As I mentioned a while back, I picked up a new gig writing for About.com as the Musical and Theater Expert. I was hoping that the gig wouldn't interfere with my blogging, and so far that has actually been the case. As to whether this will continue as the school year starts up, well, stay tuned.
I'll still be publishing most of my reviews here on my blog, while at About.com I'll be posting more evergreen stuff about theatergoing in general. One review that I decided to post on About.com was for my recent revisit to The Phantom of the Opera with its new stars, Norm Lewis and Sierra Boggess. Here's a link to that review, as well as to the rest of my About.com postings for August.
Yeah, that list looks pretty scary when you look at the sheer volume, and contemplate the number of currently empty theaters on Broadway.
But, upon closer inspection, the situation isn't nearly as depressing as it might seem. Two of those shows were specific to the holiday season (Elf, Donnie & Marie). Two were intended as limited runs and ran out their full engagements (The Pee-wee Herman Show, Brief Encounter). Two were shows that are going to be taped for broadcast (The Pee-wee Herman Show, Fela). And, yes, two of these shows were limited engagements that closed earlier than originally planned (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). But this particular production of West Side Story had the longest continuous run of any Broadway version of that show, including the original production.
I'm certainly sympathetic to the actors and other folks who are losing their jobs. But that's how theater works. And that's how it's always worked. To paraphrase Curtains, it's a business, folks. Some of those people will be cast in some of those new shows. Some won't. To paraphrase A Chorus Line, nobody gets into theater because they're looking for a steady job.
From the audience perspective, you'd think that Broadway stalwarts would, to a certain extent, actually appreciate when shows that have moved past their sell-by date make room for fresher shows. Remember, turnover means we have more shows to see. Wouldn't Broadway be dull if *every* show ran for 20 years?
I'm sure that I don't have to tell you that the Tony Awards were presented on Sunday night. I had a concert that night (see post below), so I had to watch the proceedings on TiVo delay. But truth be told, it really didn't matter to me because this season was so lackluster with respect to new musicals. Sure, there were shows that tried to do new things, particularly Fela, American Idiot, and Come Fly Away. But none of them really succeeded, in my humble estimation. (Click on the links above for my reviews of each production.)
So it really wasn't a surprise when Memphis won Best Musical. I would have preferred that Fela win, simply because it was more ambitious. I thought the first act of Memphis was super slick, but the second act descended into predictability and essentially veered off into Hairspray country. (Click on the link above for my full review.) Why did Memphis win? Simple: the critics were dumped from the voting ranks of the Tonys and the remaining voters went for the relatively safe choice. Memphis won not because it's very good (it isn't) but rather because it's more likely to be successful on the road.
The Tony Awards broadcast was rather unremarkable, although lots of people seemed to think that Sean Hayes knocked one out of the park as host. I thought he was fine, but he paled in comparison to the charm, ease, and spark that Neil Patrick Harris brought to last year's telecast.
One notable trend this year was Broadway congratulating itself on being able to attract A-list Hollywood stars. Did Scarlett Johansson, Denzel Washington, and Catherine Zeta-Jones genuinely deserve their Tony Awards? I saw neither A View From the Bridge nor Fences, so I'm in no position to judge there. (I concentrated almost exclusively on musicals this season.) But I did see A Little Night Music, and can honestly say no, I don't think she deserved it. (Click on the link for my review.) I would have been happy to see the award go to Kate Baldwin (Finian's Rainbow), Montego Glover (Memphis), or Christiane Noll (Ragtime). I think this is another case of the skewing effect of having producers, presenters, and other business types vote for the awards. Rewarding stars for coming to Broadway means more stars come to Broadway. And in the current environment in which plays and musicals are increasingly reliant on marquee names above the title, that's a very important business proposition.
Of course, it has absolutely nothing to do with merit. Or art.
That's the thing about rumors. Sometimes, they're actually true.
Word came over the weekend that the financially ailing Broadway revival of Ragtime will close this coming Sunday. At that point, the show will have played 57 regular performances and 28 previews, and will very likely lose its entire $8-million investment.
Michael Riedel of the New York Post had reported earlier this month that such an announcement was imminent, but the show's producers asserted that, although closure had been discussed, there were no concrete plans to do so. As if to prove the show's viability, there was even a weekend-long TV blitz from December 18th to the 21st, during which Ragtime cast members appeared on both local and national TV shows. In addition, cast member Bobby Steggert announced on Twitter that rumors of the show's closure were unfounded, which prompted an article in the New York Times about how the Internet rumor mill was doing Ragtime wrong.
Alas, the publicity efforts were too little too late, and over the weekend, Ragtime cast members heard that the show would indeed be closing on January 3rd, as had been rumored. On Monday, the producers issued the official closing announcement to the press.
So, what happened? The show's reviews were certainly strong, if not unqualified raves. Ragtime has long been a sentimental favorite with the "in" theater crowd, but as the [title of show] folks learned, that's not enough to keep a show running. Did the show simply come back to Broadway too soon? It's never too soon to bring a show back if there's a genuine audience for it. (e.g. Les Miserables, A Chorus Line, Grease.) Was Ragtime poorly marketed? Well, as I've said, the show's logo is washed-out and indistinct, but although good logos can certainly help a show establish a public presence, it's unlikely that a visual identity can make or break a show by itself.
Perhaps Ragtime simply got lost amid the blockbusters. There's been a growing tendency among casual theater goers to patronize only the biggest hits (e.g. Billy Elliot, Wicked, Jersey Boys). Although there may be room on Broadway right now for smaller shows to find a way to survive (e.g. Next To Normal, Rock of Ages), even a scaled-down Ragtime had a cast of 34 and some 30 people in the orchestra. Perhaps Ragtime is simply too big to ever succeed on Broadway.
