A Rage on the Rialto: A Look Back at the 1999-2000 Broadway Season

A Rage on the Rialto: A Look Back at the 1999-2000 Broadway Season If any one show could characterize the whole 1999-2000 Broadway line-up, perhaps it was Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party. Where else but at a particularly wild, eclectic, all-encompassing party could you find a Green Bird, a Music Man and Jesus Christ Superstar? At what other shindig would there be as much dancing as there was in Swing, Saturday Night Fever and Contact? And at which soiree would you find such disparate invitees as Rose, Uncle Vanya, Marie Christine, Amadeus, Dame Edna, Jackie Mason and Kat and the Kings (not to mention a certain Dirty Blonde, a fair contingent of The Dead and one guest just Taller Than a Dwarf)?

If any one show could characterize the whole 1999-2000 Broadway line-up, perhaps it was Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party. Where else but at a particularly wild, eclectic, all-encompassing party could you find a Green Bird, a Music Man and Jesus Christ Superstar? At what other shindig would there be as much dancing as there was in Swing, Saturday Night Fever and Contact? And at which soiree would you find such disparate invitees as Rose, Uncle Vanya, Marie Christine, Amadeus, Dame Edna, Jackie Mason and Kat and the Kings (not to mention a certain Dirty Blonde, a fair contingent of The Dead and one guest just Taller Than a Dwarf)?

Why, somebody even invited Squonk.

Far from homogenous, the past season was a melting pot of artists, styles and eras. The curtain rose as two Tony-winning actresses returned to the stage at the cusp of the season. Judith Ivey starred in John Pielmeier's thriller Voices in the Dark, which claimed the title of first play of the season. (The prize for first musical went to the South African import, Kat and the Kings). Not long after, last year's Sally Brown, Kristin Chenoweth, reemerged in a vehicle all her own, the movie spoof Epic Proportions.

Epic Proportions was succeeded at the Helen Hayes Theatre by Squonk, a Pittsburgh-based act as singularly peculiar as its name. Representing, perhaps, Broadway's first foray into no-holds-barred performance art, the five Squonkers served up giant eyes and tongues, dancing monsters and accordion music, before being succeeded by Dirty Blonde, Claudie Shear's poignant and funny meditation on two Mae West fans who meet through their mutual obsession. Dirty Blonde was bookended on 44th Street by two solo acts. To the East was comic Jackie Mason, with his latest solo show, Much Ado About Everything. To the right resided a lady (ahem) who may actually be a match for Jackie: Dame Edna Everage, who made her Broadway debut in The Royal Tour.

The Roundabout Theatre Company -- spending the year as an itinerant purveyor of entertainment, while it waited to take possession of its new 42nd Street digs -- found a virtual home at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. There, it opened its Broadway offerings of the season, new mounting of two very different tales of stifled passions: N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker and Chekhov's classic Uncle Vanya. Woody Harrelson took the stage as Starbuck in the former, while Derek Jacobi, playing Vanya, ended a long absence from Broadway. Fans of drama from the early 1980's must have enjoyed the past year. In a varied reappraisal of the theatre of 15 years ago, the Great White Way saw vigorous new revivals of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing and Sam Shephard's True West.

Amadeus and The Real Thing have more than their English authors in common: both won Best Play Tonys in the year they graced Broadway. Each of the current productions originated in London. Peter Hall, who directed the original version of the Shaffer play, returned to the drama, guiding David Suchet as Salieri and Michael Sheen as Mozart. In The Real Thing, David Leveaux directed Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle.

True West is alone among its 80s compatriots in that -- like Shepard's Buried Child a few years back -- it is only now making its Broadway debut. Stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly -- taking a page from Ed Begley and Paul Muni, of Inherit the Wind -- entertained themselves by alternating in the lead roles of Lee and Austin.

