Broadway Melody and Variations

Broadway Melody and Variations By Robert Simonson

By Robert Simonson

It began on a high, with Shakespeare and Seinfeld -- something old, something new, as it were -- and ended in a rush of Dietrich and Dench, McPherson and McDonagh. In between, swans danced, feet got loose, Peter Pan flew (twice), a salesman died and the iceman came.

People also came, attending theatre in numbers to beat all previous records. On their way to their shows, most glanced to see whether Times Square had changed since their last visit (whatever the circumstances, the answer to that one was yes). And if the 1998-99 season seemed, at times, to lack the ragtime and lion's roar of last year, in retrospect, its wares were more rich and varied than ever.

Not every show was altogether new, of course. There were the usual number of revivals, and with them, the usual amount of kvetching over Broadway's reliance on the tried and true. But the revivals of this season were not just the same old story - they were the artistic story of the day. Remountings of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh became two of the biggest critical and - surprise - popular hits of the year. The Salesman came out of Chicago's Goodman Theatre, deepened and darkened by director Robert Falls's vision of the drama, and anchored by Brian Dennehy's crumbling mountain of a Willy Loman. The Iceman -- featuring Hickey, an altogether different but no less doomed salesman -- came from London, where director Howard Davies drafted magnetic Kevin Spacey as his lead.

Not to be left out, Tennessee Williams -- that third totem of American playwriting -- found his way into the 1998-99 season. His offering was not a revival, but it wasn't exactly new, either. Not About Nightingales, Williams's gripping fourth play, had never been performed, and perhaps would have remained in mothballs hadn't Vanessa Redgrave and her Moving Theatre uncovered the lost 1938 work amongst the Williams archives in Austin. A few other notable revivals adorned the marquees. Matthew Broderick went from killer instinct in How to Succeed... to just plain killer in Night Must Fall, the National Actors Theatre's mounting of Emlyn Williams's 1936 psychological thriller. James Goldman's The Lion in Winter saw its first Broadway production since its 1966 debut when the Roundabout Theatre Company hired Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing to square off as King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. And Lincoln Center Theater's staging of Jean Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon brought a slew of veterans back to Broadway, including Marian Seldes, Fritz Weaver, Simon Jones and Frances Conroy.

The musical revivals of 1998-99 were a disparate bunch, from the Irving Berlin landmark Annie Get Your Gun to the Clark Gesner crowd pleaser You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. The Gesner, previously associated with Off-Broadway and regional theatre, was expanded to fit a Broadway vision. A few songs were added and, most significantly, the new part of Sally Brown written, which, in the hands of Kristin Chenoweth, turned into a star-making role. Bernadette Peters, of course, was already Broadway currency many times over when she came into town as Annie Oakley.

The Cy Coleman-Carolyn Leigh-Neil Simon picaresque confection, Little Me, was always less about the show itself than the star at its center. The original 1962 production was fitted to the talents of Sid Caesar. The Roundabout revival found its musical Caesar in the mercurial Martin Short (who, like Sid, has a history in sketch television), playing seven roles opposite Faith Prince.

The preternaturally-fizzy lyrical team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green had a banner year. Spry enough to perform their old Revuers routines to sold-out crowds at Joe's Pub, the legends reveled in restagings of their On the Town and Peter Pan. The former, directed by George C. Wolfe, boosted the careers of comic actresses Mary Testa and Lea DeLaria -- who, in turn, fueled the show with old-fashioned, show-stopping talent. And Peter Pan, starring Cathy Rigby, proved so popular at the Marquis Theatre in the fall, it returned to the Gershwin in April.

Jerry Herman, having no revival on Broadway, decided to revive his music himself, enlisting Lee Roy Reams and Florence Lacey in the revue An Evening with Jerry Herman.

Though it should come as no surprise, the new musicals of the year were primarily about two things: song and dance. Song was celebrated in The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm, a regional import which showcased the evergreen Gershwin catalogue; and Band in Berlin, a documentary-style musical which told the tragic story of the Comedian Harmonists, a group whose career was shortened by the rise of the Nazi party. And the boisterous It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues traced the history of blues music from its African roots to today. Meanwhile, dance was the raison d'etre of Fosse, a tribute to the genius and footwork of Bob Fosse. And the right to dance was at the heart of Footloose, a stage reworking of the hit 1984 film in which city boy Ren tempts a puritanical hamlet with the charms of Terpsichore.