Or maybe -- just maybe -- this Ragtime failed because the word of mouth just wasn't there. Sure, there are plenty of musical queens and theater mavens who've been talking the show up big time on Twitter and Facebook and the [shudder] theater chat rooms. But big shows rise and fall based on the pass-along "wow" factor. Maybe this production just wasn't getting the all-important man/woman on the street to go home and say, "Hey, you really gotta see this." As I said in my review, I'm a huge Flaherty and Ahrens fan, and an ardent admirer of Ragtime as a show. But I wasn't really blown away by this particular production. There seemed to be something missing, a lack of an emotional center. There was no questioning the talent on stage, but for me there just wasn't anything outstanding about the production itself.
The current production notwithstanding, Ragtime remains, in my humble estimation, a musical for the ages. It has a strong book and an amazing score, and I've been very gratified by how it has caught on in the provinces, despite the need for a large number of African Americans in the cast. (African Americans haven't always been interested in musical theater, although thankfully that seems to be changing.) If you have a chance to see the show before it closes, I recommend taking it in. But I remain quite confident that this isn't the last we've seen of Ragtime.
ADDENDUM: The producers of Ragtime have announced that the show will play an extra week of performances, and will now close on January 10th. At that point, the show will have played 65 regular performances. Could this be the start of a trend? Or will the week amount to little more than a dead-cat bounce? I just got a ticket to see the show again on Friday, January 8th. Stay tuned for my re-review.
Million Dollar Quartet relates the story of one day in 1956 when Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins all jammed together "for the first and only time," according to the show's Web site. The show features a book by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, and interpolates popular period songs, including "Great Balls of Fire," "See You Later Alligator," "Fever," and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."
Will Million Dollar Quartet be the next Jersey Boys or the next All Shook Up? To be honest, I'm finding it really hard to care. I can't imagine a musical I'd be less interested in seeing, except perhaps Pure Country. Yeah, I'm not that big on rock 'n roll, country music, or their derivatives. Of course, I'll see the show. I like to see everything. But, to paraphrase Frank N. Furter, I'm not exactly shivering with anticipation.
Plus, the commercial resume for the show's co-director, one Eric Schaeffer, isn't particularly encouraging. Yes, Schaeffer is the artistic director of the respected Signature Theater. But his Broadway outings thus far have comprised Putting it Togetherand Glory Days. "Ick" and "Youch," respectively. He also directed the first national tour of Big, and the London premier of The Witches of Eastwick. So you'll forgive me if I'm skeptical.
But, getting back to the topic of Brighton Beach Memoirs, I've been lying pretty low on this topic, partly because my interests lie primarily in musical theater, but also because so many of my blogger
peeps seemed to be in mourning, and I didn't want to salt their wounds. But I have been bristling at all the journalistic hand-wringing, particularly by Howard Kissel of the New York Daily News. Kissel uses the failure of BBM to bemoan the death of "the Broadway Audience," whatever that means.
I'm sorry, but I
really don't see any larger implications for the closure of BBM, beyond
the fact that the producers chose to do a show that few people apparently wanted
to see. Yes, I'm sure poor marketing and insufficient finance had something to do with
it. But all the sturm und drang I keep hearing about the death of straight plays (at least those without stars above the title) and
the growing irrelevance of Neil Simon and whatnot is pretty much crap.
When Avenue Q opened last week at its new Off-Broadway home, the New World Stages, a lot of people in the theatrical community were paying close attention. Of course, it's a much-beloved show, and many are simply wishing it well. (Except, perhaps, the producers of Wicked, from whose verdant hands Avenue Q so summarily snatched the Best Musical Tony in 2003.)
But the main point of interest seems to be how well Avenue Q will do financially after making this unusual move. It's not entirely unprecedented for a Broadway show to move Off Broadway, but it's certainly rare. And if Avenue Q succeeds, we can probably expect other small shows to follow suit. There's talk that The 39 Steps will make a similar move after it closes at year's end at the Helen Hayes. Perhaps Next to Normal and Rock of Ages might consider returning to their Off Broadway roots after their respective Broadway stints have run their course.
I've been enamored of Avenue Q ever since I caught one of its Broadway previews back in 2003. I've subsequently seen the show on tour (read my review), and then revisited the Broadway production shortly before it closed (read my review). And, over the weekend, I caught the show once again at its new digs. And I'm happy to say that the show has lost none of its charm upon multiple viewings. Of course, part of the fun for me the last two times is that I saw the show with friends, and got to witness their delighted reactions to the show upon their first viewings. But even when I saw the show solo on tour, I was still caught up in the response of the rest of the audience.
The performance of Avenue Q that I saw over the weekend featured three understudies, indicating that even Off Broadway shows are not immune to the scourge of absenteeism that seems to be sweeping New York theater. Fortunately, the standbys were mostly stellar, particular the charming Jed Resnick as Princeton/Rod and the delightful Ruthie Ann Miles as Christmas Eve.
The more I see Avenue Q, the more I'm struck not just by its wit, but also by its wisdom. Yeah, I know, that sounds pretty pretentious. But there's so much about the show that's just plain smart, from the wistful nostalgia of "I Wish I Could Go Back to College" to the downright Buddhist quality of "For Now." So I wish the show well in its latest incarnation, and strongly recommend that you make your way to 50th Street, between 8th and 9th to catch the show, if you haven't already.
