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Simon Saltzman: on Broadway
This column by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 6, 1999. All rights reserved.
Generous displays of nudity, a plethora of blasphemy,
a dose of matricide, and a side order of fraud gave New York theater
a jolly boost this year. It probably won’t come as a surprise to hear
that the best new plays of 1998 were either in permanent residence
Off-Broadway, or were nurtured there before moving to Broadway. Two
exceptions were imports from the United Kingdom. The stunning production
of "Electra" is the only straight play to make the Top 10
that didn’t start Off-Broadway, unless you count its run at Princeton’s
McCarter Theater as Off-Broadway. The sensational "Swan Lake"
is no less than an all-danced musical, unless you are a stickler for
However, the biggest dramatic fireworks of 1998 were not set off on
any stage on or off-Broadway. They occurred behind the scenes and
involved the exploits of a daring theatrical entrepreneur and his
dream to become the greatest producer of them all. Garth Drabinsky’s
vision for his Toronto-based Livent Corporation can be seen most prominently
on famed 42nd Street. This is where he sought to compete with as well
as to complement the efforts of California-based Walt Disney Corporation
in its goal to revitalize the historic area. For a while it looked
like the clash of the titans as the two corporations actively engaged
in the redevelopment of the street as the theatrical entertainment
center of the world.
Disney’s magnificently restored New Amsterdam Theater had already
been unveiled last December as the crown jewel of the street and the
home of the undisputed triumph, "The Lion King." A challenge
could be heard in early January. It came from Livent, whose fast-growing
empire of theatrical productions and theater restorations across North
America was the talk of the industry. Livent’s grandly designed Ford
Center for the Performing Arts (a splendid joining of the historic
Apollo and Lyric theaters) opened with its undisputed musical triumph,
As the year ends, a real-life drama reaches its climax. While the
stockholders in the Disney Corporation are rejoicing in the recent
three-for-one stock split, the stockholders in the Livent Corporation
are ready to slit their wrists, if not the throats, of Livent’s former
chairman Garth Drabinsky and his partner Myron Gottlieb. Both men
were relieved of their positions last April when charges of major
irregularities in the company’s accounting practices were filed against
them by new Livent top executive and major investor (with $20 million)
Hollywood super-agent and former Disney executive Michael Ovitz.
The investigation by Ovitz and his partner, New York investment banker
Roy Furman, would soon characterize the irregularities as fraud and
kickbacks. As a result, Drabinsky and Gottlieb were removed from the
company in August and sued by Ovitz and Furman for $225 million. Unable
to pay its debts, Livent is, to put it mildly, in hot water. A plan
is said to be in the works to secure $35 million in refinancing in
order to completely restructure its operations.
The Pace Theatrical Group has taken over the "Ragtime" tour
that is currently in Boston. The Lincoln Center production of the
new musical "Parade," produced in association with Livent,
is not affected. If things go as hoped, Livent could survive its filing
under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and not see all its assets,
including its theaters and productions, on the auction block. At press
time, there was a surprise raid by the Royal Mounted Police of Livent’s
Toronto offices. The question — besides where they parked their
horses — is what will happen to the shows Livent currently has
As if that isn’t bad enough news to end the year, consider that very
few of the plays that opened on Broadway during this fall season have
met with the kind of critical approval that spells long runs and money
in the box office. Only two straight plays opened this fall. The first,
"More to Love," was an autobiographical, joke-punctured play
written by and starring stand-up comedian Rob Bartlett. The second,
"Getting and Spending," was a feeble comedy-drama by Michael
J. Chepiga about a disillusioned lawyer who, in the process of becoming
a Franciscan monk (no kidding), is recruited back into service by
a wheeling-dealing woman accused of stock manipulation. Both plays
were generally loathed and destined for short runs.
"Footloose," was the first of only two new musicals to open
this fall, and the less said about its brain-loose-ness the better.
