Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Some Lessons of the Season

Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Some Lessons of the Season THEATRE IS UNPREDICTABLE: In terms of what succeeds and what doesn't, theatrical seasons have never been predictable, and that's one of the things that makes following them so much fun. As the 1966-'67 season began, the most eagerly awaited musical was Breakfast at Tiffany's rather than Cabaret. Two years ago at this time, Busker Alley looked like one of the '95-'96 season's major shows, while almost no one had heard of Rent. While similar examples could be chosen from almost any season, the dizzying turnaround of this season's Titanic wrote a whole new chapter in the annals of theatrical unpredictability.
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THEATRE IS UNPREDICTABLE: In terms of what succeeds and what doesn't, theatrical seasons have never been predictable, and that's one of the things that makes following them so much fun. As the 1966-'67 season began, the most eagerly awaited musical was Breakfast at Tiffany's rather than Cabaret. Two years ago at this time, Busker Alley looked like one of the '95-'96 season's major shows, while almost no one had heard of Rent. While similar examples could be chosen from almost any season, the dizzying turnaround of this season's Titanic wrote a whole new chapter in the annals of theatrical unpredictability.

Titanic had been announced for at least six Broadway seasons, and it's barely mentioned now that Tommy Tune was the announced stager for years, not surprising when you recall his numerous connections to authors Peter Stone (My One and Only, The Will Rogers Follies, unbilled assistance on Grand Hotel) and Maury Yeston (Nine, Grand Hotel). Titanic was one of those shows that one doubted would ever happen, but when the Dodgers picked it up and hired director Richard Jones, it became a reality.

When ads began to appear in print and on TV last fall, there was a good deal of skepticism expressed. How would they musicalize this legendary disaster? And weren't they asking for a legendary disaster of their own by doing so? During rehearsals, word began to seep out that the show was not going to be a camp hoot and instead might actually be good. Yet it was still a difficult show to envision, and besides, weren't Whistle Down The Wind and Steel Pier (the latter the latest effort from the team that scored the season's sensation Chicago) going to be the season's biggest hits?

The positive word that emanated from rehearsals was abruptly stilled when Titanic cancelled its first three previews, then rather rashly began them; the show audiences saw for the first week or so of previews must rank as the most technically chaotic ever presented to a paying audience on Broadway. Almost nothing worked, things came to a full stop at least once a night, and it appeared that the only hope was to postpone the opening, perhaps even beyond the Tony deadline. (By the way, in answer to questions about the original ending of Titanic, it had Michael Cerveris coming out in front of a drop, not as ship architect Thomas Andrews but as one of those from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who many years later discovered the remains of the ship. After Cerveris addressed the audience, the drop rose to reveal a big searchlight--the front of a submarine suspended from the flies--shining down on the stage floor to reveal two large, separate, whitish pieces of the ship's wreckage.)

Word of mouth during the first weeks of previews was mostly horrendous, with many declaring it a hopeless disaster, and rumors spreading that it might even close in previews. The opening was not postponed, and a great deal of work was done to improve the show in just two weeks. Nevertheless, Titanic opened to extremely discouraging reviews, and those like myself who liked it were happy to know that RCA had at least preserved it on disc so that it would live on after what appeared to be its inevitable closing in a month or so. The show was not nominated for Best Musical or Score by the Drama Desk; there was some speculation that it might not make the Tony cut either (it did); and at the annual New York Drama Critics Circle meeting, Titanic received just one vote (mine) for Best Musical. In the two weeks following the announcement of the Tony nominations, everyone thought The Life would win Best Musical. At the same time, though, word of mouth began to get very, very good on Titanic, and about ten days before the Tony Awards, the word around town was that Titanic would win.

