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2002: A Theater Odyssey

TheaterMania's editorial staff looks back at a year that was full of surprises. logo
As good as it gets: Hairspray rocks Broadway
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Not even the most cockeyed optimist could have predicted that New York theater would rebound so well from the horrific events of 9/11/01. According to a recent projection from The League of American Theatres and Producers, the total, collective Broadway box office gross for 2002 will have reached a record high of $705.2 million by the end of tomorrow night, surpassing the 2001 total of $664 million by 9.5% -- this despite the increased availability of ticket discounts on the internet and through other means. Given the fact that people are paying all sorts of different prices for the same tickets, the actual attendance figures provided by the League -- a projected 11.41 million people in 2002 as compared to 11.39 million last year -- are probably more indicative of the situation. Relatively small though that increase may be, it's still remarkable considering the current state of the economy and what happened in lower Manhattan just under 15 months ago -- two things that are certainly related, though no one is sure just how closely.

The year brought us Movin' Out, Def Poetry Jam, La Bohème, and other entertainments that theatergoers in the middle years of the 20th century would never have dreamed of seeing on what was then called the Main Stem. The huge popularity of several of these shows would be cause for alarm if it led to the death of new plays on Broadway (which most of us thought had already happened a couple of years ago) and/or to the less frequent production of book musicals with new scores. Fortunately, the success of Hairspray, The Producers, Proof, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, etc. should prevent such a thing from happening any time soon.

Full and partial nudity, mostly involving male actors, was very much a factor on and off Broadway this year -- largely due to the efforts of director Joe Mantello, whose past oeuvre includes the flesh-fests Love! Valour! Compassion! and Corpus Christi and who this year had his actors go starkers in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune at the Belasco -- which opened with a graphically simulated sex scene -- and in Take Me Out at the Public Theater. (Surprisingly, Mantello didn't direct Burning Blue.) The casting of film and TV stars and other celebrities for limited runs in long-running shows also continued -- a practice that should be applauded when the folks in question can handle their assignments (e.g., Anne Heche in Proof) and condemned when they cannot (e.g., Louis Gossett, Jr. in Chicago).

We can thank the powers that be at Man of La Mancha for contributing to a sad trend by cutting one of the finest overtures in musical theater history from the Broadway revival of that show. (I guess it was more important to have star Brian Stokes Mitchell sing a redundantly extended version of "The Impossible Dream." Mitchell did some guest appearances on Frasier last year and, alas, he lately seems to be emulating the theater career of Kelsey Grammer.) As a consolation prize, we got to hear the great overture to the cult flop Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along performed live in New York not once, but twice: in the heart-stopping original cast reunion concert version of the show and in the Avery Fisher Hall evening of highlights from the summer's Sondheim Celebration in Washington, D.C.

As evidence that you can't always judge the quality of a show by its reviews or its ticket sales, worthy entries such as The Last Five Years floundered while dreck like Take Me Out and director Deborah Warner's Eurotrashy Abbey Theatre production of Medea received critical praise and did very well at the box office -- in the short term, at least. (If Warner is interested in learning how ancient works can be magically but sensibly reinterpreted for the modern age, she should take a look at Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses.) Lincoln Center Theater's magnificent revival of Morning's at Seven closed in July but should still be running, and the excellent Howard Davies-Lindsay Duncan-Alan Rickman Private Lives wasn't as hot a ticket as it should have been. On the other hand, almost everyone recognized Dance of the Vampires for the theatrical bloodbath it is, and audiences refused to accept what director Sean Mathias did to The Elephant Man. In the positive column, the Flea Theater's production of Anne Nelson's The Guys -- a quietly moving and beautiful play about two disparate New Yorkers who are brought together by the World Trade Center tragedy -- had a deservedly long run with such stars as Sigourney Weaver, Bill Murray, Susan Sarandon, and Anthony LaPaglia rotating in and out of the cast.