More serious was the Harold Prince-Alfred Uhry-Jason Robert Brown collaboration, Parade. The Lincoln Center Theater production dramatized the infamous Leo Frank case, in which a meek Jewish clerk, out of his element in bigoted 1913 Atlanta, is wrongfully accused and eventually lynched for the murder of a young white girl.
Adding, incidentally, to the rising tourism which increasingly benefits Broadway were repeat visits by a couple of British playwrights. David Hare and Martin McDonagh were represented on Broadway during the 1997 98 season with The Judas Kiss and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, respectively. They enjoyed their stay so much they returned this year with new works, trailed by a few of their countrymen, including Patrick Marber, Pam Gems and Conor McPherson.

Marber brought in his much-heralded Closer, the icy rumination of the Rules of Attraction, London-style, which marked the speedy return of Cabaret star Natasha Richardson. McPherson offered the anecdotal, near existential charms of The Weir, a haunting barroom tale with no less an emotional sting than Closer. Gems, no stranger to Broadway (Stanley, Piaf) presented another of her signature stage portraits, this one about Marlene, as in Dietrich.

McDonagh followed up his multi-Tony-winning Beauty Queen with The Lonesome West -- a play which proved that the men of the Irish burg of Leenane behave no better than the women.

But McDonagh's return to Broadway was nothing next to that of the omnipresent David Hare, who contributed to the season's roster no less than three new plays. And not just any three plays. One, The Blue Room, an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, was the biggest dramatic success of the season, thanks to (a momentarily disrobed) Nicole Kidman. Another, Amy's View, opened just after star Judi Dench -- making her first New York stage appearance in 41 years -- won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love. And the third, a memoir of the playwright's experiences in Israel called Via Dolorosa - well, Hare actually starred in that one.

It was difficult to find an article on the British dramatist in which journalists didn't drag out the quaint term "hat trick." The same went for Frank Wildhorn. The arrival of the song cycle The Civil War meant that Wildhorn -- author of Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel -- had three musicals playing on Broadway at one time - the first time that had happened to an American composer in 25 years.

Through his Via Dolorosa, Hare was also in on another commonality of the season: the solo show. Jerry Seinfeld set the tone early on, when the comic - by way of encore to his sitcom's much-ballyhooed finale - decided to bring his act to the Broadway stage.

Other comedians soon followed suit. "Saturday Night Live" star Colin Quinn opened his An Irish Wake only days after Jerry closed his show. And Sandra Bernhard revamped her Off-Broadway hit I'm Still Here...Damn It! and reopened it at the Booth. Less funny and more tuneful were solo turns by legendary French singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour and American crooner Mandy Patinkin. Patinkin had performed Mamaloshen, his heartfelt exploration of Yiddish song, in a temple on the Lower East Side and had such a hit with it, he moved it uptown to the Belasco for a limited run.

Despite the presence of other actors on stage, Rob Bartlett's More to Love was in essence a solo show. Bartlett, best known as radio jock Don Imus's writer, brought his riffs on career and mid-life crisis to the O'Neill. Alas, his playwriting debut did not last long; nor did that of Michael J. Chepiga, author of the legal comedy, Getting and Spending.

A more fortunate Broadway debut was that of Warren Leight. Leight had been knocking around the New York theatre for over a decade when Side Man -- his bittersweet and semi-autobiographical paean to the lost world of the jazz journeyman -- opened to critical praise Off-Broadway during the spring of 1998. That might have been the end of it, however, had the Roundabout, suddenly burdened with a vacant stage, not given the show a Broadway home. From there, the play, as sturdy and enduring as its title trumpeter, managed one more jump to the Golden.

Filling out the season, Broadway also saw the third return of Bill Irwin and David Shiner's modern vaudeville, Fool Moon (recipient of a special Tony this year), and the ballet Swan Lake, with English director Matthew Bourne's all-male corps de ballet.

And for those who say there is no room on Broadway for the classics, there was Shakespeare and Sophocles in 1998-99, and they proved to be two of the most notable events of the season. The Carousel team of director Nicholas Hytner and designer Bob Crowley chose Twelfth Night for their Broadway encore. Film's Helen Hunt and Paul Rudd and theatre's Philip Bosco and Brian Murray inhabited Crowley's watery, color saturated dream of Illyria.

But despite Hunt, Kidman, Dench, Spacey, Dennehy, Channing and Fishburne; apart from Hare, Marber and McPherson; and new Williams and old Miller aside - perhaps the story of the year was Electra. This London-born, Princeton-fostered production of Sophocles's searing classic, starring Zoë Wanamaker (an English-American hybrid herself), was nobody's idea of a hit; it almost didn't come into New York. Yet, when it did, it unaccountably proved a natural.

The science of the Broadway hit may still be Greek to some. But, more often than not - and as this season proves - the process still results in something for every theatregoer.