It's like the old days on Broadway: by the time Christmas arrives, no less than 17 new shows will have opened this season there. Every single theatre is either open or booked for a future opening. Broadway is, ostensibly, thriving; but as an industry insider cautioned me, "There's simply too much product for the audience we now have." In other words, you can have too much of a good thing. There's only so much money to go around from potential theatregoers, and far too many shows are chasing them. In this most brutal and unforgiving of theatrical economies, it's a battle of survival of the fittest - and that doesn't necessarily mean of the best.
Not only are shows fighting for their slice of a limited audience, they're also doing so against the background of an increasingly unsupportive and sometimes downright poisonous press, too. Michael Riedel's New York Post theatre news column - like Baz Bamigboye's Daily Mail one here, but with lethal fangs - has just declared, with some lip-smacking relish, that the transfer of Boy George's re-written Taboo is "is headed for almost certain disaster" when it opens this week, produced by ex-talk show host, former magazine editor and sometime Broadway actress Rosie O'Donnell, and quotes a source saying, "The cast is 'assuming crash positions' for the Nov. 13 opening." He concludes, "Iceberg, dead ahead!"
Brits in Broadway trouble
Boy George isn't the only Brit in Broadway trouble. It was perplexing to find Eileen Atkins in William Nicholson's dismal, wintry play The Retreat From Moscow (at the Booth Theatre), which strangely sees her in an identical re-play of the role of a suddenly discarded wife that she took last year at the National Theatre in a far better play, Honour, that ironically had been a Broadway flop a few years ago (but without Atkins!). Now, with John Lithgow as her retreating husband of 33 years and British movie actor Ben Chaplin as their adult son, Atkins gives another tough yet tender, wounded yet resilient portrait of a woman whose life quickly unravels; but in Nicholson's play (first seen in Chichester but which never made it to the West End), the character is such a nagging irritation that you're only surprised that her husband hasn't abandoned the marriage earlier.
A more direct transfer from Britain is Anthony Page's revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, first produced by Bill Kenwright at the Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue two years ago and now re-opened at Broadway's Music Box Theatre, with only Ned Beatty back in fine form presiding over the finely tuned Tennessee Williams drama that revolves around him. Otherwise re-cast, the heat has gone out of it a bit: though Ashley Judd is slinkily gorgeous in the title role (originally played in the London production by Francis O'Connor), trying desperately to re-ignite her relationship with her desperately handsome husband, Jason Patric's Brick is too much defined by his own self-regard rather than the character's punishing self-loathing.
Elsewhere on the plays front, two former iconic screen and TV actors take to the boards. Mark Hamill (the original Luke Skywalker from Star Wars) is in Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks (Belasco), an apparently arthritic new comedy about an older woman (Polly Bergen) and the gay dance instructor she hires, played by Hamill; and Farrah Fawcett (Charlie's Angels) plays the title role in a new play, Bobbi Boland, about a former Miss Florida, now past her prime. This year's Pulitzer-prize winning drama, Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics, reaches Broadway's Royale Theatre this week.
Jack O'Brien, who recently directed His Girl Friday at the National and is also currently represented on Broadway by Hairspray, directs a cast that includes Kevin Kline, Audra McDonald, Michael Hayden and Richard Easton (in the title role) of a one-evening conflation of both parts of Shakespeare's Henry IV at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre. And with the opening of The Violet Hour at the newly and beautifully refurbished Biltmore Theatre, now a permanent Broadway home for the Manhattan Theatre Club who were previously only an off-Broadway company, Richard Greenberg has become the only contemporary playwright to have two plays on the Great White Way simultaneously, where it joins his still-running Take Me Out.
The other new plays of the season are all one-person shows: Tovah Felshuh is former Israeli premiere Golda Meir in Golda's Balcony (at the Helen Hayes); veteran actress Ellen Burstyn plays The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (Longacre); and Jefferson Mays stars in I Am My Own Wife, the true story of a German transvestite who survived the Nazis.