Broadway's rediscovery of Arthur Miller continued apace. Following in the footsteps of A View from the Bridge and last season's Death of a Salesman, director James Naughton's new look at The Price opened to critical praise. Not content with revivals, Miller also opened a new play at the Ambassador. Well, sort of new; The Ride Down Mt. Morgan was written back in 1991, but didn't receive a New York production until the Public Theater gave it a home Off-Broadway in 1999. That production was shuttled, nearly intact, to Broadway.

Two of the season's most original offerings, James Joyce's The Dead and Contact, were also born Off-Broadway. Contact jumped from Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse to the larger Vivian Beaumont. The innovative musical by bookwriter John Weidman and director-choreographer Susan Stroman transformed Stroman into the leading talent in American choreography. (Stroman was again at the helm at the end of the season with her new look at Meredith Willson's The Music Man.)

Meanwhile, The Dead, an intimate musical adaptation of Joyce's immortal short story, sold out its run at Playwrights Horizons before even opening. Demand drove it to the Belasco, where it quickly shifted from a limited to an open run. Blair Brown, an original member of The Dead, left the cast to join Philip Bosco and Michael Cumpsty in the U.S. debut of Michael Frayn's long-running West End drama, Copenhagen. Perhaps as unlikely a hit as the Joyce piece, Copenhagen concerns a disastrous 1941 meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Also arriving from London was Rose, Martin Sherman's one-person play, starring Olympia Dukakis as a Jewish woman whom fate bats her from rural Russia to the Warsaw ghetto to Palestine and, finally, Miami Beach.

Two plays -- one old, one new -- saw Broadway stalwarts paired with faces rarely seen on the boards. In Elaine May's Taller than a Dwarf, Matthew Broderick, of last year's Night Must Fall, starred as husband to independent movie queen, Parker Posey. Meanwhile, in A Moon for the Misbegotten , theatre workhorse Cherry Jones found a beau in Irish-born film star Gabriel Byrne.

Also from Ireland was Riverdance--On Broadway, which, after years of touring to sell-out crowds, finally made it to the Rialto. Matching the cast's Irish folkdancing step for step with Disco moves was the crew of Saturday Night Fever, the stage version of the 1977 film. All the while, the hoofers at Swing! set out to prove that jazz was the proper music by which to dance.

For those who preferred singing to dancing, there was the revue Putting It Together, starring Carol Burnett and featuring some 40 years' worth of composer Stephen Sondheim's handiwork. Several hundred years of theatre experience was in evidence in Waiting in the Wings, a 1960 Noel Coward play starring a cast of veterans, including Rosemary Harris, Lauren Bacall and Barnard Hughes. For director-designer Julie Taymor, animals seem a bit of an obsession. For her first Broadway outing after spending a couple years with The Lion King and his savannah pals, Taymor turned to The Green Bird, her adaptation of the Carlo Gozzi fable. As for Taymor's former employer, Disney unveiled Aida, its first original stage musical (that is, not based on an extant animated film). Lion King vets, composers Elton John and Tim Rice, were called into service again, as was star Heather Headley.

Rice found himself competing with his past achievements, as a revival of his first musical effort, Jesus Christ Superstar opened within weeks of Aida. The new production became only the second tenant in the Ford Center for the Performing Arts; the house's first show was, of course, Ragtime. And while that stately musical closed this season, two of its original stars, Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell, found themselves sharing the same stage once again, in the new Michael Blakemore revival of Kiss Me, Kate.

Audra McDonald, another Ragtime alum, was also back on Broadway this year, and for the first time in a starring role. McDonald played the titular role in the modern musical twist on Medea, Marie Christine, a role specifically written for her by composer Michael John LaChiusa. As the only composer to boast two new musicals on Broadway in one season, LaChiusa had a busy year. The Wild Party, his adaptation of Joseph Moncure March's racy, jazz-age poem, was bait enough to lure the likes of Mandy Patinkin, Eartha Kitt and Toni Collette back to the theatre.

And as Kitt and Kat, Collette and Burnett, and Mandy and Miller could tell you, what a wild party it was.