BootLeg Betty

Broadway’s (over)crowded diary

The Stage
Short Shorts 81: More Broadway notes
April 19, 2013

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I know I routinely complain about an over-crowded press diary in the UK, where week in and week out we have so many competing claims on our attention that it is impossible to do more than scratch the surface of what’s going on.

Even in a relatively quiet week like this one, with only one big National Theatre show (Children of the Sun) and one West End opening (of a short run for a play from the National Theatre of Sweden for Doktor Glas, starring the Swedish Wallander, Krister Henriksson), there are nevertheless ten openings listed in Theatre Record’s invaluable future schedule listings in London, and nine more in the regions.

But at least we spread our West End openings out over across the entire year. On Broadway, they are in the midst of the annual rush to open ahead of the cut-off date for eligibility for this year’s Tony Awards, which this year is set as April 25, with seven shows opening this week alone (squeezed into five nights, so presenting two double clashes), and four more to follow from Monday to Thursday. Those 11 shows in 11 days, by contrast, were preceded by just 13 other shows opening since the start of the year (and of those 13, nine of them have opened since the beginning of March).

This puts ridiculous pressure on critics there, but is also self-cannablising in terms of fighting for coverage and spreading the audience thinly between them. Of course what emerges is a Darwinian struggle of the fittest (and/or fattest, in terms of marketing budgets). Two shows that opened back-to-back on March 20 and 21 have already fallen: the Broadway stage version of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, directed there as here by Sean Mathias, shuts this Sunday, while Hands on a Hardbody shut last Saturday.

One-person and jukebox shows

Three of the last remaining five shows to open this season are solo shows. On Sunday, Alan Cumming opens in his one-man version of Macbeth from the National Theatre of Scotland on Monday at the Barrymore. On Monday, Fiona Shaw opens in Deborah Warner’s production of Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary at the Walter Kerr. And Wednesday sees Bette Midler return to Broadway for the first time in 30 years in John Logan’s I’ll Eat You Last, a new play about the late Hollywood super-agent Sue Mengers.

If one-person shows are one way of bringing costs down on Broadway (though the marketing and theatre costs, of course, are still notoriously high regardless of your actors’ salary bills), there’s a higher risk attached, too, for the actors concerned. There’s no safety net or fellow actors to keep them company. As John Logan, who wrote I’ll Eat You Last, told the New York Times when he pitched the play to her:

Bette’s eyebrows went up three inches and she immediately came up with 27 reasons not to do it: ‘You’re out there alone, you’re so exposed, it’s just you, you’re responsible for all the drama and all the laughs.

And as Patrick Healy states in the same piece:

Broadway has always been a high-wire act for celebrities used to the safety nets of film and television, like reshooting scenes to correct mistakes, and many such actors cop to nervousness. It can lower expectations, as Tom Hanks did when he said he was worried about “blowing” his Broadway debut this spring in Lucky Guy, and then went on to earn respectful reviews from most critics.

Midler’s hoping for a similar reception, telling Healy:

I hope people will cut me some slack, but who knows — maybe they’ll take me down for it. I mean, can I really create a full, three-dimensional character? I don’t know anymore. I’m certainly going to try.

I’m dying to see it, but will have to wait till my next trip in May. I’ve seen her in concert twice in Las Vegas, and she was a knock-out. She could have played it ‘safe’ by bring one of those concerts to a Broadway stage (as Barry Manilow, another Vegas regular, recently did to the St James), but she’s trying something else.

Meanwhile, however, earlier this week Broadway saw the return of 60s band The Rascals, reuniting its four original members for the first time onstage since 1970 in a concert show called Once Upon a Dream, named after their fourth studio album, released in 1968.

At least that’s a live jukebox from the original band. Elsewhere, Broadway remains saturated by pop shows constructed out of old pop songs, from Motown, which just arrived last Sunday, to Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys and Rock of Ages.

Deja vu

As if it isn’t enough that Broadway is recycling old pop songs, it is also recycling old pop shows like Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll and Hyde, which first made it there in 1997 and ran for nearly four years (without recouping its initial investment on that run). If it was pretty risible the first time around, the new version that opened at that vast Broadway barn of the Marquis last night is even more uniquely terrible – a scrappy production that barely rises above a concert staging, with imposing blocks of screens onto which scenery is mostly projected instead of actually built.

Just as Jekyll and Hyde is all about one man’s struggle between good and evil within himself, Broadway is a battle between good and bad shows, and here’s where the rot really began to set in, as it sought to self-consciously provide pale imitations of the West End pop operas that had dominated it in the 80s.

It also fields two sometime pop stars in Constantine Maroulis (the sixth placed finalist in the Series 4 of American Idol) and Deborah Cox, both of whom can sing but can’t act (and certainly can’t produce credible English accents, either). It is simply excruciating. But somehow, too, it feels weirdly appropriate for the corporate sterility of the Marquis, Broadway’s least lovable theatre.

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