It became crystal clear this year that, in one important respect, the responsibility for an enjoyable evening of theater rests not with writers, composers, producers, or actors but with John Q. Public. Reports of actor Stanley Tucci going justifiably ballistic over the ringing of audience members' cell phones during performances of the aforementioned Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune pointed up a serious problem that's getting worse. This hateful phenomenon is only the most egregious example of audience selfishness, ignorance, and rudeness; other examples include full-volume talking and the S-L-O-O-O-W unwrapping of cough drops (or whatever) during a show, not to mention the rustling of shopping bags that people insistently place on their laps rather than under their seats. Announcements are made warning against such annoyances before the start of every show -- and they are ignored. More drastic behavior modification methods have been avoided thus far because the theater is terrified of losing paying customers (even the rudest ones), so let me say what so many of us feel: If you don't know how to behave in public, please consider staying at home.

-- Michael Portantiere


How sweet it was: Brian d’Arcy James
and John Lithgow in Sweet Smell of Success
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Amidst heated debates over whether the 2002 Tony Award should go to Urinetown or Thoroughly Modern Millie, I was quietly rooting for Sweet Smell of Success. It was a flawed musical, but the most interesting ones usually are. The Marvin Hamlisch-Craig Carnelia score was in perfect sync with this noirish morality play that featured excellent performances by John Lithgow and Brian d'Arcy James. Sweet Smell proved its own point when it fell victim to scathingly negative press. To quote the show, "On and on and on it goes..."

As for highlights of the first half of the 2002-2003 season: Say Goodnight Gracie, starring Frank Gorshin, is a charming tribute to George Burns and Gracie Allen, and to the vanishing vaudevillian humor that they did so well. If this comedy is a reminder of where we have been, the Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam shows us where we're heading as its nine young, ultra-talented poet-philosopher-comedians wax lyrical on everything from love to politics. Director Baz Luhrmann and his wife, designer Catherine Martin, gave us a stunning La Bohème that not only brought opera to Broadway but may also draw a new audience of movie fans who loved Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge. And what a pleasure it was to see Movin' Out, which everyone was poised to call the flop of the season, turn out to be an exciting and touching evening of theater.

Then there's the runaway hit Hairspray, a dizzyingly fun and truly warm musical comedy with a tuneful, '60s-style score and an enthusiastic cast. If its attempt to deal with Civil Rights issues seems a little silly at times, the show is refreshing in that its stars are a significantly overweight young woman (Marissa Jaret Winokur) and a drag queen (Harvey Fierstein -- who else?).

Off-Broadway had plenty to be proud of this year. The Exonerated, a kind of staged reading made up entirely of testimonies by death row inmates, is political theater at its best. Insightful, engaging, and moving, it never condescends to the audience or to its real-life characters, and the people behind it (including a rotating cast of major stars) are clearly committed to using this play to educate and inform, rather than simply preaching to the choir. Meanwhile, the new Flaherty & Ahrens musical A Man of No Importance was charming despite a less-than- memorable score by Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens; the show does have a fine book by Terrence McNally and it was a treat to see such a stupendous cast -- Roger Rees, Faith Prince, etc. -- in a "small" musical.

Speaking of small musicals: Jason Robert Brown's sadly short-lived two-hander The Last Five Years had the best music heard on or off Broadway this year, its electrifying score brilliantly performed by a crackerjack 6-piece band (led by the composer) and the show's commanding stars, Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie René Scott. But, ultimately, Stephen Sondheim proved to be the star of 2002. In tribute to him, notoriously sedentary New York theatergoers -- who even balk at the thought of crossing the bridge to Brooklyn -- traveled to D.C. in droves to see the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center. Although none of the celebration's six new productions of Sondheim shows transferred to NYC, we did get a look at the New National Theatre of Tokyo's Pacific Overtures before the folks in D.C. did, and it proved to be one of the most powerful theatrical experiences of the year.

-- Brooke Pierce


Melissa Errico and Malcolm Gets in Amour
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
While 2002 was, as widely reported, the Richard Rodgers centennial, that great composer received less than ideal tributes on Broadway. First came Trevor Nunn's lackluster production of Oklahoma!, which had little heart, less energy, and a number of inadequate performances in major roles. Then came the Roundabout revamp of The Boys From Syracuse, with a new and mostly forgettable book by Nicky Silver -- a production redeemed only by its generally fine cast and its excellent score. Finally, the revisal of Flower Drum Song, featuring an all-new libretto by David Henry Hwang, managed to remove most of the comedy and honest emotion that permeated the original, admittedly imperfect book.