Avenue Q, the scrappy little musical that broke the rules, will break them once again. With so many musicals these days making the transfer from Off-Broadway to the Great White Way, Avenue Q has decided to travel against the tide.
It's an unusual move, to say the least, but not entirely unprecedented. The little-known tuner Billy Bishop Goes to War made a similar Broadway-to-Off-Broadway transfer, albeit under far less auspicious circumstances. The show played the late and lamented Morosco Theatre for a scant 12 performances in 1980, then moved to the Lucille Lortel for another 78.
It is, nonetheless, a ballsy move on the part of Avenue Q's already gonad-laden producers. It makes me wonder whether the move was planned, or if the show's post-closing-announcement demand precipitated the thought of a crosstown transplant. The Off-Broadway move will certainly lower the show's running costs, as Off-Broadway houses have different and less expensive agreements with the various unions.
Will other musicals follow suit? It's certainly possible. Perhaps Spring Awakening or The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee might have benefited from a similar move. Both shows turned a profit, but perhaps the brand recognition from their Broadway runs could have propelled them into an even more profitable afterlife. Perhaps Next to Normal or Rock of Ages could move back to their Off-Broadway roots once their respective Broadway runs wind down.
We'll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, Avenue Q begins performances at the New World Stages on October 9th.
I recently had a chance to speak with the delightful Diane Paulus, whom most of you probably know as the talented director of the current hit Broadway revival of Hair. Well, Paulus also recently took over as the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and I was interviewing her for an article that I was writing for artscope a local arts magazine.
That article is about the A.R.T.'s upcoming season, and Paulus's plans to shake up that 30-year-old institution, but I couldn't resist throwing in a few questions about Hair. The article comes out in September, but here are some musings from Paulus that didn't make it into the article.
EIKILFM: I have to say that you completely changed my opinion about Hair. I always thought it was this great score hampered by an overly fragmented libretto.
PAULUS: Well, we really did a lot of work on the book. We streamlined and focused it. During the Hair rehearsal process, I had this deep partnership with James Rado. [Rado was one of the original authors of Hair. His writing partner, Gerome Ragni, died in 1991.] I never talk
about it as a revival, but as a re-imagining of the original work.Jim
and I were joined at the hip, working on a way to craft a new version of the book. We built
a very trusting relationship, and there was this incredible combination of
Jim, who was there and lived it, and created the show, and me, coming in with a deep respect for the show, but also a fresh eye. Jim had every bit of
information about the show, from when it was created to how it's been
done for the past forty years.
EIKILFM: What's your personal connection to the show?
PAULUS: Well, I was born in 1966, so I wasn't really old enough to remember the 1960s. I always like to say that I missed my decade, because I really wish I had lived through the '60s. But I guess now I have the benefit of not having seen
the original show and getting hung up in my head about it was supposed to be. When
I got the call from the Public Theater, I had never seen a production of Hair or
even read the script, just the liner notes from the album. So when I started to work on the show, I had this deep love of that
wonderful music, and I had my fantasy about how the production would sound and what it would feel like, and how to revive the '60s from the inside out.
EIKILFM: The cast of Hair really seems like this cohesive unit. How did you achieve that tribal feel in rehearsal?
PAULUS: It actually started one step before the rehearsal process with casting. When I was asked to do the original concert version in 2007, I knew that we needed the right people, people who were going to
invest themselves in the show not as actors but as human beings, fully relating to
the issues. Of course, we needed people with great voices -- and great hair! -- but we really needed to know where their hearts and minds were. And that led to the rehearsal process, where it wasn't just a show but a cause, a mission, a communication that matters. And they took that process very seriously. And now, two years later, 23 of those original 26 people are still with the show. At first, a lot of them were daunted. They said, "Our generation isn't like this." But that was in 2007, pre-Obama, and I think now young people have realized that they can create change, and they're all like activists now.
EIKILFM: For instance, the upcoming march on Washington.
PAULUS: That's right. We’re all going to Washington for a day. [Paulus refers to the National Equality March in support of gay-marriage rights. The producers of Hair have canceled the October 11th performance so that the cast can participate.] You can tell that the cast really take the show and its message seriously, and that's what people are responding to when they see the show. As we need to recast, there will be a weeding-out process as we try to find people who aren't just talented, but who also care passionately about the planet and gay rights, and other important issues. We just recast our first new Broadway cast member, and she’s all of like 20
something, and she said to me, "I am so honored to be part of this. It means so much to me to be a part of a show that I can really engage myself in." When you think about it, there really aren't that many opportunities like this, so I think we'll be able to find more people like her out there.
EIKILFM: What have you noticed about the audience response to Hair?
makes me happier than anything is to see the young people, coming to
Broadway and seeing and reacting to the show as if it were written
yesterday. Because Hair really isn't a period piece. It's a show that says just as much about today as it does about the '60s. It says, "This is American history, but this is also what it means to be alive and a
person, even today." So you have these young people coming to the show, and they're owning it, and I just love that.
EIKILFM: Hair features a lot of audience involvement, and seems to invite the audience to participate, sing along, even dance in the aisles. A number of recent newspaper articles in both New York and London have lamented the deterioration of theater behavior. It sounds as though you might have a different take on that.