A double bill from Oz
Meanwhile, Oz features in both of the season's big new musicals: at the Imperial Theatre, The Boy From Oz is a celebration of the late Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen, played by a fellow Boy from Oz, Hugh Jackman; and at the Gershwin, Wicked re-visits the territory and some of the characters featured in The Wizard of Oz, before the arrival of Dorothy there! I unashamedly loved The Boy From Oz. While most local reviews have rightly acclaimed Jackman's blissfully uninhibited and sexy performance in the title role, it's been widely suggested that he's great in a lousy show. But that's somewhat off-the-mark: great performances don't exist in a vacuum, but need to be supported by some kind of context. Playwright Martin Sherman has done exactly that: though the songs are, Mamma Mia-like, shoe-horned into telling his life story in a standard-issue biographical format, it's appealingly and even movingly done, and far better than Buddy or, for that matter, Bounce!, the new Sondheim musical that also happens to be biographical in form and is currently premiering in Washington DC and of which more in a moment.
I was sadly less convinced by Wicked, the highly ambitious but flawed new musical by composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz that investigates the intersecting lives of the two Witches of The Wizard of Oz: it turns out - in this musical with a book by Winnie Holzman based on Gregory Maguire's novel of their earlier lives -- that Glinda (the Good Witch) and the Wicked Witch of the West (here named Elphaba) grew up together and were once fast friends until their paths diverged. While rising Broadway divas Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel give powerhouse performances as the women, it's a show that seems generically contrived rather than organically developed: it's been structured by committee, rather than artists, to push all the buttons of as wide a constituency as possible. Here's a power ballad, there's a rock 'n' roll number; the sets are built to impress; but nothing's truly felt.
By complete contrast, Avenue Q is all feeling and utter charm: a musical that posits a world populated by puppets as well as people, it has the freshest, funniest score to be heard on Broadway in years by newcomers to the Great White Way, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Recalling The Muppets in its jovial tone, songs like 'The Internet is For Porn' and 'Everyone's a Little Bit Racist' mean it's definitely not for moppets.
Much anticipated but moribund
Meanwhile, in Washington DC the world premiere production of Bounce!, Sondheim's first musical since Passion premiered nine years ago, reunites him with the director Hal Prince with whom he collaborated on such masterpieces as Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd for the first time since their catastrophic failure with the original production of Merrily We Roll Along in 1981. Sadly, however, this much anticipated musical doesn't fly, either, despite some typically insinuating melodies and bracing lyrics that will at least ensure the songs have an ongoing life, and there's a cast album already on the way. But John Weidman's moribund book doesn't find a way to compel attention in its fascinating pair of leading real-life characters, the Mizner Brothers - two frontiersmen who, at the turn of the last century, were opportunists pursuing the American Dream despite constant setbacks.
Back on Broadway, the season continues with the first musical to feature comedian Jackie Mason, Laughing Room Only (opening at the Brooks Atkinson on 19 November); Never Gonna Dance, interpolating Kern songs into a new story, like Crazy for You did for the Gershwin catalogue (Broadhurst Theatre, 4 December); and a revival of the Comden, Green and Bernstein classic Wonderful Town, starring Donna Murphy and Jennifer Westfeldt (Al Hirschfeld, 23 November).
Finally, I'd like to offer a brief recommendation off-Broadway for a lovely cabaret celebration of the songs of David Friedman, Listen to My Heart, being presented in a new space upstairs at Studio 54. Friedman's cabaret catalogue is already justly celebrated for it's frequent appearances in the repertoire of the late, great Nancy LaMott and our own Alison Jiear over here, but in Mark Waldrop's delightful production, a cast of four attractive young performers plus cabaret veteran Alix Korey are accompanied by Friedman himself on piano to make a tender, terrific evening of beautiful songs, beautifully sung.