John Doyle. A carbon copy reproduction of “A Chorus Line” and a return after only three and one half years of a slightly scaled-down “Les Miserables” are making new friends. A delightful return to the Garden of Eden with “The Apple Tree,” starring the effervescent Christin Chenoweth, is a worthy entry if the same couldn’t be said for the Roundabout revival of the Brecht-Weill classic “The Three Penny Opera,” which managed to gross out as many people as it pleased.
As expected, plays produced Off-Broadway were edgier and geared toward a more adventurous audience. The best of these: “Heddatron,” as staged by the adventurous theater group Les Freres Corbusier, used actors and robots in Elizabeth Merwether’s refreshingly original consideration of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler.” Adam Rapp channeled the dark side of human relationships in his gripping play-noir “Red Light Winter.” “Tryst” was a tantalizing Victorian thriller by Britisher Karoline Leach. Bruce Norris’ “The Pain and the Itch” at Playwrights Horizons was a provocative play about misguided progressive values in one weird family. A number of play revivals were well-received Off-Broadway. Notable was the Signature Theater’s focus this year on three plays by the late August Wilson. Both “Seven Guitars” and “Two Trains Running” garnered excellent notices and strong business with tickets priced at only $15 thanks to the lead sponsorship of Time-Warner.
The presence of Meryl Streep in anything is an event, but her performance in Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” as presented by the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park, was unforgettable. Other outstanding revivals included “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” (the songs of love, sorrow and loss by the great Belgian-born composer, as performed by a superb cast) and “Nixon’s Nixon,” about a meeting between Henry Kissinger and the president on the night before he resigned.
The Ten Best
Includes both On and Off-Broadway. Shows are still running unless indicated.
“Stuff Happens” (closed)
“The Coast of Utopia: Voyage Part I”
“The Drowsy Chaperone”
“The Lieutenant of Inishmore” (closed)
“The Pajama Game” (closed)
“Two Trains Running”
“Awake and Sing!” (closed)
“Red Light Winter” (closed)
Worst of the Year
(Otherwise known as Dishonorable Mention)
“Jay Johnson: The Two and Only” (closed)
“Kiki & Herb” (closed)
“Losing Louie” (closed)
“My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m in Therapy”
“The Three Penny Opera” (closed)
“The Times They Are a Changin’” (closed)
“The Vertical Hour”
“The Voyage of the Carcass” (closed)