PAULUS: Well, I think there are different kinds of theater. Historically, theater hasn't always been this quiet, sit-down affair. It certainly wasn't in Shakespeare's day. Theater is like sports, you have golf and tennis over here, and the whole
audience gets quiet, and you don’t make a sound. At the other end, you have ice hockey
and everybody's screaming. But we never mix up golf and hockey. I honestly
believe there’s a spectrum, even in theater. Are you going to talk at a Peter Brook production of Hamlet? Or The Seagull? Of course not. You have certain types of behavior that work for different kinds of theater. But my gripe is that
people tend to say, "Well, that’s the way theater is. You have to be quiet." Everything doesn't necessarily have to be like The Seagull. You can have Hair or The Donkey Show. [Paulus's first production at the A.R.T. is a re-staging of her New York hit, The Donkey Show, a raucous retelling of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream set in a 1970s disco club.]I think we have the possibility of letting other sorts of behavior be released, and enlivening what we
think theater is and what it can do.
I'm going to try to avoid the spider metaphors here, but the Interwebs (oops...) have been all atwitter this week about the alleged demise of the highly anticipated Spider-Man musical. We've been hearing for months about how director Julie Taymor was being rather profligate with the investors' money. The show's capitalization has been rumored to be as high as $45 million, which is more than twice as expensive as any other show in Broadway history.
Last week, Variety reported that the massive production had ground to a standstill because the investors have simply run out of cash. Earlier this week, the gadflies on All That Chat were buzzing about how the actors in the show had been released from their contracts, and were free to pursue other work. Then today, Michael Riedel, The New York Post's gadfly extraordinaire, gleefully announced that, although the show's investors have been frantically trying to line up additional financing, no one is biting, and the show may well be dead in the water.
But even if Spider-Man does proceed, the prospects for the show turning a profit would likely be grim. According to Riedel's sources and/or calculations, with a $45-million capitalization, Spider-Man would need to run at capacity for 5 years to break even. Compare that to Wicked, which despite a capitalization north of $10 million, reportedly recouped in about 14 months. One of the factors driving up the Spider-Man production costs was that the Hilton Theater reportedly needed to be gutted and rebuilt to accommodate Taymor's design concept. Well, the Hilton has indeed been gutted, but now that Spider-Man is apparently moribund, that leaves Broadway with a big ole empty cavern on 42nd Street.
Potentially lost in the shuffle is a score by Bono and The Edge, which Riedel refers to as "moody and melodic, if not all that theatrical." Could the score possibly resurface, say as a concept album, or individual tracks on a future U2 release? Or perhaps Spider-Man the show could find a berth in, say, Las Vegas, where a $45-million price tag would be more in line with the other resident shows ensconced on the strip? Whatever, it's looking increasingly likely, if not downright certain, that Spider-Man won't be flying on Broadway any time soon.
According to Variety, there's been a considerable backlash on the part of the New York critical establishment on the decision by the Tony Awards Powers That Be to remove journalists from the voting rolls. The move has some "journos," as Variety so colorfully coins them, mulling some sort of retaliatory tactic, including "lodging a formal complaint to reopen negotiations, as well as
prompting talk of expanding the [New York Drama Critics Circle] annual awards to counter the
exclusion from the Tonys."
The article goes on to address various nefarious motivations that different folks have posited as the real reason for the change, with most people dismissing the "conflict of interest" ploy as utter hogwash. Among them:
promoters want to tighten
their control over the Tony Awards, further emphasizing that the whole thing's just a marketing ploy anyway.
Producers are sick of forking over 800 pairs of free tickets, which is ridiculous, since critics see the shows free anyway, even if they're not Tony voters.
Some theater folk have been pissed at certain theater pundits making Tony predictions and voting to ensure those predictions come true, which even if true seems like an extraordinarily minor point at best.
So, whatever. The Tempest in a Tony Teapot will eventually die down, but another point that the article made really hit home for me, as I'm sure it will for my fellow bloggers:
Others feel the outbreak in recent years of bloggers who disregard
established professional etiquette by weighing in before a show's
official opening has damaged the reputation of the entire critical
community. "Anyone in a position to make editorial comment is now
regarded as the enemy," one pundit said.
"Disregard professional etiquette?" I find that wording offensive. "Professional" implies that we're getting paid, which we're not. And "disregard" assumes that bloggers are privy to the inner workings of the critical sanctum sanctorum, which I find arrogant and solipsistic.
But the larger, and more important, point is this: Should bloggers be reviewing shows during previews? I've done so myself, although I've made it plain that the show I was reviewing was in previews. My attitude has always been, if they're charging for admission, the ticket-buying public deserves to know what kind of show they're paying for. But if the bad word gets around before the creators have a chance to make changes, is that fair to the creative staff and the performers?
So, you're on a bobsled and it's snowing out, and it's cold. OK. Go.
Last night, the Tony Awards management committee announced that the so-called "First Night" critics -- the ones who (in theory) attend and review shows based on opening nights -- will no longer be eligible to vote in the Tony Awards process. The reason, according to a New York Times report, is that "...the committee concluded that it was a conflict of interest for
journalists to vote on Tony contenders when they have a platform to
champion a show in news and entertainment media."
So, who's left to vote for the Tonys? Producers, theater owners, publicists, actors, writers, designers, and other union and committee members. You know, the people who have absolutely no conflict of interest. As Robert Diamond, editor-in-chief of BroadwayWorld.com, tweeted last night shortly after the announcement, "As if voting for the Tony Awards needed to find a way to make the process even more insular/biased."
The Tony Awards have really never been more than a thin marketing ploy. (When was the last time the season's best musical actually won Best Musical?) However, as Diamond intimates, this decision brings the voting process in the wrong direction. There were only 800 or so people who voted for the Tonys before this decision, and now there will be only about 700, a reduction of about 13%. And one of the worst kept secrets in the industry is that many of those voters don't bother to see all the shows, although they are supposed to before voting in any particular category. Some shows in recent seasons have seen fewer than 1/3 of the eligible Tony voters show up to see the show. In addition, we're now even more likely to see skewed results: shows with larger casts and crew are even more likely to win because they have more people involved in them to vote, and fewer overall voters to offset that bias.
