It takes a lot more than a day to change the ways of Broadway, but what a difference three years make.
Entering the final week of its 1997-98 season, Broadway has the ruddy glow of teenagers in old Disney flicks, and two smash Disney musicals have a lot to do with it. The season attendance of 11.3 million is an all-time record. Between the top Tony nominees for best play ("Art," "Freak," "The Beauty Queen of Leenane") and best revival-play ("A View From the Bridge," "The Chairs"), there are as many choices for good nonmusical entertainment as I've seen in my 16 years of tracking The Street.Compare this scene with the awful recent past. In 1995, selecting the best musical was like voting for commissars in the old Soviet Union, with only one credible, if bloated, candidate ("Sunset Boulevard") and one joke candidate ("Smokey Joe's Cafe"). The southern boundary of the Broadway district, like the shore of an evaporating sea, hovered at West 44th Street. Today, mirroring a general American migration back to urban roots for live entertainment, Broadway has four hits - "Cabaret," "Rent," "Ragtime," "The Lion King" - in revamped theaters between 43rd and 41st streets, the last two in what used to be the scuzziest core of the Times Square tenderloin.
Crime is down, tourism up. The League of American Theatres and Producers reports that twice as many under-18 patrons visit Broadway shows than just seven years ago. Beaming kids from the heartland clutch their souvenir Simba dolls from "Lion King" while Gen-X patrons who pass them on the sidewalk chatter about the naughty antics of their age-group peers in "Rent" and "Freak."
A somewhat parallel youth movement is happening off-Broadway, where leading theaters of the 1980s (Playwrights Horizons, New York Shakespeare Festival) have hit a creative plateau and are being upstaged by such Gen-X troupes as The Drama Department (currently mounting "As Bees in Honey Drown"), Tectonic Theatre Project (now performing "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde") and Atlantic Theatre Company (where "Beauty Queen" made its U.S. debut).
- HELLO, ROSIE, GOODBYE SUITS - Not only is Broadway no longer the exclusive province of the middle-aged, it's not just for sophisticates, either. Rosie O'Donnell, host of the June 7 Tony Awards show, can be so helpful to productions she talks up on her daytime TV show (c'mon now, Rosie, do you really like them all?) that she can offset negative reviews in The New York Times.
As league director Jed Bernstein said earlier this year, perhaps a bit wishfully, "critics are becoming irrelevant . . . not that criticism won't always have value, but in marketing it's a marginal factor."
The trouble is, the post-critic age also gives us a phenomenon such as composer Frank Wildhorn. The Texan's music ("Jekyll & Hyde," "The Scarlet Pimpernel"), which sounds like generic, computer-generated pop to the ears of us pundits, strikes a chord with an audience immersed in TV and Internet culture. That "Jekyll" fans are known as "Jekkies," on the model of "Star Trek's" "Trekkies," may seem like a punch line, but they represent the growing new markets for Broadway, not unlike the "third party" of tech-minded independents changing the face of American politics.
Bernstein may tap this new audience further with "Live Broadway USA," a nationally syndicated TV show (June 7) that takes viewers behind the scenes at the hit shows.
"It will be in a style similar to `Access Hollywood,' " said Bernstein's chief publicist, showing how much things have changed. Only three years ago, that's exactly the show Broadway wouldn't have emulated.
Following is a guide for travelers bound for the Great White Way, and a score card for the Tony Awards, coming June 7.
The leading nominees are a study in contrast: Martin McDonagh's "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" (Walter Kerr Theatre) and Yasmina Reza's "Art" (Royale), winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award this month.
"Beauty Queen," the more substantial and entertaining evening, unfolds in a poor village in the west of Ireland; you can almost smell the acrid peat fire of the brooding cottage set. It focuses on a loveless middle-age woman (Marie Mullen, the favorite for best actress) struggling to escape the clawing grasp of her scheming mother (Anna Manahan, ditto best featured actress). The daughter brings home a simple-hearted man who offers a glimpse of happiness, but only if the old woman - like a troll guarding the gate in an ancient folk tale - can be outwitted.
Britain's McDonagh, 28, may be the first to graft together two very different dramatic traditions. His loopy, hilarious, cracked-logic dialogue and bleak view of family ties align him with modern realists: Synge meets Mamet. The play also offers tingling suspense and shocks: Victorian melodrama meets "Friday the 13th."
