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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

lyrics.

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,

"Ragtime."

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

in development.

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

Until Dark."

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

theatrical experience.

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

leads.

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.

1. "Electra." Hatred, murder and vengeance. What

fun!

2. "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." Brilliantly bizarre

story/drag show/rock concert.

3. "Ragtime." A glorious musical treatment of

E.L. Doctorow’s novel.

4. "R & J." Director-adapter Joe Calarco’s bracing

all-boys Shakespeare.

5. "Side Man." Warren Leight’s captivating memory

play about a son who attempts to reconcile his relationship with his

estranged musician father.

6. "Stop Kiss." A wise, heartbreaking play about

two women whose friendship is deepened by a tragedy.

7. "Swan Lake." Brilliant ballet for Broadway.

8. "The Cripple of Inishmaan." Martin McDonagh’s

play, superior to "Beauty Queen Of Leenane."

9. "The Dying Gaul." Craig Lucas’ terrifying play

about Hollywood and chat-room sex.

10. "Wit." Margaret Edson’s stunning play about

life and death and the holy sonnets of John Dunne.

10 Worst Plays of 1998

1. "The Capeman." Paul Simon’s salsa-peppered

score couldn’t salvage this.

2. "Christopher Columbus." Nikos Kazantzakis (author

of "Zorba") at sea.

3. Culture of Desire." Andy Warhol literally goes

to hell courtesy of director Anne Bogart.

4. "De La Guarda, Villa Villa." Flyers, crawlers,

screamers, rain, and wind assault the audience standing cramped in

a black space.

5. "Footloose." The brains stop at the feet.

6. "Honour." Even with the "u" this claptrap

had no character or class.

7. "I Will Come Back." Tommy Femia impersonated

Garland. Not.

8. "Peep Show." Nothing hot or humorous in this

cheesy spoof of the adult entertainment world.

9. "Tallulah’s Party." Don’t ask. Just guess.

10. "Wait Until Dark." Movie stars notwithstanding,

an inept revival of stupid thriller.

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Ticket Numbers

Unless otherwise noted, all Broadway reservations can be made

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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