There was no (backstage) drama on the scale of Jonathan Larson's death or Julie Andrews' battle-royal with the Tony committee in 1997. But several stories of perhaps greater lasting impact broke or developed in the past year -- along with a few lower-level juicy scandals. Here are the biggest stories of 1997, as chosen, in no particular order, by the news staff of Playbill On-Line.
The Rosie Phenomenon -- Rosie O'Donnell's tireless enthusiasm for Broadway made her host of the 1997 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, the Maury Yeston-Peter Stone musical was named best of the season. The cast album broke modern records. And scarcely a ticket has gone unsold since.
Les Miz Turns 10 -- Balloons, gold confetti, a mostly-new cast and a slightly rewritten script greeted the tenth Broadway anniversary of the Boublil & Schonberg musical favorite. NEA Struggle -- Actress Jane Alexander took on Congress in one last epic battle to save the National Endowment for the Arts' 1998 budget. She won -- and promptly retired.
No Drama Pulitzer -- The Pulitzer Prize committee decided no American drama was worthy of the prize in the year ending March 1 -- much to the chagrin of fans of Alfred Uhry and perennial bridesmaid Terrence McNally, who were thought to be contenders.
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.
Lloyd Webber's Agony and Ecstasy -- The millionaire British composer made headlines all year. He was named a Lord, he won an Oscar, his Evita earned millions, his Cats became the Broadway long-run king. On the other hand, his Whistle Down the Wind closed in its pre-Broadway tryout, his By Jeeves closed prematurely in London and never made it to NY either. His Really Useful Co. slashed staff in London and N.Y. as his Sunset Boulevard closed nearly all its global productions. On Dec. 30, he received word that he'll have to stand trial in NY, charged with taking the melody for The Phantom of the Opera from another composer's work. Coincidentally, he confirmed that he's working on a sequel to Phantom.
Little Ousted Annie -- The producers' decision to fire Joanna Pacitti as the title character in the Annie revival was a public relations disaster for the show, but a bonanza for Pacitti, who went on national news shows, sang with Rosie, and eventually starred in a North Carolina revival of the musical anyway. She's now getting ready to open an Off Broadway show, The Broadway Kids Sing Broadway.
The Jekkies Phenomenon -- They don't care what the critics say, and continue to be outraged that their show wasn't even nominated for a Tony as Best Musical. But the devoted fans of Jekyll & Hyde know what they like: they've elevated J&H to cult status, and made icons of stars Linda Eder, Robert Cuccioli and Christiane Noll.
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 brought more than four times as many, including Titanic, Play On!, The Life, Jekyll & Hyde, Steel Pier, Side Show, Scarlet Pimpernel, The Lion King and Triumph of Love. By December, Broadway had more musicals playing simultaneously -- 23 -- than at any time in modern history.
The Crowd at the Tony Deadline -- Critics needed oxygen as eight Broadway shows opened in the 10 days before the May 1 Tony deadline.
No New Show by Sondheim, Lloyd Webber or Boublil & Schonberg -- As Andrew Lloyd Webber was announcing, perhaps prematurely, that the era of the mega-musical was over, the heavy-hitters of the 1980s and early 1990s sat out 1997 completely.
Victor/Victoria Spats -- Vic/Vic, which gave Broadway its biggest scandal of 1996, continued to keep gossip columnists busy in 1997. First, star Julie Andrews announced she was going on vacation after missing many performances, then sub Liza Minnelli began missing rehearsals, then co-star Tony Roberts had a well-publicized spat with Minnelli, then Minnelli missed many of her remaining performances before Andrews returned. When Andrews finally left the show, replacement Raquel Welch made headlines as well with accusations of prima donna behavior. Then, the long-running show closed at a substantial loss. Finally, a promised production in Texas was postponed twice, then indefinitely. Bright spot: AndrewsSound of Music co-star Christopher Plummer, playing down the block in Barrymore, joined Andrews onstage at her final performance, singing "Edelweiss." (Why not "So Long, Farewell"?)
TheatreWeek Out, InTheatre In -- TheatreWeek magazine ceased publication abruptly Jan. 7, leaving thousands of subscribers -- many of whom had just re-upped in a December 1996 renewal drive -- with empty mailboxes. A new magazine, InTheatre, launched in September with many of the same editorial staffers.
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. Both pop/theatre fusion scores were dismissed by critics, Pimpernel a little more shrilly than J&H, but both have found their audiences (see Jekkies above) and both appear headed for runs.
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. The New Victory is playing live kids' theatre, Ziegfeld's old New Amsterdam underwent a $30 million Disney renovation and reopened with King David and The Lion King. The Ford Center for the Performing Arts rose on the site of the old Lyric and Apollo Theatres and started previews for Ragtime. The Selwyn is being refurbished and leased by Roundabout Theatre Company. More is planned for 1998.
Whoopi in Forum -- One of the highest-profile non-traditional casting choices ever, the black woman movie star stepped into a role traditionally played by a man . . . and it worked just fine. Minimal rewriting of the Stephen Sondheim/Larry Gelbart/Burt Shevelove musical was necessary, and simply by her playing the heart of the character -- Pseudolus's desperate desire to be free -- audiences had no trouble buying her in the role.
Shows Creating the Most Buzz: Ragtime, The Lion King, Jekyll & Hyde, Titanic, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, The Darker Face of the Earth, The Capeman, How I Learned To Drive, As Bees in Honey Drown, Stonewall Jackson's House, Space, Pride's Crossing, Blue Man Group in Chicago and, in the last two weeks, Side Show.
-- By Robert Viagas