Stephen Sondheim fared much better in 2002, the dreary Broadway revival of Into the Woods aside. The Kennedy Center's high-profile Sondheim Celebration during the summer was a remarkable event. Its six major productions -- Sweeney Todd, Company, Sunday in the Park With George, A Little Night Music, Passion, and Merrily We Roll Along -- were highly memorable. Passion, bursting with tension and containing three flawless performances from leads Michael Cerveris, Judy Kuhn, and Rebecca Luker, was my favorite, but each show was worthy of the time and money expended by the creative teams (and audiences).

Speaking of Sondheim: The September 30 original cast reunion concert of Merrily We Roll Along in NYC was one of the year's unquestionable highlights. The event proved to be highly emotional for longtime fans of the show as well as more recent converts, thrillingly led by original stars Jim Walton, Lonny Price, Ann Morrison, and Jason Alexander. Though purists can correctly complain about the insertion of additional material and the absence of Sally Klein (effectively spelled by Liz Callaway) in the role of Beth, this was an exceptional tribute to a show that ran but 16 performances in its original 1981 run.

Perhaps there's some hope, then, for the future of this season's Amour, which closed on November 3 after 17 performances. An English adaptation of Michel Legrand's hit French musical Le Passe-Muraille, Amour proved (as A Class Act did two years ago) that a warm-hearted story, a thoroughly charming score, and a great cast (led by the engagingly nebbishy Malcolm Gets and the positively radiant Melissa Errico) aren't enough to sell a chamber musical to Broadway audiences these days. Sadly, Amour did not produce a cast recording, which may keep the show from getting the exposure it richly deserves through productions in smaller regional houses, in community theater, and in schools. (If people can't hear the score, how they can decide to do the show?)

-- Matthew Murray


Howard W. Overshown in Yellowman
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
As proof that long runs do not necessarily equal quality, and vice versa, some of the best shows to debut this year came and went in what seemed a short amount of time. For example, Edward Albee's Tony Award-winning The Goat didn't even last until the end of the calendar year. This provocative play, which centers around a man's affair with a certain barnyard animal, features an intelligent and complex script that has more to say about human relationships than anything else seen on Broadway in recent years. Another critically acclaimed piece, Yellowman, also recently shuttered. Nominated for a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Dael Orlandersmith's riveting tale of an African-American community in South Carolina goes beyond a simplified view of race and racism to delve into issues of class, gender, and family dynamics in complicated but theatrically compelling ways.

Jason Robert Brown's small-scale, Off-Broadway musical The Last Five Years also closed far too early. Chronicling the beginning and end of a love affair, this gem featured outstanding performances by Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie René Scott, as well as some of Brown's best music. Yet another quirky take on dysfunctional relationships came from Stephen Adly-Guirgis: Our Lady of 121st Street, produced by the LAByrinth Theater Company and directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, boasted one of the most amazing acting ensembles I've had the pleasure to encounter. A darkly humorous script and outstanding direction didn't hurt, either.

On the level of pure enjoyment, one of my favorites this year was Tim Acito's hilarious and peppy tuner Zanna, Don't! Magic and music are the rule in the parallel universe of this show, where the majority of people are gay and the high school drama club addresses such controversial subjects as heterosexuals in the military. Hitting much closer to home was The Bomb by the International WOW Company. The epic work covers everything from the origins of the nuclear bomb to post-September 11th fallout; it was one of the most powerful new works I've seen in a long time, a truly extraordinary theatrical experience.

Lest we all get too depressed over the fact that so many great shows disappear too quickly, word is that Our Lady of 121st Street, Zanna, Don't!, and The Bomb will all be re-mounted in New York sometime in 2003. So, if you missed them the first time around, be sure to catch them in the new year.

-- Dan Bacalzo


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