Give the public what it wants and there seems to be almost no limit to what it will pay to see a hot show. Despite the lethargic economy, record grosses are expected for 2009 based on preliminary figures released by the League of American Theaters and Producers. Broadway revenue for the 2008-’09 season (ending June 1) totaled $943 million, up $5 million from the previous season. Ticket sales have remained steady for the past four years at around $12 million.
The appearance of big stars from both TV and Hollywood in shows consigned to limited runs generally guaranteed huge business for a number of plays and musicals. “A Steady Rain,” a well-acted duologue about two embittered racist policemen had Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman as bait. It had no trouble getting $375.00 a seat for prime locations and regularly grossed over $1 million a week over the course of its limited three-month run.
Two other new plays, one on Broadway, the other Off Broadway, were much more exciting and extraordinary examples of dramatic literature at its best and both were presented under the auspices of non-profit theaters. “Ruined” by Lynn Nottage, about a shrewd brothel owner surviving in the Congo, went on to win, among many awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was far and away the most outstanding play of the year. A certain contender for a Tony this spring is Sarah Ruhl’s “In The Next Room, or the Vibrator Play.” Lincoln Center Theater presented this audacious and very funny play about Victorian sexual attitudes and certain electronic devices. Unfortunately, it is due to close at the end of this week.
Revivals, and there were many, needed the boost of a star or two to bolster interest. The breathtakingly beautiful and also talented Catherine Zeta-Jones and the incomparable Angela Lansbury are major factors in the good business being done by this seriously downsized staging of Stephen Sondheim’s gloriously scored “A Little Night Music.” Samuel Beckett’s classic absurdist comedy “Waiting for Godot” was a smash thanks to the amazingly complimentary performances of Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin. Dolly Parton’s name, however, as composer of the musical “9 to 5,” couldn’t save this disappointing musical adaptation of the 1980 film comedy.
Four musical holdovers from previous seasons — “Billy Elliot,” “Jersey Boys,” “The Lion King,” and “Wicked” — continue to hover or surpass the $1 million figure weekly. Also in the $1 million plus club was the critical and box-office sensation “God of Carnage.” This one about squabbling parents boasted a starry cast — James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, and Hope Davis — who have now been replaced in the New Year by Jimmy Smits, Ken Stott, Christine Lahti, and Annie Potts. The only other play to compete in that golden circle was “Hamlet,” in which the highly praised Jude Law, a likely Tony contender, took his stab at the melancholy Dane and pulled in a cool $1 million in its final week of a limited three-month run. Teenaged girls, among others, could be seen waiting each night at the stage door for Law’s autograph.
Never underestimate the pull of Shakespeare. Although it was presented last summer free of charge by the Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater in Central Park, “Twelfth Night” with Raul Esparza, Anne Hathaway, Audra McDonald, and Julie White was not only the hottest ticket in town but it may be the best staging of the comedy I have ever seen. White recently won me over again with her hilarious performance as a hyper stage manager at loose ends in the Roundabout’s production of Theresa Rebeck’s wonderfully wacky “The Understudy.” She will certainly be a contender for awards at the end of the season.
It is sad to report that producers can no longer count only on good reviews to sell a show. Neil LaBute’s “reasons to be pretty” might have had a chance at success had it not lost its bid last season to win the Tony Award for Best Play. Yasmina Reza’s comedy “God of Carnage” was the winner last spring. It may come as a surprise that Reza’s witty little trifle did not make my top ten. After all, it is MY list.
Although it was handsomely produced by the Lincoln Center Theater, a haunting revival of August Wilson’s perhaps greatest play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” failed to entice enough patrons except in its final weeks when it was announced that President and Mrs. Obama would attend a performance.
In recent years, revivals have been a mainstay on the main stem. This season the Manhattan Theater Club gave us a spirited production of the classic Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman comedy “The Royal Family.” The beloved 1960s hippy anthem “Hair” was another entry that proved to be a resounding success in Central Park, so much so that it was moved to Broadway where its message of peace and its now classic score resonate as much now as it did 40 years ago. “West Side Story,” helmed by the musical’s original author, 92-year-old Arthur Laurents, divided the critics, some of whom were not thrilled with having some of the lyrics sung in Puerto Rican dialect Spanish. I thought it was an inspired idea. Although I flipped over the stirring “Ragtime” and the “grandish” “Finian’s Rainbow,” these two revivals are struggling to survive.
