Is It Backlash Time for Brits on Broadway?Date: 30 June 1999
A record number of West End productions, starring many of our best and brightest actors, transferred to New York's Great White Way over the past year. The result was a whopping 23 Tony nominations for British and Irish productions - but a mere three awards on the night. Have Americans lost their taste for British talent? Native New Yorker Bob Foley reports on the Brits on Broadway....
Summer, 1999 and Broadway has pared itself down to a sluggish fare of crowd pleasers. New York translation: long-run musicals and lingering Tony Award winners, some already weakly recast with popular brand names. The Brits who launched a 14- pronged missile attack with nary a dud on New York, in what has been widely dubbed 'Year of the Play', have all but vanished in the July smog. In their wake: an intellectual ho-hum where Les Mis and Cats go on forever.
Already small print in the archives are The Lonesome West, The Blue Room, Via Dolorosa, Marlene, Swan Lake, Electra, Britannicus and Phedre; the Racine classics powered here by the memory of Diana Rigg in The Avengers and one of Britain's imminent young mega-stars, Toby Stephens, who actually managed the feat of slipping by our Actor's Equity to return this spring in two additional roles, the evil and good twins, Hugo and Frederic in the Gerald Gutierrez directed revival of Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon.
Brit survivors? The Weir, not a Tony in sight, will probably outlast the summer on ecstatic word of mouth along with the Chicago-born Death of a Salesman. With the departure of Natasha Richardson, Closer author Patrick Marber himself has turned his lead character Anna into an American expatriate, softened the ending and 'Americanized' the dialogue. The production will span the summer by selling itself on the drawing power of sex. Amy's View survives for the moment; but Dame Judi Dench, whose penetration of American consciousness is based almost exclusively on her Academy Award win as Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love, in what should have been an unheralded cameo role, will be gone by mid-July and there's no thought of extending the play.
And that's pretty much it for serious fare on Broadway in a season that produced not a single musical smash except for the misguided Annie Get Your Gun revived with a woefully miscast Bernadette Peters cloying her way to an undeserved Tony in a non- competitive field. Had the Trevor Nunn production of Oklahoma! reached America, it would have swept away every prize from New York to San Francisco.
Tony Awards for the Brits? Yes. Twenty plus nominations boiled down to three lonely wins. There's more local politics and timing than backlash here, and let's remember that the Tonys rarely rubber stamp Olivier Awards. The surprise win of the night? Matthew Bourne for his stunning choreography in the all male retelling of Swan Lake.
Storming in from Chicago, Brian Dennehy was frankly (and deservedly) unstoppable as Willie Loman, a performance the West End should clamor to see in a production that eclipsed memory of mewling Dustin Hoffman and reinvented Death of a Salesman for the millennium. As for Kevin Spacey's overrated Hickey, a good number of Tony voters were undoubtedly deep in la-la land by the fourth hour of the production when Hickey's show stopping and show ending monologue occurs. Some perhaps woke up to a performance more reminiscent of Robert Preston in River City than Jason Robards in the historical 1953 Jose Quintero production of The Iceman Cometh. Bryan F O'Byrne, a strong contender now for two consecutive years, should earn a third shot at best actor when A Skull in Connemara, the third in the Martin McDonagh Leenane cycle, inevitably arrives here.
Dennehy's co-star Elizabeth Franz dropped from star status to avoid a collision with Dame Judi and virtually stole the supporting actress award from the other three contenders. Not a difficult feat! Claire Bloom's Klytemnestra has been gone from the New York boards for months, a forgotten complement to the smoldering but also forgotten Zoe Wanamaker s Electra. Samantha Bond (Amy's View) and Dawn Bradfield (The Lonesome West), crossed the Atlantic with no name recognition, a fatal flaw in the American voting booth, and could not have hoped to walk away with the supporting actress.
But if Brits felt sleighted by the Tony judges, there should be consolation in the fact that Americans were robbed as well. Why? Because the Broadway economy demands that the award wealth be spread thin. So Frank Wood, performing valiantly in the unremarkable best new play winner, Side Man, copped a steal not only from the ever dependable Finbar (nee Barry) Lynch in the splendid Nunn mounting of Not About Nightingales, but also from American Kevin Anderson (best known on the West End as the original Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard) who should have been rightly devastated for not nabbing the award as Biff in Salesman.
The biggest loser? David Hare, bitter and hardly reticent about being ignored! Not a nomination for the reigning Brit playwright in sight. But no surprise. Hare has always been perceived as too political and far too long-winded and pretentious in New York. His three smart bombs might as well have landed in Belgrade. They drew accolades from critics and yawns from theatre-goers. His semi-autobiographical Via Dolorosa barely limped to the end of a limited engagement. No one even considered extending The Blue Room once Nicole Kidman put her clothes back on and went home to Tom Cruise. As for Amy's View, a star turn couched in a ponderously cliched script, its popularity was measured strictly in terms of Dench dollars. When Dame Judi was suddenly called home on a family emergency in late June, an astounding 80% of the audience lined up at the box office for refunds.
Americans simply prefer the visceral when it comes to their drama. So why not The Lonesome West, the conclusion (in America, the continuation) of McDonagh's Leenane Trilogy or Nunn's brutal, naturalistic staging of Tennessee Williams' rediscovered Nightingales, a production destined for folklore? Why give best play award to Side Man, an undistinguished work destined only for endless university revivals? Sometimes, there's simply no accounting for judgment.