Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001
In his new book, Steven Suskin sums up a Broadway season that included everything from Mel Brooks' The Producers to Kelsey Grammer's Macbeth.
What a fabulous few days I've just had, reading--and re-reading and re-re-reading--Steven Suskin's Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001 (Oxford University Press; available June 3). This is the second book Suskin has written that details a season on Broadway, and while I liked his 1999-2000 edition, this one is even better.
Suskin has the smarts and the connections to write a definitive tome on "The Street." As he off-handedly mentions, "I spent about 15 years as a company manager and six years as a general manager-producer." Indeed, he 'fesses up that he almost was a co-producer of the revival of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe but that he just didn't care to return to the rat race. It's our gain that he wrote this book instead for, unlike Harold Hill, Suskin does know the territory. To wit: "Bloomer Girl was the sort of creakily old-fashioned musical comedy where a character you'd never seen before could turn up late in the show and sing a show-stopper like 'I Got a Song' and then go back to his dressing room."
The 2000-2001 season started with Macbeth, and Suskin quickly establishes his penchant for research by noting that in Sarah Caldwell's 1981 production, where Philip Anglim was Macbeth, Kelsey Grammer was his understudy. Hence, the 2000 bad-Grammer production, which probably disappointed its star as much as it did us.
I found myself nodding my head quite often while reading the book, for I discovered that Suskin and I agree on many points. When I saw The Man Who Came to Dinner, I was terribly jarred by a joke about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. So was Suskin, who said he was "appalled that George S. Kaufman would allow such a joke. So much that I made a note of it and vowed to check the script." So did I, Steve, so did I. What did we both find? I'll let Suskin tell you: "Kaufman and Hart, needless to say, did not poke fun at the Lindbergh baby. Someone else put it in."
I'm not the type to focus on who's sleeping with whom or who's married to whom, so Suskin has taught me something in regard to Gore Vidal's The Best Man: "Back in 1960, the casting of Melvyn Douglas was theatrical dynamite. Who better to play a character battling Nixon-like dirty tricks than the husband of Nixon's first and most famous victim? 'Helen Gahagan Douglas' is pink right down to her underwear,' claimed Communist-hater Nixon." Wow! While I'd certainly heard of her, I didn't know she'd picked up the Douglas name by marrying Melvin.
I like that Suskin returned to Proof to see the understudies, and can therefore report that "Caroline Bootle's performance was good enough that you wouldn't know you were seeing an understudy" but "Larry Bryggman's understudy was also on--and the poor man was merely adequate." Nice of him to give credit where it's due but not name the name of the less-accomplished. Yet you don't have to be an understudy for Suskin to praise you: He acknowledges such unsung heroes as Mary Stout ("generally an asset to any production in which she appears") and Lonny Price ("It is not easy to write the book of a musical; it is not easy to direct a musical; and it is unheard of to write and direct a musical while starring in it.") Of Stephen Flaherty, Suskin writes that he "is one of the most melodic of the 'new' composers working on Broadway; the only person under 65 who still writes in the Richard Rodgers-Jule Styne vein--and that's all to the good." Hear, hear!
Suskin also tells what almost happened in the season. Years from now, we'll all still remember Proof, but will we recall that "Desire Under the Elms had been announced for the November slot at the American Airlines. Mary Louise Parker was skeeded to star but Proof--which she was playing Off-Broadway--turned into a hit, and she withdrew from the O'Neill." And for those who wonder what Nathan Lane sang in the section of the The Producers' "Betrayed" number that homaged "Rose's Turn" (before Arthur Laurents insisted it be excised), Suskin's here to give you every word. That, as they say in sports, is the stuff that doesn't show up in the box scores.
He also says certain things that reek of gossipy juice, such as: "My understanding is that Flaherty and Ahrens accepted the Weisslers on Seussical on condition--in writing--that they didn't actually have to talk to them." Wow! Suskin can certainly be caustic, though he's entertaining when doing so. On Tom Sawyer: "All the little boys and girls save one looked old enough to buy a drink in Texas." On George Gershwin Alone: "When George Gershwin went on the road in 1934, he was canny enough not to go alone."
Suskin won't endear himself to Follies fanatics, but I say he's 100% right when discussing both the 1971 show and the 2001 revival. Of the latter: "Follies was a shoo-in for the best revival Tony and numerous other nominations--at least until it started previews." Of the former: "The show is not very good. The score is very good, but the show doesn't work. People like to poke jabs at the fact that the show lost the Tony to the long-forgotten musicalization of Two Gentlemen of Verona. Let me tell you, standing on the sidewalk outside the St. James after curtain calls of Two Gents, you saw a sea of mostly ecstatic faces. Standing outside the Winter Garden, people didn't look too happy." Amen, brother, amen. And listen: I too didn't like Two Gents when I heard the cast album in February 1971 but, oh, did I adore it after seeing it in June 1971.
In conclusion, Suskin is realistic (Judgment at Nuremberg had a cast that "nobody whom the average person in the food court of the shopping mall would recognize"), savvy ("Stones in His Pockets was a soap opera, except for the theatrical tour de force of playing it with a two-man cast"), aware ("Between 1954 and 1970, there were no musical revivals on Broadway"), felicitous with words ("Susan Stroman had to go through Big and Steel Pier before making Contact"), and equally good at interpreting statistics ("While Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee sounds ancient to us, at the time Rodgers and Hart's musical was presented, the novel was only 38 years old--only a little more ancient than the source material for this season's The Producers"). But there's more. For each show, he offers a "Critical Scorecard" sidebar (The Dinner Party opened to 0 Raves, 0 Favorable, 1 Mixed, 1 Unfavorable, and 8 pans) that includes a list of Tony and Drama Desk Awards and nominations received. On another grid, he lists the full cast of every production.
After the season is said and done, there are still some pleasures to be had. Suskin lists his own personal Tony nominations, adding people who were overlooked. (Did Andy Smart, a trumpeter in Blast, ever expect he'd make a list on which Nathan Lane was celebrated?) And while the Best Plays annuals have always given lists of long-run productions, Suskin provides them with a different look by splitting them into plays and musicals and giving the highest ranking of each before it was eclipsed by newer shows. Finally, he quickly discusses the holdovers from the previous season and finishes with a nice necrology. But may there never be a necrology for Steven Suskin's Broadway Yearbooks.