The only other new musical, the recently opened "Parade,"
was taken more seriously. Although this critic found it relentlessly
depressing, it qualifies as the only worthy contender so far for the
1998-’99 Best Musical Tony. Three new musical revivals also split
the critics. While some (myself included) found "Little Me"
a delight and "On the Town" a bore, just as many had the reverse
reaction. And the few curmudgeons who didn’t take a child with them
to Cathy Rigby’s "Peter Pan" suffered the consequences.
The year 1998 was lucky to have "Ragtime" and the revival
of "Cabaret" on its roster of musicals. Warren Leight’s touching
memory play "Side Man," about a traveling musician’s disinterest
in his family, successfully completed its circuitous journey from
Off-Broadway to Broadway’s Roundabout and now the Golden Theater.
Although it failed to find an audience last spring, Henry Hwang’s
Tony-nominated "Golden Child" will be remembered as another
gently stirring memory play, this one about a Chinese-American family.
It almost seems like a gift of the gods that "Electra," yes,
the old Greek war horse by Sophocles, and the same production (an
import from London’s Donmar Warehouse) that held McCarter Theater
audiences spellbound last fall, opened this month to predominantly
enthusiastic notices. Slated for a 12-week run, it has already been
extended to March 28.
Despite the downside artistically during the last couple
of months, the League of American Theaters and Producers reported
recently that business was up to $268.2 million, a 7 percent increase
over the same period last year with attendance up 3.2 percent to 5.3
million. Broadway audiences were anxious to see the vehicles that
brought stars Martin Short, Christian Slater, Alan Alda, Holly Hunter,
Liam Neeson, Nicole Kidman, Jane Alexander, Helen Hunt, Natasha Richardson,
Jennifer Jason Leigh (who recently replaced Richardson in "Cabaret"),
and the terrifying "Electra" trio of Zoe Wanamaker, Claire
Bloom, and Pat Carroll. For more unintentional laughs than chills
in the dark there was Marisa Tomei and Quentin Tarantino in "Wait
Bomb threats were received at the Manhattan Theater Club when it was
announced they would produce Terrence McNalley’s play "Corpus
Christi," about the life and persecution of a gay messiah. MTC
reacted hastily and said it would cancel the production. MTC’s action
infuriated prominent members of the world’s arts communities, including
South African playwright Athol Fugard who threatened to pull his scheduled
play. MTC rescinded and the play went on. The SRO sign was up and
the nightly protesters marched diligently across the street. There
was mixed reaction to the play that most felt fell short of the playwright’s
best work. According to playwright Paul Rudnick, whose well-received
comedy "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told" skewers the Old
Testament with his vision of gay lovers in the Garden of Eden, "no
religious groups ever picket below 14th Street."
Theater from abroad this year gracefully fills the gap in hit and
miss fashion. France’s Yasmina Reza’s talky and irritating "Art"
won the Best Play Tony. Ireland’s Martin McDonagh’s crafty and beautifully
acted "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" should have. England’s
David Hare is all over the place. Last spring Hare’s "The Judas
Kiss" exposed less of Oscar Wilde than of his lover "Bosie,"
while his latest play to open, the very disappointing "The Blue
Room" exposes (for all of a few seconds) all of Nicole Kidman.
A third Hare play "Amy’s View" (I wonder what sort of exposure
this implies?) starring Dame Judi Dench and "Via Dororosa,"
starring Hare himself are headed for spring openings. That makes four
plays for Hare on Broadway in a 12-month period. Also from England
was Peter Whelan’s moralizing potboiler about Shakespeare’s daughter
"The Herbal Bed," and from Australia, Joanna Murray-Smith’s
glib and hokey "Honour," about a marriage on the rocks.