How did a show that initially appeared to be a strange idea for a musical, then suffered horrendous preview word-of-mouth and negative reviews, wind up winning the Best Musical Tony? I would of course say because it was the best, but that's too easy a response. Perhaps the most important factor in the show's remarkable turnaround is discussed in the next item. And of course it's much too soon to tell if Titanic will ever return all of its $10 million investment. But whatever its ultimate box office fate, Titanic looks safe on Broadway for well over a year, and will no doubt tour and have a healthy life abroad. If you had seen (as I did) the looks on the faces of the producers after the early preview I attended, you would not have believed that you would ever see those same producers on stage at Radio City exulting in their triumph. Titanic's turnaround ranks as one of the most powerful examples of the unpredictability of the theatre that I have ever encountered.


ROSIE POWER: Ever since Rosie O'Donnell began her TV talk show a year ago, it has been evident that she is a down-to-earth, warm, and highly enjoyable presence, good company at any time of day, and a wonderful cheering section for Broadway. What was less immediately evident is the almost frightening amount of power she can wield. When Rosie tells her audience to buy something (or, as in the case of Scope mouthwash, not to), they do it. And when she tells them to watch the Tony Awards, they watch.

While it has been widely acknowledged that O'Donnell's presence as host of the Tonys and her relentless promotion of the Tonys on her own show were largely responsible for the surge in the ratings, it was less remarked that O'Donnell was able to make this happen in a season where not a single new musical opened to raves or was an immediate hit. If she was able to get people to watch the Tony program this season, think of the effect she would have had when shows like Phantom or Rent were nominated. And while it was nice to see all the articles about the upsurge in Tony viewing, it seems obvious that unless CBS can secure O'Donnell for next year's Tony show, they cannot count on continued ratings strength.

And there is no question that Rosie played a major role in Titanic's turnaround. It was her favorite of the new musicals, and, in addition to offering two numbers from the show (one repeated about a week after its initial airing), she began plugging it as soon as it opened and has continued to do so ever since. More importantly, she told her viewers not to believe the critics who hadn't praised the show; in so doing, Rosie made it okay to like a show that had not received many good reviews, and I believe this allowed the Tony voters who saw the show in May to put aside the reviews and go in with an open mind. Perhaps not since Camelot was boosted when Ed Sullivan presented 15 minutes of excerpts on his show saluting the fifth anniversary of My Fair Lady has a TV host done so much to help a musical (and Titanic hardly had a Camelot-size advance sale to begin with). The Titanic producers should send Rosie flowers on an hourly basis.


PERSEVERANCE CAN PAY OFF: It's too soon to tell if The Life or Jekyll & Hyde will be financially successful and have long post-Broadway lives. Because of its subject matter, The Life's life on tour and in stock and community theatres could be limited. But because Britain has failed of late to supply a new pop opera with sufficient power to take the international circuit, Jekyll is likely to be snapped up around the world.

Whatever one thinks of these shows, one must pay tribute to their perseverance. The Life took almost two decades to get to Broadway; indeed, I could dine out and well if I had a dollar for every time the show was announced for yet another season or theatre. Jekyll's history is somewhat more compact, but the Broadway production was preceded by at least four earlier versions, and the 1995-'96 touring version that was announced for Broadway in April, '96 folded on the road so that a new director could be brought in. To be frank, I never thought The Life would get to Broadway, and even Jekyll appeared to be dead at one point. But both shows stuck to it and made it here. I just hope they don't inspire projects that were quite correctly aborted years ago to come back to life and hazard Broadway.


VISIBLE MIKES ARE HERE TO STAY: About two years ago, one began to notice a disturbing trend on Broadway: Little attempt was being made anymore to conceal mikes on performers. At Sunset Boulevard, Betty Buckley's mike extended what looked like five inches down her forehead. In spite of Show Boat Tony winner Gretha Boston's close-cropped hair style, she still sported a highly visible mike at the hair line. While it is true that the all-out, jaw-straddling face mikes worn by the casts of Smokey Joe's Cafe and Rent were a deliberate choice (and in the case of Rent part of the show's style), it has become increasingly evident that visible head and face mikes are here to stay. It's now common to see mikes for men that extend over the ear to several inches beyond the sideburns (Robert Cuccioli in Jekyll & Hyde), and mikes for women that extend well below the hairline.

