So many of my friends are dismayed at what's playing at some Broadway theaters. "And now there's that thing called Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam at the Longacre," moaned one. "Remember when there were real plays there, like Children of a Lesser God or I Never Sang for My Father? Hey, even though The Belle of Amherst was a one-person show, at least that one person was Julie Harris."
Said another, "And the Royale -- which has housed such prize-winners as The Kentucky Cycle, Art, and Copenhagen -- has Jackie Mason in it." Yet another said, "First there was Contact, which wasn't a musical, and then Blast! which wasn't a musical. La Bohème's coming and Movin' Out has already arrived. What seems to be 'movin' out' is the Broadway musical."
I see their points. Would I rather have "real" musicals and plays at these houses? Sure. But the reaction I heard from the crowds at Def Poetry Jam, Movin' Out, and Prune Danish sure show me that they're pleasing their audiences. Jam and Movin' are certainly getting louder applause and "whoos!" than many traditional attractions I've seen at the Longacre and the Rodgers, and it's a treat to see so many young people doing the cheering. (Not that the old-timers don't have a good deal of life left in them, too, as is proved by the waves of laughter they're giving Jackie Mason -- many more laughs than some of the so-called comedies that have sporadically shown up on Broadway's doors in recent years.)
Broadway has always played host to the occasional maverick attraction. Just the other day, Jeremy Gerard of New York Magazine wistfully told me how much he fondly recalled André Heller's Wonderhouse, which took residence at the Broadhurst in October 1991. It showed off European entertainers who specialized in art forms you never see anymore. There was a shadow puppeteer who made the most astonishing creations appear on the back wall; a paper artist who created the most dazzling trees, plants, and animals; a lady who played a saw; and two ladies who yodeled and whistled extraordinarily. It was a lot of fun.
One of the weirdest attractions that the street ever sported -- I don't know how producer Alexander H. Cohen ever said to himself, "This'll make a fortune!" -- was Ken Murray's Hollywood, which played the Golden in 1965. The Best Plays annual described it as such: "Discussion of 30 years in Hollywood, with home movies of the stars and others of Sam Simeon, the estate of William Randolph Hearst and life there, and the making of Mr. Murray's award-winning Bill and Coo," a short subject about birds that esteemed film critic James Agee called "the goddamnest thing you ever saw." But the bulk of the evening was watching this guy's home movies. Granted, because they were of stars, they'd have to be more interesting than the ones your Uncle Vinnie or Aunt Vera drags out, but I still don't know who'd want to see them. (I take that back -- for I know a guy who worked in a store that transferred old 8-mm movies to videotape. Who walked in to have his films converted but Stephen Sondheim; the clerk not only made a tape for Sondheim but also for himself, and he then had us all over to watch it. Unlike Ken Murray's Hollywood, we didn't have to pay to see it.)
Anyway, Blast! had to have been better than Hear! Hear! (1955), the 38-performance smash at the Ziegfeld which basically offered the Fred Waring Orchestra and his hired hands in a glorified concert. Lumpy Brannum, Buss Dillon, and Leonard Kranendonk (not to be confused with Bob Kranendonk, who also appeared) sang such songs as "Hora Staccato," "On Top of Old Smokey," and "Salvé Regina," en route to the eleven o'clock number, "Thanks for Coming." I don't know about you, but that doesn't make me want to sing, "That's Entertainment!"
The Obratsov Puppet Theatre played the Broadway Theatre in 1963, and the Chinese Acrobats of Taiwan were at the Minskoff in 1976. And let's not forget about all those dance troupes that have perennially landed at Broadway houses. In a nine-year span beginning in 1959, Les Ballets Africains visited the Beck, Lunt-Fontanne, Alvin, Barrymore, and Hellinger. In 1955 alone, the Broadway Theatre between 53rd and 54th Streets played host to Carmen Amaya and Her Dance Company, Katherine Dunham and Her Dance Company, Antonio and His Spanish Ballet Company, and The Azuma Kabuki Dancers and Musicians. I'd rather have Blast! there, or even an opera like La Bohème.
The Moscow Music Hall dropped by the Majestic in 1977; an Elvis impersonator played the Palace in 1978; and, in between them, Lou Rawls hung his hat at the Hellinger. Now, wouldn't you rather have Lou Rawls -- or anyone else -- at the Hellinger than the Times Square Church that now inhabits it? Maybe one reason there's no longer a Hellinger is that it didn't have enough of these bookings.
That's the real crux of the matter. Those who lament the Longacre's housing of Def Poetry Jam should be reminded that it wasn't that long ago that the Shuberts were considering leasing the theater to New York State, which would have used it as a courthouse. A courthouse! If the Shuberts had played their cards wrong, the space where Ain't Misbehavin' began its celebrated run would now instead be inhabited by those accused of misbehavin'. I'd rather have the talented young kids of Def Poetry Jam and their rabid fans in there. Getting kids used to walking through the doors of a Broadway house isn't such a bad idea; it demystifies the experience and makes these theaters seem like they're not "out of bounds."
When it comes to plays vs. solo attractions: Would you rather see Jackie Mason do his act at the Royale or have him appear in a revival of the 1969 play he co-wrote and starred in, an opus called A Teaspoon Every Four Hours, just because it's a play? Given that opus's august title, are you going to be surprised when I tell you that it closed on opening night? And speaking of the Royale: Don't forget that in the late '50s, that theater reverted to playing a movie, Gigi. I'm fond of that Oscar-winner, too, but I'd rather see any legit attraction in the Royale than a film.
In Jean Kerr's wonderful comedy Mary, Mary, the heroine chides her ex-husband, a book publisher, because he rejects the memoirs of a Hollywood star on the basis that they're so blatantly commercial. She points out that his business is failing and that he's got to keep the shop open so that, when the masterpiece does come along, he'll still be in business to publish it. That's also true of Broadway theaters. Keep the lights lit from 41st through 54th Street. As long as there's a tenant in every one of these places, each stands a chance of hosting another great big Broadway show on its stage.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]