Aside from "Ragtime," the only new musical to
cause critics and audiences to stand up and cheer was Matthew Bourne’s
audacious 20th century deconstruction of the Tchaikovsky-Petipa ballet
"Swan Lake." Bourne replaced the original Odette/Odile (good
swan/bad swan) love conquers evil story with more tragic and psychosexual
propulsion. In it, a despondent insecure prince, conspicuously unloved
by his icily cruel mother and pressured by the pomp and pretensions
of royal life, searches for his male identity in the outside world.
Wandering through the park at night, the prince is mesmerized by the
strength and virility he observes in a male swan, and the power he
exerts over his flock, all danced by a sensational male corps de ballet.
The infatuated prince is filled with the urge to express his newly
emerging feelings. This he does with the swan and later with a mysterious
stranger who attends a royal ball and who reminds him of the swan.
The stranger, however, uses his virility to taunt, seduce, and destroy
the prince. While the glorious score remains familiar, the homoerotic
subtext is a bold consideration. The prince’s frightening, and often
amusing, quest to understand his true nature makes for a spellbinding
Bourne has filled the episodes in which the prince dallies with a
social-climbing coquette and dabbles in disco life with flashy wit
and audacious choreographic conceits. Except for one hilarious ballet
within the ballet, Bourne’s non-spoof choreography is as psychologically
revealing as it is evocatively danced by equally brilliant alternate
Although big-bucks musical flops like composer Paul Simon’s $10 million
"The Capeman," and "High Society," were not without
some merit, a total fiasco from the previous season "The Scarlet
Pimpernel" was given an astonishing, if not miraculous, overhaul.
The recent re-opening revealed brisk new direction, clever re-writes,
Rex Smith heading a better supporting cast (the dashing Douglas Sills
remains in the title role), and some significant reconfiguring of
the score. To my surprise, I found myself thoroughly enjoying a show
I previously detested.
An import of note was The Theatre de Complicite/Royal Court Theatre’s
wonderful production directed by Simon McBurney of Ionesco’s "The
Chairs." It was enriched by the superb performances of Geraldine
McEwan and Richard Briers. While plays by Shakespeare (Lincoln Center’s
luminous "Twelfth Night") Shaw (Roundabout’s funny "You
Never Can Tell") and O’Neill (Lincoln Center’s delightful "Ah,
Wilderness") are always welcomed, it was old Sophocles who sent
sparks through the town with "Electra."
Although I tried my best to see everything that moved from stage-left
to stage-right Off-Broadway, there are a number of plays that have
opened during the last few weeks that I have not yet caught up with.
My final "10 Best" list would most likely be altered if I
had been able to see such already lauded plays as "All Under Heaven,"
"Duet! A Romantic Fable," "Killer Joe," "The Old
Settler" (although I did see the McCarter production), and "This
Is Our Youth."
Because there aren’t enough Broadway entries to justify separate lists,
the 10 Best and Worst lists of the year consider plays and musicals
from both Broadway and Off-Broadway.
10 Best Plays of 1998
Order is alphabetical; all but "The Cripple" and "The
Dying Gaul" are still running.
story/drag show/rock concert.
E.L. Doctorow’s novel.
play about a son who attempts to reconcile his relationship with his
estranged musician father.
two women whose friendship is deepened by a tragedy.
play, superior to "Beauty Queen Of Leenane."
about Hollywood and chat-room sex.
life and death and the holy sonnets of John Dunne.
10 Worst Plays of 1998
score couldn’t salvage this.
of "Zorba") at sea.
to hell courtesy of director Anne Bogart.
screamers, rain, and wind assault the audience standing cramped in
a black space.
had no character or class.
cheesy spoof of the adult entertainment world.
an inept revival of stupid thriller.
through Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200. For Ticketmaster
listings call 800-755-4000 or 212-307-4100.
For information on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, music, and dance
call NYC/On Stage at 212-768-1818. The TKTS same-day, half-price ticket
booth at Times Square is open 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. for evening performances;
10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for Wednesday and Saturday matinees; and noon to
closing for Sunday matinees.
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