According to Adam Feldman, critic for Time Out New York, the idea that critics have a conflict of interest is "thin stuff
indeed." He writes, "If anything, critics are among the voters least
compromised by conflicts of interest, and most likely to vote
objectively and fairly for the work they judge to be best." So why did the Tony committee really make this change? Feldman offers this rationale: "...[C]ritics, and indeed criticism, are inconvenient to the modern
theater marketer: Old-fashioned in our insistence on quality,
unreliable in our support for expensive projects and less necessary in
light of the diffusion of information in the Internet age."
Cynical, to be sure, but I'm not so sure he's inaccurate. What do you think, dear reader? Is Feldman right? Is this part of a tacit marginalization of the critical mass? Or is this just sour grapes on the part of the slighted?
I'm always fascinated by the shows that live on after Broadway. And by live on, I mean catch on in regional and community productions. Of course, high school shows are a subset unto themselves. Some shows, no matter how artistically strong or financially successful, just won't catch on in high schools. The Producers will likely fall into this category; the subject matter, and all that. And then there are other shows that catch on in schools despite their lack of quality: Footloose and Fame come to mind.
Each year, the Educational Theater Association surveys high schools around the the country asking them what plays and musicals they've performed. (But we only care about the musicals, right, dear reader? For the full list, see here. For my take on last year's list, see here.) This year, 830 schools responded, and here are the results:
The thing that struck me was that four of these shows have had recent, financially under-performing revivals: Guys and Dolls, Little Shop of Horrors, Once Upon a Mattress, and Into the Woods. Could it be that a major factor in the lack of success for these revivals is that everyone has already seen or done these shows again and again? I mean, why pay $100+ for something you could see at your local senior high? Of course, one data point in the other direction is the current smash-hit revival of West Side Story. That show is done all over the place, and that doesn't seem to be stopping people from shelling out an average of $100 at the Palace.
Which brings me to Bye Bye Birdie, which the Roundabout will be mounting in the fall. Pro: This will be the show's first-ever Broadway revival. Con: Frickin' everybody has done this show. Pro: Talented director/choreographer Robert Longbottom is due for a hit. Con: The book is creaky as hell. Pro: The score is charming, with lots of memorable tunes. Con: The book is creaky as hell. Pro: They've amassed a cast replete with Hollywood beauties (Gina Gershon, John Stamos) and Broadway stalwarts (Bill Irwin, Jayne Houdyshell, Dee Hoty). Con: The book...you get the idea.
The Roundabout will run Birdie at the newly renovated Henry Miller, rather than the Studio 54, which is where they typically house their musicals. Perhaps this is because they've realized the Studio 54 is a cold, heartless barn of a venue, and that Birdie will do much better in a warmer, more intimate space. It could also be that they have high hopes for Birdie, and plan on running it for a while, while using the 54 for their rotating slate of shows.
Another indication that the Roundabout has grand plans for Birdie is the show's recently announced top ticket price of $136.50, which Roundabout managing director Harold Wolpert defends by pointing out that subscribers comprise half of the Roundabout's ticket sales, and pay about half the face value on the ticket. Well, all I can say is, after the Roundabout's lackluster 2008-2009 season (cf. Pal Joey, The Philanthropist, A Man for All Seasons, Waiting for Godot) you'd think that they'd be lowering their ticket prices. I'll definitely be seeing Bye Bye Birdie, but I'll have to take the rest of their 2009-2010 season on a case-by-case basis.
That's the question that I've been pondering since coming across a few posts and discussion threads on the sites of my fellow bloggers Aaron Riccio of That Sounds Cool and Isaac Butler of Parabasis. It was humbling that my blogging colleagues had to call attention to something that was happening in my own backyard, but I'm nonetheless grateful to them for the tip off.
It seems that after Louise Kennedy of the Boston Globe gave the Huntington Theater's production of Pirates a bad review, Huntington Managing Director Michael Maso put up a post on the theater's blog taking Kennedy to task, and asking readers to speak out against her. Quoth Maso:
In over three decades of producing plays, I have never felt such a
disconnect between the experience in the theatre and the reflection of
a critic. Louise's first line displays her anger at the fact that the
audience was responding with cheers and laughter throughout the
evening, and her condescension to the audience and artists alike is
Maso goes on:
I have no theory about what is behind this review. I only know that the
destructive power of one person, when that person is given the
imprimatur of the region's largest newspaper, needs to be balanced by
the voices of the thousands who have already let us know about the joy
they have found in the laughter, the music, the wit, and the sheer
artistry displayed by those involved in this production.
Um, Michael, how's this for a theory: she didn't like the show. And she has every right to say so. Maso and his minions seem to be of the mind that critics should somehow factor the audience response into their reviews. Well, guess what, people: Audiences stood and cheered at the end of Lestat, The Pirate Queen, and Frankenstein. I know, because I was there. And those shows were all unmitigated dreck. And I have it on good authority that they were cheering in the aisles at the end of Carrie, too.
Kennedy's review wasn't particularly vitriolic, but it was honest. Maso appears to be trying to save face with what is in fact a popular but artistically disappointing show. (Read my review.) What Maso intended to be a rallying of the troops turned out merely to
call unfortunate attention to the bad review (which I hadn't even read until the advent of this little tempest in a teapot), and give the theater a
black eye in the blogosphere. Plus, fomenting ad hominem attacks against a critic may not be the best way to curry favor in the eyes of the critical community. But here's something that should please Maso: with the decline of daily newspapers, theater bloggers are becoming increasingly influential voices, in effect decentralizing the force of critical opinion away from the previously powerful papers.
