Thursday, June 6, 2013

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS: Broadway Finds Its Groove!

It's that time of year again!  We are approaching the weekend at the beginning of the summer where the Broadway community gets together to celebrate the year in Theatre.  The Tony Awards!!!  And this year seemed to be the year that Broadway finally molded itself into the groove that has been set by the recent downturns in the economy.  You see, in recent years, Broadway producers have been hedging their bets and streamlining the kind of material that makes its way to the Great White Way.  They've been limiting their funds to shows that can generate an immediate revenue (i.e. Celebrity-led Plays, Movie-based Musicals, "Known" composers and authors, etc.).  It has made it really hard for what many Broadway insiders call "the Next Generation" of creatives to make a name for themselves in the Theatre (meaning if you're looking for the next Stephen Sondheim, you might not find them on Broadway!).  However, this year had a huge melting pot of all these elements that people have been lamenting and (in one way or another) they all seemed to be an example of Broadway getting "back on its feet," as it were.

One thing we have learned in the last few years and especially this year is that the Limited Run show is here to stay.  For years, the Roundabout Theatre Company, the Manhattan Theatre Club and the Lincoln Center Theatre have been masters as Broadway's repertory houses.  And all three of those companies had shows this year that both wowed the critics and excited audiences.  Roundabout produced revivals of Harvey (starring The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons) and Rupert Holmes' Tony-winning audience-solved Musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood (featuring Chita Rivera and Stephanie J. Block).  The latter, which closed after two extensions to its initial limited engagement, has now been nominated for 5 Tony Awards including Best Revival of a Musical.  Meanwhile, the Manhattan Theatre Club, which has recently become the pioneer of great plays both Off-Broadway, produced two well-received plays (The Other Place starring Tony nominee Laurie Metcalf and The Assembled Parties which is nominated for Best Play).  And Lincoln Center, which was enjoying the success of 2011's Best Play War Horse until its closing in January, has had other success with a much-hailed revival of Clifford Odets' Golden Boy which featured Monk's Tony Shalhoub, Chuck's Yvonne Strahoski and Broadway Musical star Danny Burstein (the limited run production which closed in early 2013 is nominated for 8 Tonys including Best Revival of a Play).  They also produced Two and a Half Men star Holland Taylor's tour-de-force one-woman show Ann, where she plays former Texas governor Ann Richards (for which she is nominated for Best Actress this Sunday!).  Limited runs have been the thing to beat this year when it comes to a hit Broadway show.

And it wasn't only these three companies getting into the Limited Run action.  Producers have always enjoyed investing in a production that has a big star over the marquee.  And what makes a big star sign on for such a challenge as 8 times a week?  The answer is a Limited Engagement!  This year we have seen big name stars like Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johannson, Alec Baldwin, Bette Midler, Alan Cumming, Cicely Tyson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Sigourney Weaver and Jane Lynch all take time out of their busy Movie-TV star schedules to take on a role in Play, Musical or even a Revival.  And each of the productions these stars are (or were) a part of has made some kind of impression either critically, financially or both.  But of course with all this sweet star-led revenue, there comes the bitter side of the double-edged sword that Celebrity can bring (cough cough Shia LeBouf cough cough).  And many a Broadway die-hard will still lament that the Great White Way has become a "summer camp" of sorts for Film stars who just want to "Hollywood-ize" their day-to-day stomping grounds.  Despite all that, it seems that Broadway really has tried to welcome the Celebrities who want to challenge themselves and try their hand at 8 performances a week (and whether they meet that challenge or not is a subject for another blog!).

But the biggest thing that Broadway seems to be accepting now (to a certain degree) is the mass amount of Musicals based on previously produced projects (basically, Movies!).  And nothing is a stronger testament to that than the four nominees for Best Musical: Kinky Boots, Matilda The Musical and the limited engagements of A Christmas Story: The Musical and Bring It On: The Musical (I guess it's safe to say that if it had the words "The Musical" after it, it probably was well-liked this year!).  All four of the nominees are based on Movies (granted Matilda is more based on the novel by Roald Dahl, but the 1996 film version starring Mara Wilson is quite popular with some audiences!).  This trend was actually started by the Walt Disney Company in the 1990s (with their hit staged versions of their films Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King!) and was perfected by the likes of Mel Brooks (The Producers), Marc Shaiman (Hairspray), Elton John (Billy Elliot) and even Monty Python (Spamalot) throughout the next decade.  It seems that now Broadway has finally figured out a way to accept this trend.  In addition, they've managed to encourage newer composers and authors to make their Broadway mark (or even debut!) with this trend.  Three of the Best Musical nominees (Kinky Boots, Matilda and A Christmas Story) are also nominated for the Best Score Tony Award and all three of those shows are by composers who are making their Broadway debut (Kinky Boots is by '80s icon Cyndi Lauper, Matilda is by Aussie rock musician Tim Minchin and A Christmas Story is by the brand new pair of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul).  So maybe someday we will find the next Rodgers and they are making the "long-awaited" Musical version of Argo!

No matter what, Broadway is always going to be an ever-changing animal that depends on audiences to be a success (either creatively or financially!), which is what live Theatre is all about.  And I will still be a fan of that animal (as always!) so I will be watching CBS at 8PM on Sunday night as the Broadway community gathers with host Neil Patrick Harris to celebrate the year in Theatre!  Happy Tony watching!