"Art" similarly brings the refreshing breeze of an original voice, Reza, a Paris-based playwright of Iranian descent. When an urbane fellow pays a fortune for a painting that's basically just a white rectangle (a sight gag in itself), it triggers between him and his friends (one of them winningly played by Alan Alda) a cycle of mockeries and resentments, shattering the illusions and pretensions that their "friendship" depends upon.
There's an unrealness about the script, but the production turns it to advantage, with the heightened designs of a fable. The exaggerated hipness of the postmodern furniture and costumes sends a subtle message about the loss of authentic values in art as in relationships. Yet "Art" is so light and clever that this provocative notion registers almost subconsciously.
"Freak" (Cort), John Leguizamo's one-man show about coming of age in Latin New York, runs only through July 4 but augurs an important career for this dynamite performer. Gross-out gags pander to the "Mad TV" crowd, but Leguizamo's wit, protean skills and multicharacter scenarios are in a league with Eric Bogosian.
"The Judas Kiss" (Broadhurst), with an atypically dull script by David Hare, wastes the larger-than-life talents of Liam Neeson (snubbed by Tony nominators) as Oscar Wilde, martyr to the cause of gay rights.
"A View From the Bridge" (Neil Simon), Arthur Miller's twist on the Oedipus myth on the Brooklyn waterfront is one of his heavier-handed works but packs a theatrical wallop. As Eddie (or should that be Oeddie?) Carbone, consumed by repressed desire for his beautiful niece (Brittany Murphy of "Clueless"), Anthony LaPaglia begins like a secretive, watchful bull and ends up anguished, roaring, charging into his ritual destruction.
I can't imagine anyone taking best actor from LaPaglia, but there were equally ecstatic reviews for Britain's Richard Briers in "The Chairs" (Golden), the absurdist Eugene Ionesco classic and sleeper hit, which runs only through June 27. Co-star Geraldine McEwan is Mullen's chief rival for best actress.
This category will be the featured bout of Tony night: "Ragtime" (Ford Center, 13 nominations) vs. "The Lion King" (New Amsterdam, 11). The thrilling "King," blessed with a zippy Elton John/Tim Rice score and Julie Taymor's brilliant puppetry and direction, won the New York Critics Circle Award and should run longer than "Cats" (16 years) with or without the top Tony.
There's more at stake for "Ragtime." It's splendidly designed, performed and adapted from E.L. Doctorow's novel of turn-of-the-century Gotham but lacks a certain spark. The score is of that blah, medium-pop style that's also overrated in "Titanic" (Lunt-Fontanne).
I disagree with just about every New York critic in declaring "High Society" (St. James) downright delightful, from the witty Cole Porter score to the breakout performance of Melissa Errico in the Tracy Lord role made famous by Katharine Hepburn in the source play, "The Philadelphia Story."
"The Capeman" bombed, but if Paul Simon and Derek Walcott can win a long shot for best score, it might encourage further work on that promising project.
With due respect to Joel Grey, Liza Minnelli and other great artists associated with "Cabaret" (Kit Kat Klub), the grittiness of the new interpretation from British director Sam Mendes makes their earlier incarnations look like "Barney."
The grottolike theater, with table seating, is the club. Alan Cumming's mesmerizing MC evokes a punk rocker as much as a Weimar decadent, and beautiful Natasha Richardson achingly gropes for the lost soul of Sally Bowles (both performers should win Tonys if there's any justice). The show is both funnier and spookier than it was in 1966, with an icy undercurrent of horror for the Nazi machine just outside the Kit Kat's smoky oblivion. The show's only minuses are the dialogue plots - variations on boy-meets-girl - that seem hokey today. John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (book and lyrics) chucked the plots and perfected this same structure in 1975's "Chicago," telling a story purely as show-within-show.
And speaking of "Chicago," a year and a half into its run, it's still my choice as the musical to see first, because it won't be around as long as "Lion King."
"1776" (Gershwin), a likable revival of the 1969 show about the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, has interesting history and silliness in equal measure. It's a useful fallback if you can't get the hotter tickets.