Theatre, being a living art, is always in a constant state of evolution, but nowhere more so than in New York, where today's fashions quickly become yesterday's news and tomorrow's trends soon become bad habits.
With the death last year of the legendary musical producer David Merrick, all too quickly followed by that of Alexander Cohen (who specialised more in plays), plus the passing of Cats, itself about to be followed by the closure of Miss Saigon on 28 January, two eras have come to an end at once: that of solo producers, and of the domination of the Broadway musical, for the last two decades at least, by imported shows from Britain.
In their place, committees and, increasingly, corporations, are now the dominant players on Broadway, rather than individual producers and personalities. For them, showbusiness is more about the business part than the show part, so the products they turn out are built less in a creative furnace than in a financial and marketing one. The question asked is not whether this is great art, but how widely its potential appeal will be.
Seussical A Flopsical?
But theatre doesn't follow such sleek rules: it cannot be pre-programmed for success. A new musical called Seussical, despite the witty allure of its title (based on the popular source material of the Dr Seuss children's stories) and a brightly appealing cast and production that has been employed to bring it to the stage, proves that you cannot simply buy the right ingredients. You also need to provide a chef and a recipe. Too many cooks in the kitchen, as this show definitely suffered from, failed to make a satisfying meal, though the songs of Ahrens and Flaherty (Ragtime, Once on this Island) will make a nice cast album.
From Eyre to Aida
Likewise, the formulaic musical adaptation that has been made of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is simultaneously earnest, worthy and dull, full of effort and darkness instead of lightness and shade. Brighter in every respect is The Full Monty, not least in its final scene that lives up to its title but fails to show you anything. This stage version of the hit film relocates the action from the UK's Sheffield to the US town of Buffalo, but though it has an appealing score by David Yazbek, a newcomer to musicals, it hardly breaks new ground. It's a safely mediocre night out - even the nude scene at the end is discreetly blinded out by bright lights.
But at least it's a real show. Disney's Aida, with a score by Britons Elton John and Tim Rice, is merely a pop pageant brought to the stage. Next to the pantomimic Beauty and the Beast, also still running on Broadway, it's a vague improvement. But it's nothing like Disney's best contribution yet to the Great White Way, The Lion King, which is still a sensation at the sensationally restored New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street.
Just how bad things have gotten in the world of new musicals is proved by the fact that Contact, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical last year, isn't a musical at all, but a dance piece. Or rather a series of three dance pieces (to recorded music, natch), with choreography by Susan Stroman.
No wonder that there's more satisfaction to be had from reviving tried-and-tested warhorses, such as the still scintillating The Music Man (Stroman again), Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate (in a wonderfully enjoyable, old-fashioned production by Michael Blakemore), and a breathtakingly good Rocky Horror Show, terrifically re-imagined at a totally transformed Circle in the Square Theatre where architect designer David Rockwell's environmental setting for it completely draws you into its still subversive world. Likewise Cabaret - in Sam Mendes's staging that transforms the legendary Studio 54 back into a nightclub setting once again - delivers more punch and attack than this Kander and Ebb show has ever had and does the rare trick of removing Fosse's signature entirely (still to be seen elsewhere on Broadway, however, with the long-running Fosse and Chicago).
The Play's the Thing
In a Broadway dominated by musicals, plays have lately had a difficult time being heard, let alone seen. Most critically, there is no direct equivalent to our National Theatre or Royal Shakespeare Company to make up the shortfall. Lincoln Center Theatre, operating out of two theatres at Lincoln Center and occasionally hiring other Broadway houses, comes closest to the National. About to be produced under its auspices is Stoppard's The Invention of Love (starring Robert Sean Leonard at the Lyceum Theatre). Manhattan Theatre Club, an off-Broadway outfit, has this season managed to transfer not one but two hit plays to Broadway - Charles Busch's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife and David Auburn's Proof.
And Roundabout Theatre Company - a producing company similar to Britain's Almeida, operating from its new Broadway house, the corporately named American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street as well as an off-Broadway base, the Gramercy Theatre - offers a complementary diet of fine revivals (most recently a stunning production of Pinter's Betrayal by British director David Leveaux, now to be followed by Coward's Design for Living, starring Jennifer Ehle and Alan Cumming) and new plays. All that plus a hit new play (The Dinner Party by Broadway's house dramatist, Neil Simon) and Claudia Shear's wonderful Mae West homage (Dirty Blonde, transferred from off-Broadway) have brought plays back to Broadway where they, too, belong. Reference:
The New York shows mentioned here are playing at the following theatres. To book from the UK, dial "001-212", then the number shown.
- Aida (Palace Theatre, 307 4747)
- Beauty and the Beast (Lunt-Fontanne, 307 4747)
- Cabaret (Studio 54, 239 6200)
- Chicago (Shubert, 239 6200)
- Contact (Vivian Beaumont, 239 6200)
- The Dinner Party (Music Box, 239 6200)
- Dirty Blonde (Helen Hayes, 239 6200)
- Fosse (Broadhurst, 239 6200)
- The Full Monty (Eugene O'Neill, 239 6200)
- Jane Eyre (Brooks Atkinson, 307 4100)
- Kiss Me, Kate (Martin Beck, 239 6200)
- Les Miserables (Imperial, 239 6200)
- The Lion King (New Amsterdam, 307 4747)
- The Music Man (Neil Simon, 397 4100)
- The Phantom of the Opera (Majestic, 239 6200)
- Proof (Walter Kerr, 239 6200)
- The Rocky Horror Show (Circle in the Square, 239 6200)
- The Tale of the Allergist's Wife (Ethel Barrymore, 239 6200)
- Seussical (Richard Rodgers, 307 4100)