As I said in my review, I didn't really like Pirates, either, and I had my own little Maso moment when I received an angry email from the actor playing the Pirate King, Steve Kazee. I had said that it was beginning to look as though his "charisma-deprived" performance as Starbuck opposite Audra MacDonald in the recent Broadway revival of 110 in the Shade "wasn't a fluke." Kazee took great issue with my appraisal, and said so in strong, borderline threatening terms. (He dared me to come down to the Huntington and say these "hurtful" words to his face.) Kazee and I had a spirited conversation back and forth, and we eventually parted on cordial terms. I basically said that I reserved the right to call 'em as I see 'em, and he exorted me to remember that there are real people with feelings on the receiving end of my reviews. Fair enough.
So, dear reader, what is the job of the critic? I would submit that
it's *not* the same as the job of the reporter: to dispassionately
relay the facts and give equal voice to all sides. As the title
implies, a "critic" is charged with weighing the merits of a particular
show against his or her own set of aesthetic and artistic criteria. How could it possibly be otherwise?
The producers of the current revival of Guys and Dolls have announced that the show will play its final performance this Sunday, June 14th. The show will have played 113 performances and 28 previews.
One of my readers informs me that the running cost (i.e. "nut") for Guys and Dolls is about $520,000 a week, and I count only nine weeks during the show's run in which the grosses exceeded that amount. Based on my calculations, as of last week the show had brought in total of $926,000 over its running costs. Since the typical musical of that size usually costs upwards of $10 million to mount, that would put Guys and Dolls at least $9 million in the hole. Youch. Yeah, there are a lot of assumptions in that calculation, but it gives you a sense of the magnitude of the loss.
I was one of the few people who genuinely enjoyed this production of Guys and Dolls. (Read my review) The show wasn't particularly memorable, but it represented a reasonably entertaining night at the theater. I was especially fond of Lauren Graham as Adelaide and Kate Jennings Grant as Sarah. Yeah, the show couldn't hold a candle to the 1992 Guys and Dolls revival, but few shows could. As usual, the producers have announced that there will be a national tour. Yeah, whatever. That's part of the drill: acknowledge the exceptional nature of the cast and crew, blame it on the economy or the sheer number of competing shows, hint at a national tour, etc. But I would actually be surprised if that tour actually materialized.
My blogger friend Esther quipped on Twitter earlier today "I guess I'll have to wait until the next Guys and Dolls revival." Well, Esther, love, if history is any indication, you won't have to wait very long.
The first official post-Tony casualty will be Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Pretty, which will close June 14th after about 80 regular performances. But that's a play, right, dear reader? We wanna know which musical will close first, don't we?
My money is on the Guys and Dolls revival, which last week played to 61% capacity, with an average ticket of about $70. The show's grosses have been heading steadily downward since hitting a high of about $750,000 in April, and have lately been around $400,000. And the lackluster Guys and Dolls production number on the Tony broadcast, combined with a grand total of zero Tonys earned, probably won't help to turn that trend around.
On the "original" musical front, the show that would seem to be in the most immediate danger is 9 to 5, which played to about 75% percent last week, with an average ticket of $75. The show's recent weekly grosses of around $750,000 might be enough to keep it alive, if it can sustain that level of performance. I have a feeling that the show may last through the summer, buoyed by the strong tourist trade in New York, but will probably close come fall.
Then there's Next to Normal. Although the show has recently seen its attendance rise to more than 90%, its average ticket has been about $65. The show's grosses have peaked at around $350,000, although since the show has a cast of six and a modest band, that may be enough to keep the show afloat. Will the show's three Tonys (best score, best actress, and a shared Tony for best orchestrations) give it a much-needed lift in its grosses? N2N does seem to be building a significant following, but then so did [title of show].
As for the musicals that have legs, clearly Billy Elliot and West Side Story are in no danger of closing any time soon. Both are doing spectacularly at the box office. (Click on the show titles for historical grosses.) And Hair, after a slow start, has been growing steadily in ticket sales and grosses, and I see that growing even stronger after its Tony win for best revival and the national exposure from the show's terrific title number.
What's your take, dear reader? Did the Tony broadcast make you more or less likely to see the shows listed above? Which do you think will last, and which are not long for this world?
P.S. When I originally posted on this topic, I completely forgot about Shrek. Kinda tells you something, doesn't it? Well, Shrek is a real wild card, and rather tough to predict, because rumor has it that the show has pretty much been running in the red since it opened. The show's average ticket price has been about $70, its attendance at about 70%, and its grosses around $650,000. Many other musicals would be able to make a profit at that level, but Shrek has a huge cast and presumably a pretty big weekly nut to meet. But but since Dreamworks has really deep pockets, and a tremendous amount to prove, there's no telling how long they're going to be willing to run the show at a loss before taking it on tour and cleaning up in the provinces.
P.P.S. Where is my head today? I also forgot about Rock of Ages. Mea culpa, dear reader. Well, ROA has also been seeing its grosses increase steadily since it opened. Lately it's been pulling in about $450,000 a week, and it very well could be making a profit at that level. The average ticket has risen slowly from about $40 to around $64, which is OK, but could be better. But what's interesting is that the attendance percentage has stayed roughly the same, about 90%. Which means that the audience size has been relatively constant, but the amount that people are paying to see the show is rising. If that continues, the show might just return its investment and settle in for a profitable run.