Of the new musicals that opened during the year including the rock music-propelled “Memphis” and “Rock of Ages,” “Next to Normal” is the standout, made especially so by the outstanding score by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (lyrics). Its star, Alice Ripley, deservedly was the winner of the Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. “Fela!,” a musical about the politically active life and musical legacy of Nigerian-born musician-composer Fela Anikulapo Kuti, has been given a rapid pulse by choreographer Bill T. Jones.
Undoubtedly encouraged by the success of Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” the producers hoped that his follow-up play, “Superior Donuts” would have the same good fortune. Despite positive reviews it didn’t and closed after eeking out a disappointing three-month run. Prolific David Mamet saw a revival of “Oleanna” crash and burn despite having Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles headlining. At the same time, Mamet was warming up (under his own direction) his new hot topic play “Race” starring James Spader and Richard Thomas. Less than enthusiastic reviews greeted its arrival and a long run is questionable.
Alan Ayckbourn’s “The Norman Conquests” was a thoroughly delightful experience for audiences that could book either multiple evenings or commit to a full 8 1/2 hours in one day. The marathon experience carries on with Horton Foote’s “The Orphans’ Cycle,” about generations of a Texas family: the nine dramas may also be seen in one day or on three different nights. There is talk of moving this Signature Theater production to Broadway. Personally, I like the idea of immersing into another world for an entire day. There are breaks for food.
It was the disastrous marketing of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” that led to its early demise. Originally planned to be performed in repertory with its sequel, “Broadway Bound,” this enthusiastically received revival of Simon’s most endearing memory play didn’t get a chance to win audiences before it shuttered after only one week. It was one of the jewels of the season.
And as has been the case for a number of years, the majority of straight plays on Broadway are presented by the not-for-profit theaters such as the Manhattan Theater Club, Roundabout Theater Company, and Lincoln Center Theater, all of which now use Broadway theaters in addition to their off-Broadway theaters. Subscribers, who have to take the good with not-so-good, can keep shows running at these venues often overcoming poor reviews. Faithful Roundabout-ers took it on the chin sitting through the disastrous “Hedda Gabler” and again with “After Miss Julie.”
Off-Broadway, the Second Stage presented “Let Me Down Easy,” about how society treats our bodies. This was another in the canon of insightfully crafted and acted multi-character docudramas written and performed by the talented Anna Deveare Smith. That successful show is gone but it’s not too late to catch Jim Brochu as the late great comic/dramatic actor Zero Mostel in “Zero Hour,” a funny and touching play that Brochu also wrote. Nora and Delia Ephron delivered a huge hit to off Broadway with “Love, Loss, and What I Wore,” which boasts rotating stars reading essays by women who share the significance of the clothes that they wore when and where and for what reason. I was unable to commiserate (as one of only four other men in the audience) but the women laughed and cheered.
Somewhat of a phenomenon is the Off-Broadway success of Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town,” which opened early in 2009 and is continuing into its second year. All the more amazing is that this play has been one of the most popular and most frequently performed plays in America ever since it premiered in 1939 at McCarter Theater.
The Ten Best of the Year
(in alphabetical order) * indicates still running
1. “Hair.”* Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 West 45th Street. 212-239-6200.
2. “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play.”* Lyceum Theater, 226 West 45th Street. 212-239-6200.
3. “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”
4. “Next To Normal.”* Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street. 212-239-6200.
5. “Ragtime.”* Neil Simon Theater, 250 West 52nd Street. 212-307-4100.
6. “reasons to be pretty”
8. “Superior Donuts”
9. “The Norman Conquests”
10. “Twelfth Night”
2. “Finian’s Rainbow.”* St. James Theater, 246 West 44th Street. 212-239-6200. 3.
3. “Let Me Down Easy”
4. “The Royal Family”
5. “Brighton Beach Memoirs”
1. “After Miss Julie”
2. “Bye Bye Birdie”
3. “Guys and Dolls”
4. “Hedda Gabler”