Bells Are Ringing
Always viewed as a charmer rather than a blockbuster spectacle, the 1956 musical by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and composer Jule Styne was — and is — that rare thing in musical theatre: An original show not based on source material. It sprang from the minds of lyricist-librettists Comden and Green, who once came across a humble telephone answering service whose clients included the super-rich. They penned the show as a vehicle for their pal, Judy Holliday, who won a Tony for playing a meddling but sweet operator. Tina Landau's staging begins, memorably, with a video montage of 1950s New York — and a commercial for Susanwerphone, the setting of the show. Faith Prince stars as the daffy, lovestruck Ella Peterson, who gets to sing such choice songs as "The Party's Over," "Just in Time," "I'm Going Back" and "Better Than a Dream."
A musical rumination on decaying art, crumbling relationships, lost innocence, the ephemeral nature of fame, faded glory and, ultimately, survival, Follies is so bold, sour, glorious, cranky, hearthbreaking, breathtaking and challenging that, for some, it still feels experimental today, 30 years after it debuted in a legendary Broadway staging directed by Harold Prince. A later concert, also legendary, added to the show's myth. Stephen Sondheim wrote character songs and pastiche numbers for the former chorus girls and their stage door Johnnys, who reunite at the condemned theatre where they once frequented Weissman's Follies. The late James Goldman penned the book. Matthew Warchus directs this stark staging, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Belasco Theatre, a house reputed to be haunted. Judith Ivey, Gregory Harrison, Treat Williams and Blythe Danner star as the troubled couples who move about the (mostly) empty stage as the ghosts of their younger selves look on.
Co-librettist Mark Bramble directed this revival of the fable about a chorus girl who replaces the injured star on opening night. The show includes two new songs and new choreography — ballroom, a little ballet and a lot of tap — by Randy Skinner, who was Gower Champion's associate on the original 1980 production. Skinner said about two-thirds of the choreography is new, but the plan was to enhance the original, not fix what wasn't broken. Audiences who recall the show are surprised at the changes: A massive mirror is tilted in one number to show Busby Berkeley-like floor patterns, and the title song includes the use of a huge staircase, with some 40 dancers tapping their hearts out.
The Rocky Horror Show
Librettist-lyricist-composer Richard O'Brien's rock musical comedy spoof of horror movies such as "Frankenstein" had a short run on Broadway, and became better known as a cult film. Movie buffs have flocked to Circle in the Square to see Janet, Brad, Riff Raff, Frank 'N' Furter, Rocky and the others — including a Narrator played by Dick Cavett — "do 'The Time Warp.'" Christopher Ashley's hip, eye-popping staging includes an ingenious set design by David Rockwell. The eclectic cast over the past months has included Joan Jett, Lea DeLaria, Tom Hewitt, Alice Ripley, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Jarrod Emick.
Analysis: Negative reviews plagued Bells Are Ringing, and Rocky Horror might be a bit "out there" for traditionalists (although the show will likely get a big boost from its Tony TV exposure), leaving Follies and 42nd Street as the true Tony contenders. 42nd Street is an audience favorite, and surprisingly fresh only a decade or so after its original run ended. Follies on stage can never be better than the Follies that is conjured in the imaginations of the fans of this cult hit. Voters might see Follies as rare and ambitious, despite its disappointing reviews. Observers agree the show has gotten stronger since its opening. Ultimately, however, nothing promotes Broadway, or makes the heart pump faster, quite like 40 tap dancers giving their all. — By Kenneth Jones