With all the pre-show hullabaloo about the Tony Awards broadcast, I went in expecting it to be one big crass-fest. Maybe that's why I came out feeling that it was the best Tony show in a number of years. Admittedly, the bar's not very high here.
I wasn't able to watch the show live and provide play-by-play on Twitter. (If you'd like to follow my random theater musings on an ongoing basis, I'm @ccaggiano.) So here are the impressions that I would have been posting, based on watching the show last night on TiVo delay.
The opening number: Was busy and frantic, and had some major sound problems. Actually, the show in general had significant sound issues, but it was most notable in the opening number, as well as during the Guys and Dolls performance. Oddest pairing: Stockard Channing and Aaron Tveit. Um, why?
Shrek number: I was pleased to see that the folks at Dreamworks decided to do an entire number from the show and not a greatest-hits montage, as so many shows have done in the past. The cast from Shrekperformed "What's Up, Duloc?," featuring Tony nominee Christopher Sieber. Yeah, it's not the best number, from an admittedly lackluster score, but I give them props for not cutting and pasting bits and pieces from each of the nominees' best numbers.
Neil Patrick Harris: I thought NPH as the show's host was terrific: charming, confident, and self-effacing. I particularly liked the number with which he ended the show -- "Tonight" from West Side Story, with rewritten lyrics -- my favorite line from which was "The show could not be any gayer, if Liza was named mayor, and Elton John took flight." And I loved the sushi joke, at Jeremy Piven's well-deserved expense.
The touring-show numbers: The numbers from the touring productions of Mamma Mia, Legally Blonde and Jersey Boys were pointless. Bend over, Tony: the Broadway League wants a free commercial. The only number I didn't fast-forward through was Jersey Boys, because I found the gimmick of bringing in the five different Frankie Valli actors at least momentarily intriguing. (Be honest: by the end, you had chosen a favorite, right?) Yeah, I know: the Tony Awards in general are just one big commercial. But at least showcasing numbers from the nominated shows has a shred of credibility.
Best score: Yeah, Billy Elliot proved to be the juggernaut of the evening, but plucky little Next to Normal stopped Billy from sweeping up every award in sight. Congrats to Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt for snatching the Tony from the undeserving hands of Elton John and Dolly Parton. And props to the Tony voters for seeing beyond the stars in their eyes.
West Side Story number: "The Dance at the Gym" was a good choice for the show. It showcased the terrific playfulness between Matt Cavenaugh and Josephina Scaglione, as well as Jerome Robbins' kick-ass choreography. I wasn't so hot on the way they ended it, with a snatch from the "Tonight" duet, but again I was glad not to see a montage/commercial.
Rock of Ages number: Speaking of montages, I was rather unimpressed by the custom-made production number from Rock of Ages. Despite the effort, the number really didn't do the show justice, and failed to capture what is actually appealing about this show. If I hadn't already seen the show (twice) this number would not have induced me.
Liza: Is Liza Minnelli falling apart before our very eyes, or what? Did they have paramedics standing by in case she imploded?
Guys and Dolls number: "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" was an unfortunate choice for Guys and Dolls, since that was the number that the 1992 cast performed on the Tonys, and it created an unfortunate reminder of what the present revival is lacking. Plus, it put the miscasting of the otherwise talented Tituss Burgess into unflattering relief. And then there was the microphone trouble: we could hear the backstage folk panicking, but we couldn't hear Burgess sing until a stagehand ran on stage with a hand mike. What is this, 1950? Haven't we mastered the challenges of live TV by now? And how many people are greeting their Monday morning to the sight of a pink slip?
Best supporting actor: One of the genuine surprises of the night was when Greg Jbara won for Billy Elliot. I would have put good money on Will Swenson from Hair. But the voters were probably recognizing Jbara for admittedly strong performances past and present, and were likely caught up in the Billy Elliot tidal wave.
Next to Normal number: Alice Ripley seemed to be having some tempo problems in this number, although it might have been more sound issues with the TV production. But performing "You Don't Know/I Am the One" was a super choice, showing this moving show to its best advantage. Oh, and Alice, lovey, I applaud your winning best actress for Next to Normal, but WHY WERE YOU YELLING DURING YOUR ACCEPTANCE SPEECH?!
In Memoriam: Was anyone else annoyed by the relentless camera pans during the tribute to theater folks who died in the past year? I could barely read Marilyn Cooper's name.
The Billy Elliot monolith: Best sound design? Best SET!? Did the Tony voters actually see the Billy Elliot set? It's hideous and awkward. You might say, "Well it's supposed to be ugly. These people are living in squalor." Granted. But does that mean we have to throw an award at urban blight? Again, we're probably just witnessing the Billy momentum here.
Frank Langella: I applaud Frank Langella for what some might consider a self-aggrandizing speech. Perhaps it was. But he did serve as a reminder to the Tony nominating committee that, um, there were a bunch of shows that opened in the fall, many of which (The Seagull, anyone?) were entirely shut out.
The Hair number: Performing the title song from Hair was a very good choice, nicely capturing the exuberance of the show, which thankfully went on to win Best Revival. I loved it when Oskar Eustis said "Peace now! Freedom now! Equality now!," emphasizing the last one by pointing to his wedding ring, a clear and welcome reference to gay marriage.