I can't quite figure out why this was in no way necessary for heavily miked shows of a decade or more ago like Dreamgirls, Phantom, or Les Miz, all of which sounded just fine to me. But apparently these new and very visible mikes allow for a quality of sound never before achievable, and it should by now be evident that, if we won't see those Rent-style jaw mikes too often (King David had them, but that was a concert), we will continue to see highly unconcealed mikes on actors trying hard to create believable characters.


VERY EARLY ADVERTISING IS HERE TO STAY: Musicals have always advertised well in advance of their Broadway arrival, but the pattern in the past was to take one or two full-page ads four to eight months in advance, then begin the heavy, regular ads and ABCs much later. Garth Drabinsky is probably to blame for the fact that this will no longer be possible for most shows, what with his season-long promotion of Candide on TV and in regular, color print ads, plus his year-long advance promotion of Ragtime (there are now color ads every week in the Times, plus TV spots and ABCs on a daily basis, with the New York opening still seven months away). From now on, it will be difficult for producers wishing to build up an advance sale to delay regular (and not necessarily cost-effective) advertising, and that already became evident when Titanic started color print ads and TV spots last September. We've already had ads for The Lion King and The Scarlet Pimpernel (with the latter already using daily ABCs), so it would appear that the days are over when a musical could relax its heavy advertising until a month or two before previews began.


KNOWING WHEN TO LEAVE: Stars should not overextend themselves, and most don't. But, probably because her husband wrote, directed, and produced her vehicle, Julie Andrews was one who clearly stayed longer than she was comfortably able to. Andrews ended up missing almost 200 performances of Victor/Victoria, and in addition did perhaps serious damage to her singing voice during the final months of her engagement. Had she stayed only a year, this would not have happened, but then a surprisingly small percentage of the investment was returned during the first year. You may recall that the producers once told the New York Times that Andrews would stay until the show recouped; she tried, but she couldn't stay until the millenium.

Andrews is returning to the show in late summer to play engagements in Houston and Seattle, both brief.


KNOWING WHEN TO CLOSE: If one looks through theatre annals of the '50s and '60s, one finds that each season there were dozens of shows, on and off Broadway, that opened and closed in less than a week. Nowadays, particularly on Broadway, almost nothing closes instantly. True, there was the one-nighter The Apple Doesn't Fall a couple of seasons ago, but The Red Shoes was probably the last Broadway musical to shutter just days after the opening.

Each new season demonstrates that too often these days, producers don't know when to close a show. Last season, Big played for six months but lost money during all but a few weeks of its run; this means that, just to save face, the production wound up losing a couple of million beyond its initial investment. After the reviews it received last December, the Broadway revival of Once Upon A Mattress might simply have shuttered after a couple of weeks. Instead, it ran six months, but the entire run saw only a few profitable weeks; sources say that the show stayed open because star Sarah Jessica Parker, who has a fairly lucrative film career, had a six-month "play or play" contract, so closing the show early would have meant continuing to pay her and thus costing about as much as running it did.

On the other hand, some producers have been more sensible. Surely Andrew Lloyd Webber knew what he was doing when he closed so many productions of Sunset Boulevard (see next item). The producers of Play On! were right to wait for the Tony nominations then close immediately thereafter (although, truth to tell, they really had no choice). And this season's honors for smartest and/or most realistic producer must go to Roger Berlind; it was clear after six weeks that his production of Steel Pier was going downhill at the box office, and to keep it running longer would have meant substantial losses beyond the initial investment. Rather than taking the Big route of pretending that things were building, Berlind is wisely cutting his losses and closing the show on June 28. And Berlind can now concentrate on the more promotable The Life, of which he is co-producer.


