WHOOPI'S GENDER CRISIS:
Ever since it was announced that Whoopi Goldberg would in February succeed Nathan Lane in the hit Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the St. James Theatre, everyone has been asking the same question: Will she play the role of Pseudolus--written for and heretofore invariably performed by a man--as a man or as a woman?
Various published reports have differed on the issue, and I like the fact that the producers have kept everyone guessing. In the face of all the controversy, I say it doesn't really matter, and here's why: Forum is a highly stylized show, taking characters, ideas, and plots from the plays of Plautus, written around 250 B.C., and retooling them as "a scenario for vaudevillians," perfect for performers schooled in burlesque and other styles of comic hokum. It was never meant to be taken at all seriously, and there was never meant to be anything very "real" about the show. Did anyone ever believe that Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers (sporting eyeglasses), or Nathan Lane, all Broadway Pseudoluses, were actually slaves in pre Christian Rome? The whole thing is hilarious nonsense, and Goldberg, an irresistible comedian with an extensive background in both acting and stand-up comedy, should find the role a very comfortable fit.
Of course, everyone wants to know what she will do when Pseudolus is ogling the courtesans who toil in the house of Marcus Lycus, and what will happen at the end, when Pseudolus wins not only his freedom but his favorite courtesan. For the resolution of these and other issues, we'll just have to sit tight until February 11.
And I must add that I think the producers of Forum have demonstrated smart showmanship in their handling of Goldberg's arrival. While Goldberg's takeover was announced everywhere last October, with everyone aware of it from then on, the ads for the show up until January 12 made no mention of her, announcing only the final weeks to see Nathan Lane. Lane's last three months were thus sold out before ads for Goldberg ran, and there can be little doubt that Goldberg will be a potent box-office draw in a production already in the profit column.
WHAT'S DIFFERENT WITH LIZA?:
Liza Minnelli's four-week run as replacement for vacationing Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria turned into the big Broadway event of January. But the reviews of Minnelli were either vague or incomplete on the textual changes made in the show for her engagement.
Here's how I break it down: Andrews' Act One finale song, "Crazy World," has been dropped (although it is still heard in the overture and in underscoring), and in its place Minnelli excitingly belts out a new song (music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, who otherwise wrote only the lyrics for the show's songs, to the music of Henry Mancini and Frank Wildhorn) called "Who Can I Tell?."
The second act opening number, "Louis Says," which had Andrews dressed in the manner of Marie Antoinette, was dropped while Andrews was still in the show, and has not been restored for Minnelli. Although Andrews' first song in the show, "If I Were A Man," is still listed in the Playbill, Minnelli is not performing it, and some dialogue that during the show's tryout had been heard in the middle of the number has been restored to smooth over the song's cutting. Andrews' Victoria Grant was a soprano from Bath, England, Minnelli's a mezzo from Saskatchewan. And while, as part of a sight gag, Andrews' top coloratura notes were seen to shatter glass, Minnelli's uppermost belt tones are employed to do likewise.
An extended Act One sight gag involving a man inside a balloon was dropped from the show at the conclusion of its tryout run in Chicago; it was restored some time ago, but the balloon man is now a woman, and the character is now named Hillela after the role's creator, Hillel Gitter.
And speaking of Victor/Victoria, the show's national tour, originally scheduled to play its first engagements this spring at Houston's Theater Under The Stars and Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, has been postponed until the 1997-98 season. 5th Avenue's Executive Director Frank Young states that the show "is not yet ready to tour" until "the absolute right cast is assembled."
Producer Bill Kenright, who last season imported An Ideal Husand from London to New York, is attempting to do likewise with a recent London revival of Ibsen's A Doll's House, directed by Antony Page and featuring a performance by Janet McTeer as Nora that had the London critics exhausting their superlatives. If he can put it together quickly, Kenright would like it here in a month or two.
Speaking of London theatre on its way to these shores, there can be little doubt that Yasmina Reza's Evening Standard Award winner for Best Comedy, Art, will make it to Broadway as well. But it won't arrive here until next season, and it's not yet clear if the London star trio--Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Ken Stott--will be imported, or if an American cast will play it in New York.
The fabulous Chita Rivera spent the better part of four years--from 1992 to 1996--starring in Kiss of the Spider Woman in Toronto, London, New York, and across the U.S. and Canada, in the process snaring just about every award up for grabs. One might think this entitled her to a rest, but our Chita is never one to be idle. Although she has been mentioned for various productions of such shows as Sunset Boulevard and Master Class, latest word is that she will be heading back to Broadway in a (mostly) solo show, created for her by Spider Woman songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb.
Theatre CD of the Week: Although it's been out for a couple of months now, RCA Victor's Songs From 'Ragtime' is not to be missed, particularly as the new musical, playing to packed houses in Toronto and opening in Los Angeles in June, doesn't arrive on Broadway until the end of this year. Musicalizing E.L. Doctorow's sweeping epic of three families and several real-life figures at the beginning of the century, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens have come up with one of the most emotionally powerful scores of recent years. And the leading performers could not be bettered, with especially glorious work from Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marin Mazzie, and Audra McDonald.
Quiz of the Week (Answer will appear in next column): In what year and what show did Liza Minnelli make her New York stage debut?
Ask Ken: Feel free to E-Mail me questions (at firstname.lastname@example.org ) on theatre, particularly musicals, and I will post and answer as many as possible in subsequent columns.