Billy Elliot number: On the one hand, I was glad to see that they chose only one Billy Elliot to showcase in the "Angry Dance." (It was Trent Kowalik.) On the other hand, the number, which was one of the moments in the show
that I found genuinely compelling, came off as loud, tuneless, and harsh,
and was also poorly shot. Oh, and BTW, would that the Tony nominating committee and voters had shown the same strength of character and actually chosen *one* Billy as best actor. But that would hurt somebody's feelings, now wouldn't it? We can't have an awards show hurt someone's feelings, can we? (Yeah, well, talk to Frank Dolce, the poor kid who shares the part of Michael with Tony nominee David Bologna, about that one.) I didn't see David Alvarez, but I heard he's very good. I got Kiril Kulish, who is a terrific dancer, but the heavy acting scenes were a bit of a stretch for him. And now, all three of them have a Tony. Oh, isn't that just adorable?
Best Musical: As for the Billy Elliot sweep, well, all I can say is, I hated the show in London (read my review), but I was moderately engaged by the Broadway production (read my re-review). It's a great big crowd-pleaser, and there's some really solid stagecraft in evidence. But the score is awful, and the dance is IMHO overrated. Is it a classic for the ages? Will it become a stalwart part of the musical theater canon? Will community theaters and high school drama societies be performing Billy Elliot fifty years from now? Oh, sister, I have such doubts.
It seems that the musical Vanities will in fact play New York later this year, although not on Broadway, at least not yet. The show was originally supposed to play the Lyceum Theater, but the chancy economic environment forced the producers to reconsider.
Now comes news that the show will find a berth at New York's Second Stage, an Off-Broadway nonprofit theater company. Vanities will close out 2ST's current season, taking the place of Douglas Carter Beane's recently postponed play, Mr. and Mrs. Fitch.
Previews for the show will begin June 30th toward a July 16th opening. The show will have performances through August 9th. If that run is successful, will a Broadway run follow? I would imagine that's what the producers are hoping for, and the 2ST run represents a relatively safe way of testing the New York waters. Heck, it worked for both The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Next to Normal.
Speaking of Next to Normal (er, excuse me, next to normal), the reviews for that show, which came out today, were pretty darned positive. Regular readers will recall that I have a checkered history with this show and its librettist, Brian Yorkey. Well, I'm going to be seeing the show again next week. Never let it be said that I won't give a show a second chance. But if Yorkey's apparent message -- which seemed to be a repudiation of psychiatry -- remains intact, I certainly reserve the right to speak out against it, as I did when I saw the show last year.
Attention, producers: Are you faced with selling a worthy production in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression? Does your show have a fleeting amount of nudity? Why not play up the titillation factor for all it's worth? Why not get a prominent arts magazine to feature your cast members naked on the cover? In fact, why not get them to print numerous photos with "tasteful"
closeups (i.e. no actual genitalia) of your male and female cast
members au naturale? Sure, the actual nude scene only lasts about 15 seconds. But, hey, ya gotta sell tickets, right?
Hey, it's not like it hasn't been done before, right? (cf. The Full Monty)
And, to be honest, I'm all for anything that gets people to see this production of Hair, which I found thoroughly thrilling during its Central Park engagement. (Read my review here.) And I'm actually really looking forward to seeing it again, now that it is transferring to the venerable Al Hirschfeld Theater for a Broadway run.
But business for Guys and Dolls has actually been fairly decent. The show had been playing to over 90% capacity until the reviews came out, but even after it was at about 85%. Of course, most of those ticket sales were discounted: the show's average ticket price has been about $65. It's not clear whether the $400,000 to $500,000 the show has been pulling in weekly is enough to cover expenses.
I have a ticket to see Guys and Dolls on March 25th, but I've been concerned that the show will close before I get to see it. This would actually be the first time, in 30-plus years of theater going, that I would have a ticket for a show that closed before I could see it. I did have a ticket for the aborted revival of Godspell, but that show didn't close, it just never opened.
According to Michael Riedel of the New York Post, the producers of Guys and Dolls plan to run it for at least seven weeks to see if it has legs. Apparently the audience response has been positive, or at least that what producer Howard Panter told Riedel. (Yeah, well, I seem to recall that the audience responded quite positively to A Tale of Two Cities and Frankenstein, too.) Could positive word of mouth turn Guys and Dolls into a modest hit? Or will
recession-weary and review-cognizant theater patrons opt for the better received revivals of West Side Story and Hair? Will I even get the chance to see the show and weigh in with my own critical take?
I had heard rumors today that this announcement would be coming, but now it's official. The new Broadway musical The Story of My Life will close tomorrow, after five regular performances and 18 previews. The mixed-to-negative reviews apparently did nothing to improve attendance, which was hovering at about 40% during previews.
It's really a shame, because the show had much to recommend it. When I saw The Story of My Life at the Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theater, I found Brian Hill's book to be riddled with clichés, but I thought that Neil Bartram's score was strong. Very strong, in fact, something that none of the reviews really gave the show credit for. In my review, I pointed out the merits of the show, including two terrific performances by Malcolm Gets and Will Chase, but that I thought New York audiences and critics would eat the show alive.
Neil Bartram sent me an E-mail, thanking me for my kind words, but taking me to task for digging the show's grave prematurely. I wrote back, emphasizing that I was really quite impressed by his score, and that truly hoped that I was wrong, and that New York would embrace this earnest but sweet show. But something about the nature of the show, as well as the current economic climate, made it very hard for me to back off on my dire prediction.
Unfortunately, I proved to be right, and I take absolutely no pleasure in that fact. I can only hope that Bartram's wonderful score receives a recording, because this is really the sort of show that could catch on in regional productions. (Because no recording, no afterlife. That's just the way it works, folks.) The cast and production requirements are extremely modest (two actors, one set), and the sentiment of the show would work much better outside the cynical, critical, unforgiving Manhattan environment. Even if it doesn't, I greatly look forward to the future work of the very talented and promising team of Bartram and Hill.