Snapshots of a season: (clockwise from upper left): The Lion King, Ragtime, Art, Side Show, The Capeman, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Center: John Leguizamo in Freak.
There's only one more complete Broadway theatre season left in the 20th century. Perhaps because everything seems to be approaching some sort of cusp, the 1997-98 season, which ends officially May 31, had its feet planted sometimes unsteadily in both the past and the future.
Here are the biggest stories of 1997-98, as chosen, in no particular order, by the news staff of Playbill On-Line.
The 42nd Street Revival -- A symbol of pornography, decay and the retrenchment of Broadway for three generations, 42nd Street did a dramatic turnaround in 1997-98. Time-lapse photography of the street this season would have shown theatre buildings literally rising (and falling), scaffolding appearing and disappearing, even one old theatre (the Empire) being slid on rails some yards westward. The New Victory is playing live kids' theatre. Ziegfeld's old New Amsterdam introduced its $30 million Disney renovation with the place's first hit, The Lion King. Diagonally across the now unrecognizeable 42nd Street, The Ford Center for the Performing Arts rose on the site of the old Lyric and Apollo Theatres and brought forth Ragtime. The Selwyn is being refurbished and leased by Roundabout Theatre Company. Plus a huge non legit entertainment complex is under construction. Throngs -- Riding the skyrocking stock market and the mayor's quality-of-life campaign, the theatre district seems to be everyone's destination. Every theatre was booked for most of the season, and the crowds of people on every sidewalk for two hours before curtain time was a wonder to see. Two key records were set in 1997-98: the most people ever to come to Broadway in a single season, and the most money ever taken in at the box office in a single season. See details.
The Lion King -- Everybody wanted to know: how were they going to do all those animals when they adapted the Disney cartoon musical to the stage. MacArthur "Genius Grant" laureate Julie Taymor had the answer: like nothing you've ever seen before. The show was a smash in its Minneapolis tryout, and provided Broadway with the biggest hit of the year. Taymor's directing and puppet-based design won hosannas.
The Freaks Phenomenon -- They don't care what the critics say, and a significant number are confident, against all odds, that their show will win the Tony Award as Best Musical on June 7. They're the "Freaks," fans of the Henry Krieger musical Side Show (who take their name from the show's opening number, "Come Look at the Freaks"), about Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. They campaigned hard to save their show, not only right up to the closing night -- after just two months' run -- but beyond. CPR continued long after the show had flatlined. Producers, fans and most of the creators struggled to reopen the show with new financing and a better advertising campaign. The theatre owners even kept the sets and costumes in the theatre long after they'd ordinarily be loaded out. But everyone's efforts proved to be in vain. But thanks to the first-rate original cast album, the Side Show cult is firmly entrenched, as is the cult for its two stars, Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley.
Vaudeville Lives -- Three of the season's hits might as well have come in off the Orpheum Circuit: Forever Tango, a revue of a sensual Argentinian dance; Freak, a one-man program of monologues; and even a hypnotism show.
All Those Musicals -- It was only two years ago -- 1995 -- when a grand total of two new book musicals -- Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Victor/Victoria -- premiered on Broadway during the entire calendar year. By contrast, 1997-98 brought seven: The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Capeman, The Lion King, Ragtime, High Society, Side Show, Triumph of Love. By December, Broadway had more musicals playing simultaneously -- 23 -- than at any time in modern history.
The Rosie Phenomenon -- Rosie O'Donnell's tireless enthusiasm for Broadway made her host of the 1997 and 1998 Tony Awards, and may have been a factor in Titanic winning Best Musical and going on to become a sold-out hit. Which brings us to:
The Titanic Miracle -- At first it sounded like a joke: A musical about the sinking of the Titanic? The production earned derisive headlines after its disastrous first preview, at which the ship failed to sink. First posts in Playbill Critics Circle were poisonous. But then, as previews continued, the show began to win partisans. After the mixed-to-negative reviews came out, fans adopted the show as a cause -- fans including Rosie O'Donnell. When the envelopes were opened on Tony night during the first week of the 1997-98 season, the Maury Yeston Peter Stone musical was named best. The cast album broke modern records during the summer and fall And scarcely a ticket went unsold until the second half of the season.
No New Show by Sondheim, Lloyd Webber or Boublil & Schonberg -- The heavy-hitters of the 1980s and early 1990s sat out 1997-98 completely.
Dario Fo wins Nobel -- The radical Italian comedian's win outraged church and government groups whom he has spent his career insulting and viciously lampooning.
Critic-Proof Frank Wildhorn -- Although both Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel have been percolating for the better part of a decade, both coincidentally made it to Broadway within seven months of each other, J&H in 1996-97, SP in 1997-98. Both pop/theatre fusion scores were dismissed by critics, Pimpernel a little more shrilly than J&H, but J&H has settled in for a run, and Pimpernel has lasted into the new season, which no one would have guessed from the reviews.
