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New York Noises Off

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Ominous noises again in the New York Times today about the imminent opening of the $65m new musical Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. The first public performance is on Sunday, but the technical side of things is still sticky.

"Every day," says director Julie Taymor, "I just wish there was more time to go even deeper on the story, the acting, the ideas at the heart of the story."

Well, Baz Bamigboye of the Daily Mail, who's skipping the Evening Standard awards to weave his web across the ocean at the weekend, will no doubt let us know if she's on course. So will the gossips. The critics don't pronounce until the second week of January.

On Monday morning I bumped into producer Sonia Friedman in a Times Square bar phoning a friend. "I'm commiserating with someone who's about to lose a lot of money on Elling," she stage-whispered.

"But it only opened last night," I said. "Is it coming off already?" "Have you read the Times?" she replied, sadly.

It seems there's no room on Broadway for charm, quirkiness or Norwegian comedy. Elling, which stars Brendan Fraser making his Broadway debut, and Denis O'Hare, has no advance booking and is doomed.

Sonia herself is in a defiant, rather than optimistic, mood. Like everyone else, she's got one eye on Spider-Man, and is determined to make an impression with Jerusalem and Arcadia, despite the competitive star power of Robin Williams, Chris Rock and Kiefer Sutherland, all Broadway-bound.

"You have to believe," she says, digging into a fruit salad and resuming her life on a Blackberry.

The sun was shining outside, and leisurely crowds gathering on the improvised terracing that now looms over the half-price ticket booth, thrusting its occupants into the dazzling surround of billboards and posters: the whole of Times Sqaure is virtually a pedestrianised advertising hoarding.

And the whole tone of Broadway theatre is set by the Mamma Mia! poster, promising the audience exactly what they want and how they're gonna love it before they even geddit.  

On the flight home I dipped into a lovely book of essays I discovered in the Drama Bookshop on West 40th Street. The collection is by the late Ronald Bryden, our best critic after Kenneth Tynan, and in a programme note for the Shaw Festival's revival of Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You, he pithily sums up Broadway's history from the 1920s, when New York comedy began to be written for New Yorkers, to Oklahoma! when Broadway began catering once again for the out-of-towners who used to support the flourishing theatre industry on the road.
"The New York theatre gradually turned itself into a thetare for tourists, and remains one today," says Bryden.

The same sort of thing was said to me by Elling publicist Adrian Bryan-Brown: "There are lots of plays, but not the audience to sustain them in long runs."

And, now, what about that Evening Standard awards short list? I know such things are for disagreeing with, but three nominations for Roy Williams's routine boxing play Sucker Punch does seem a mite excessive.

It's incomprehensible to me, anyway, that Sucker Punch should get any kind of nod ahead of The Habit of Art, Birdsong, Howard Brenton's Anne Boleyn or, especially, Laura Wade's Posh.

The other contentious category, Best Musical, is even barmier. The nominations for Passion or Les Miserables don't make any kind of case for shows already and long since established in the pantheon (though Passion is, in my view, the worst, or the least good,  of all Sondheim musicals).

If that's the way the category is to go  -- conservatively -- why not flag up the ingenious, revelatory revivals of Anyone Can Whistle? or Galt McDermot's The Human Comedy (a British premiere at the Young Vic)?

And, as scores, Hair and Into the Woods are vastly superior, obviously, to Legally Blonde. So are Love Never Dies and Aspects of Love. Don't get me started...I just hope the best actor gongs go to David Suchet and Nancy Carroll.

And then we can get on with the real business of the WOS awards nominations on Friday week.


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