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New York Nights: The Tony Awards

Whatsonstage.com's Contributing Editor, MARK SHENTON finds that, after years of creative and financial doldrums, Broadway has staged a remarkable recovery of late.

By • West End

The voters for this year's Tony Awards, just presented, therefore had plenty to choose from.

THE TONY AWARDS

The Tony Awards - the centrepiece of the Broadway season whose presentation in June marks the end of the old one - this year found Broadway thriving again, not least thanks to a thumping, old-style, homegrown hit, The Producers, all the better for being both non-British and non-Disney.

But even if The Producers has duly swept the awards, setting an all-time record as it won twelve Tonys (one for every category in which it was nominated, though in two categories it lost to itself since it had a total of 15 nominations), a number of others are no less predictably being swept away in its wake. A couple have already gone - The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Seussical - and another two, Jane Eyre and A Class Act, are just clinging on.

So although it may have taken only one hit to turn the season right around, its also taken one hit to destroy the competition; and the sight of darkened marquees can be expected to start multiplying around Broadway in the coming weeks, looking like tombstones for the shows buried within the shuttered theatres.

That's quite a contrast to the Broadway I found in April, when all but one of the available Broadway houses was occupied - only the Winter Garden was 'dark', and that already had the billboards up for the October arrival there of Mamma Mia!.

And although crowd-pleasing musicals have continued to dominate, another healthy trend I spotted was that although plays nowadays tend to open in the safer haven of off-Broadway, at least ten plays were to be found on Broadway marquees. Again, many of these will be filtered out by the Tony wins accorded to Proof (adding a Best Play Tony to the Pulitzer Prize for Drama it has already taken, plus Awards for its star Mary-Louise Parker as Best Actress and director Daniel Sullivan), Stoppard's The Invention of Love (taking Tonys for its two leading actors, Richard Easton and Robert Sean Leonard), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Best Revival of a Play) but at least they were there. (Proof and other plays will be reviewed in the next New York Nights column).

Producing The Producers At the start of the season, The Full Monty (O'Neill) was the talk of the town; but by season's end, it was The Producers (St James) that eclipsed it, even shuttering it out of taking a single one of the ten Tonys for which it had been nominated. Both, of course, are stage versions of hit film comedies; but they share other characteristics, too. Neither has a very notable score - the thing you used to go to musicals for, after all - but they're apt enough, and both shows are savvily staged and often hilarious, which you don't get from musicals much anymore, either. So for putting the comedy back into musicals, double thanks are due.

If The Full Monty is tasteful to a fault even on matters of the male nudity with which it climaxes (so to speak) in its tale of economic depression that leads a group of unemployed men (relocated from Sheffield, UK to Buffalo, NY) to take up stripping, The Producers is both gloriously un-PC and riotously tasteless. There's something to offend everyone here, from the sight of a flock of pigeons complete with swastika arm-bands, to a flouncingly camp director (Tony-winning Gary Beach) and his assistants who play up to every gay (and lesbian) cliche.

But the high spirits of Mel Brooks's book for The Producers are genuinely infectious, Susan Stroman's production utterly felicitous, and the performances, led by the Tony-winning Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the Zero Mostel/Gene Wilder roles respectively, uniformly delicious.

Fighting for survival In the midst of The Producers juggernaut, the Tony-less A Class Act (which features better songs and an affecting, directly personal story of and about a career of trying to make musicals for Broadway) and the leaden stage version of Jane Eyre will be fighting for survival.

Old Musicals Made New Of the revivals, 42nd Street (this time playing on 42nd Street, at the Ford) is of a show that hardly seems to have been away at all; the original 1980 production ran for almost a decade, and was in fact the first ever Broadway musical I saw on Broadway, before it came to London's Drury Lane. It's fun to have it back, but is it necessary quite so soon? The Tony voters seemed to think so - they gave it the nod for Best Revival of a Musical, and its star, Christine Ebersole, took the Best Leading Actress in a Musical award.

In doing so, they passed over the season's best reclamation - a sensational Rocky Horror Show (Circle in the Square) that made it fresh and smart again, after the show's frequent but limp UK revivals. Also ignored: the revival for which everyone had the highest expectations - Follies(Broadhurst), directed by the British Matthew Warchus - and the one for which most had the lowest, Bells Are Ringing.

As it happens, the contrary occurred: Follies, a dream of a Sondheim musical about the nightmares of nostalgia and the memories we cling to of what we thought we were and how we've actually turned out, was itself floored by the nostalgia of what we thought the show was and how it turns out today, at least in the production at the Belasco which fails to rise to our burnished memories and expectant hopes for it.

Meanwhile, Bells Are Ringing was a pleasant surprise. No one's dared to revive this one either on Broadway since its first time out; not so much because it is such a classic as Follies undoubtedly is, but because of the shadow cast by its original star, Judy Holliday, for whom it was originally written. So who is brave enough to fill her shoes today? Someone has a lot of princely faith in Faith Prince, and though she's not quite the star that can carry an entire show, she's also the best and most consistently watchable thing in it.

Mark Shenton


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