Curtains for Capeman -- On the other hand, pop composer Paul Simon would have seemed a good bet to transcend the critics with his first Broadway musical, The Capeman, which turned out to be a Latino-flavored rumination on the quality of mercy. But, like Side Show, the Fates gave it just two months. Mainstream theatre audiences struggled with its shortage of drama or dance, though the show did, for perhaps the first time, attract the middle-class Latino audience to Broadway.
Livent Dramas -- Toronto-based Livent Inc. produced two big shows on Broadway this season. The first was onstage: Ragtime, which had been heralded as "the last great musical of the 20th century" first by implication in its Toronto (1996) and Los Angeles (1997) productions, and finally by critics (in exactly those words in one case) after its Broadway opening in January. The other big Livent show, this one backstage, might as well have have been titled Garth!. Livent CEO Garth Drabinsky turned over effective control of his money-losing company to former superagent and Disney executive Michael Ovitz. Was this the fall of Garth (who continues as head of Livent creative) or a canny, Houdini-like escape from a financial straitjacket. Like any good showman, Drabinsky has left himself in dramatic jeopardy as the Act I curtain falls, ensuring we'll all be back to see how it ends in 1998-99.
NY Favorite Martin: The 28-year-old Irish-born wunderkind Martin McDonagh had two shows playing simultaneously. The Beauty Queen of Leeane, part of the Leenane Trilogy, opened Off-Broadway, sold-out cold within a day, and moved to Broadway, where it's the leading contender for the Best Play Tony Award. Within weeks, The Cripple of Inishmaan, another double-voweled play from yet another McDonagh trilogy, opened to somewhat less acclaim at the New York Shakespeare Festival.
British Spring: The British colonized New York once again during the first half of 1998, mainly with major hits (Beauty Queen, Art, Sam Mendes' stylish, environmental Cabaret), and a notable flop, The Herbal Bed, which sold-out in London, but couldn't attract a NY audience. Other UK transfers: The Judas Kiss, The Chairs.
Shows Creating the Most Buzz: Ragtime, The Lion King, Cabaret, The Capeman, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, How I Learned To Drive, As Bees in Honey Drown, Side Show, Titanic, the possibly Broadway-bound New Jersey revival of Follies.
Here is the complete list of Tony-eligible shows that opened on Broadway this season, with their opening dates. Shows with an asterisk * are still running, as of June 1. Abbreviations: M = Musical, P = Play, R = Revival.
Forever Tango (M) (*) 6/19/97 Marquis Theatre
1776 (M-R) (*) 8/14/97 Gershwin Theate
Side Show (M) 10/16/97 Richard Rodgers Theate
The Cherry Orchard (P-R) 10/30/97 Martin Beck Theatre
Triumph of Love (M) 10/23/97 Royale Theater
Proposals (P) ll/06/97 Broadhurst Theate
The Scarlet Pimpernel (M) (*) 11/9/97 Minskoff Theatre
Jackie (P) 11/10/97 Belasco Theatre
The Lion King (M) (*) 11/13/97 New Amsterdam Theatre
The Old Neighborhood (P) 11/19/97 Booth Theatre
Ivanov (P-R) 11/20/97 Vivian Beaumont Theatre
Street Corner Symphony (M) 11/24/97 Brooks Atkinson Theatre
The Diary of Anne Frank (P-R) (*) 12/4/97 Music Box Theatre
The Sunshine Boys (P-R) (*) 12/8/97 Lyceurn Theatre
A View from the Bridge (P-R) (*) 12/14/97 Neil Simon Theate
Ragtime: The Musical (M) (*) l/18/98 Ford Center for Perf. Arts
The Capeman (M) 1/29/98 Marquis Theatre
Freak (P) (*) 2/11/98 Cort Theatre
Art (P) (*) 3/11/98 Royale Theatre
The Sound of Music (M-R) (*) 3/12/98 Martin Beck Theatre
Ah, Wilderness! (P-R) 3/18/98 Vivian Beaumont
Cabaret (M-R) (*) 3/19/98 "Kit Kat Klub"
The Deep Blue Sea (P-R) 3/26/98 Roundabout Theatre
The Chairs (*) (P-R) 4/1/98 John Golden Theate
Golden Child 4/2/98 Longacre Theatre
Wait Until Dark (*) (P-R) 4/5/98 Brooks Atkinson
The Herbal Bed (P) 4/16/98 Eugene O'Neill
The Beauty Queen of Leenane (P) (*) 4/22/98 Walter Kerr Theatre
Honour (*) (P) 4/26/98 Belasco Theatre
High Society (*) (M) 4/27/98 St. James Theatre
The Judas Kiss (*) (P) 4/29/98 Broadhurst Theatre
-- By Robert Viagas