EVERYONE HAS FAILURES: It has long been evident that even the most successful theatre talents inevitably have failures: Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim are perhaps the two most outstanding musical theatre figures of this era, but they have had numerous flops, both financial and artistic.

This truism was driven home once again when Andrew Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down The Wind was halted in Washington, D.C., and the New York, London, Vancouver, and U.S. national tour companies of Sunset Boulevard folded, not one having turned a profit. (Whistle is now scheduled to workshop in the fall and open in the West End a year from now. The last English-language production of Sunset, starring Debra Byrne, closed in Melbourne on June 14, and will not continue on to Sydney; the only remaining production of Sunset in the world is now the one playing in Germany.)

The same season saw Cameron Mackintosh premiere Martin Guerre; poised to be the next international pop opera sensation, Guerre, which won the Olivier Award for Best Musical and will soon celebrate its first anniversary in the West End, remains a questionable bet for export. More recently, Mackintosh backed The Fix, the musical by the authors of Zombie Prom that was roasted by the London critics and is not going beyond its Donmar Warehouse engagement.

None of this, it should be noted, means that Lloyd Webber or Mackintosh (who also saw their co-production of Cats become the longest-running show in Broadway history last week) will be going out of business or putting those estates up for sale. It only demonstrates that no one is infallible, and that no one can always have smash hits.


THE BRITISH MUSICAL SPECTACLE IS NOT QUITE DEAD: Throughout this past season, editorialists and critics seized upon the success of Rent, Noise/Funk, and Chicago, coupled with the above-mentioned demise of Sunset Boulevard, to declare that the British megamusical spectacle was finally dead. And the fact that, as also stated above, Martin Guerre did not open triumphantly in London may have given some credence to the idea that nothing more was on its way from England.

But a simple glance at the weekly Broadway grosses indicates that there is still plenty of life in the long-running British musicals. In most weeks, The Phantom of the Opera still outgrosses any home-grown show, and Phantom, Les Miz, and Miss Saigon remain for the most part among the top ten grossers. And keep in mind that these British musicals have been running for a decade or thereabouts--will Rent, Noise/Funk, and Chicago still be seeing huge grosses ten years from now? Perhaps, but even if London hasn't sent us a new megamusical of late, it is extremely premature to declare that the old ones are dead.


MUSICALS WILL NEVER DIE: Even though it's entirely possible that none of this season's new musicals will ever return its entire investment, one can safely say that while the straight play continues to struggle on Broadway, musicals will continue to be produced, and in healthy numbers. More than the usual number came in this spring, and already set for next season are Ragtime, The Lion King, Triumph of Love, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Side Show, and The Capeman, all before the end of January, plus more for the spring. And while it's obvious that Ragtime is already the musical to beat--sources say that at least one new musical with very high-profile talents has already been postponed to the following season to avoid competition with Ragtime--no doubt things will continue to be just as unpredictable as ever.

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Two additional musical notes: No sooner did I demand in last week's column a CD of The Golden Apple than I hear that RCA will be issuing one in November, with Goodtime Charley preceding it on CD in September.

And from the song listing in the current Victor/Victoria Playbill, it appears that while Raquel Welch is closing the first act with "Who Can I Tell?" (the song added for Liza Minnelli in place of "Crazy World"), she has no eleven o'clock song at all, with "Living in the Shadows" dropped and nothing taking its place. Welch retains "If I Were A Man" (Andrews did it, but Minnelli did not), and of course "Louis Says" has not been restored.


QUIZ OF THE WEEK:
Who played the role Betty Buckley will take this September on Broadway in Triumph of Love when the musical had its world premiere last season in Baltimore?
Answer to last week's quiz: Noel Coward's Bitter Sweet is the musical that in the '50s received a never-released studio recording by Columbia Records starring Portia Nelson and Robert Rounseville.

-- Send your questions to kenmanbway@aol.com