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Liza's back in town
She's still a part of it
New York, New York....
Yes, Minnelli has just been back on Broadway, albeit no longer in the glamorous surroundings of Radio City Music Hall or Carnegie Hall but at a shabby pop venue - the Beacon on Broadway at 74th Street on the Upper West Side - that has seen better days. But then so has Liza; and her resilience and very survival mirrors that of this still glorious city.
It matters not that she isn't as good as she once was; it's enough that she's here. The same goes for a Broadway season that has been difficult, for sure, but it has survived, despite the severe downturn in both domestic and international tourism that comprises a large part of its audience.
Brits on Broadway
Even if the planes haven't been bringing tourists in the same quantities as before, the ones from London, at least, have brought shows and stars and star directors. While American celebrities may have lately been colonising the West End again, Broadway is full of Brits right now, from Liam Neeson (starring in a revival of The Crucible that has just ended its limited run) to Alan Bates and son Benedick (reprising their roles in Fortune's Fool, a rarely seen 19th-century Russian comedy by Turgenev, that they both first did at Chichester in 1996 and for which Bates Snr has now been rewarded with a Tony Award as Best Leading Actor of the year).
Then there are several productions first seen in London, including Mamma Mia! and The Graduate (neither of them hugely acclaimed but both amongst the quickest shows to recoup on Broadway this season), as well as the National Theatre revivals of Noises Off and Oklahoma!. All of these imports - variously entertaining but essentially undemanding - reflect the mood of the time in their attempts to provide some light in the midst of one of the darkest times New York has ever experienced.
But the season has not been without its challenges, bookended as it was by revivals of The Dance of Death (with Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren providing the star power in Strindberg's macabre play of marital discord) and Noel Coward's Private Lives (again imported from London, with Lindsay Duncan earning a Tony Award for Best Leading Actress). These were daring and accomplished new takes on familiar works, both of them staged by British directors, respectively Sean Mathias and Howard Davies.
British directors are even more visible behind-the-scenes here than British actors on stage. Mathias also staged an unsuccessful revival of Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man at the end of the season, starring up-and-coming American movie actor Billy Crudup in the title role and also featuring English actor Rupert Graves.
While the present artistic director of the National, Trevor Nunn, was represented by the transfer of Oklahoma! to Broadway, both his predecessor and successor have also been seen here this season: Richard Eyre with The Crucible and Nicholas Hytner with a new all-American musical, Sweet Smell of Success.
The latter might be more accurately retitled "Bitter Taste of Failure", as it only has another week to run at the Martin Beck Theatre and closes on 15 June, having lost its entire $10 million investment. The adaptation of the 1957 Burt Lancaster film about a powerful newspaper gossip columnist - played on stage by John Lithgow (best known from television's Third Rock from the Sun) in a performance for which he took the show's only Tony Award - lacks not only lustre but more crucially a point of view. Whose story is this? And why should we be interested? Without answers to these questions, it's a show with a good score (music by Marvin Hamlisch, who wrote the tunes for A Chorus Line, and lyrics by Craig Carnelia) but that doesn't settle any scores. As it is, it proves that NT directors, past and future, should avoid Hamlisch musicals (Peter Hall, too, famously came a cropper when he did a musical based on the life of movie star Jean Seberg that was written by Hamlisch).
The golden touch of another British director, Sam Mendes, sits more happily upon a different musical, Cabaret, based on a production he originally staged at the Donmar Warehouse and now in its fifth year on Broadway. On the night I went again, Mendes was in attendance, with co-director and choreographer Rob Marshall, checking in on a new cast that is newly led by Jane Leeves (the Mancunian maid from Frasier) playing Sally Bowles, "the toast of Mayfair". This is an astounding musical revival in virtually every respect, totally reimagining a work, now best known from the Bob Fosse film version, to provide something far richer and darker and even offering the visceral thrill of real shock value. The memory of Liza Minnelli is all but vanquished here, were it not for the fact that the production is now superbly housed in the former nightclub, Studio 54, where Liza used to famously party with friends like Andy Warhol.
Liza may now have gone clean, and much of Broadway has followed suit (42nd Street these days is unrecognisable from what it looked like ten years ago), but the old decadence lives on. Edginess is in rare supply, so it's doubly welcome that the racily titled Urinetown (now playing at the Henry Miller Theatre where the current production of Cabaret originated before transferring to Studio 54) has not only survived but also thrived, going on to win Tonys for its book, score and direction. Curiously, however, the big Tony - for Best Musical - went instead to the synthentically manufactured Thoroughly Modern Millie. Though Broadway has perpetrated similar anomalies before - with Ragtime and Into the Woods both winning for book and score in the years they opened, but The Lion King and The Phantom of the Opera respectively winning the Best Musical accolades against them - it's a puzzlement, for what is a musical if not its score, book and staging?
Curiouser & Curiouser
Finally, here's a pair of curiosities to ponder in the midst of many that Broadway (or at least the Tony Awards) so routinely throw up. How can it be that a 150-year-old play, Fortune's Fool, found itself head-to-head with Edward Albee (the eventual winner for his play, The Goat, an allegorical tale of a man who falls in love with, you've guessed it, a goat, to the understandable consternation of his wife) for Best New Play? Because it's never hitherto been done on Broadway, so it's new, at least to the Great White Way.
Secondly, isn't it interesting that Sondheim and Lapine's Into the Woods has just won the Tony for Best Musical Revival - when the show that pipped it to the post for the title of Best Musical first time around, The Phantom of the Opera, is still running in its original production?
Next month, Whatsonstage.com will return to Broadway to preview the upcoming season that kicks off with a new musical version of the film Hairspray.