PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 22-28: The Death of Giants

ICYMI   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 22-28: The Death of Giants Theatrical producing isn't what it used to be, and after this week there are few living examples of the glory that it once was. Within days of each other, Alexander H. Cohen and David Merrick died. They were both veterans of an era when one name, and one name only, bestrode the title on a Broadway marquee; when a show's producer saw to every detail and took an active interest in the artistic process that equaled their interest in the box office. The two had many things in common. They both cut charismatic figures; suffered unhappy childhoods; won their first substantial successes in 1954; had a taste for British shows; and possessed and flaunted their tempestuous personalities. Oh, yes, and they both hated each other.
Christopher Fitzgerald in Fully Committed.
Christopher Fitzgerald in Fully Committed. (Photo by Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Theatrical producing isn't what it used to be, and after this week there are few living examples of the glory that it once was. Within days of each other, Alexander H. Cohen and David Merrick died. They were both veterans of an era when one name, and one name only, bestrode the title on a Broadway marquee; when a show's producer saw to every detail and took an active interest in the artistic process that equaled their interest in the box office. The two had many things in common. They both cut charismatic figures; suffered unhappy childhoods; won their first substantial successes in 1954; had a taste for British shows; and possessed and flaunted their tempestuous personalities. Oh, yes, and they both hated each other.

As the story goes, Merrick and Cohen saw John Osborne's Look Back in Anger in London and afterwards agreed to produce it together in New York. Merrick produced it alone. Cohen never forgave him, but he got his revenge years later when, saddled in 1967 with a flopping Hellzapoppin in Boston, he was prepared to go hat in hand to the Shuberts and relinquish his claim on the Broadway Theatre. On his way to the meeting, however, he found out that the director of Merrick's latest show, The Happy Time, was insisting on the Broadway Theatre and would have no other house. Cohen told the Shuberts he refused to leave the theatre and eventually walked away with $50,000 of Merrick's money.

But then, many a colorful story was attached to producers back then, when moneymen were personalities with tastes and biases. Today, there is only production by committee, or worse, by corporation. Few risks are taken, few new talents nurtured. Among the remaining active producers, Robert Whitehead is the last exemplar of the old style. And of the newer names, only Fran and Barry Weissler seem to have inherited the chutzpah of Merrick, with their tireless promotion of their shows, their arsenals of publicity gimmicks (such as the revolving casting door at Grease!) and the way they seem to revel in their unlikability. There's something very likable in that.

Another giant fell this week, in the form of Miss Saigon, the Claude-Michel Schonberg-Alain Boublil which will close at the Broadway Theatre on Dec. 31 after nearly 10 years. The news came just weeks after it was revealed that Cats, another Cameron Mackintosh-produced show was finally shuttering.

Producer Rodger Hess this week gave up on his New York plans for the revival of the 1947 musical fantasy, Finian's Rainbow. The revamped show was supposed to reach Broadway this spring but stopped cold in Cleveland. Soon after, a summer run at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles was announced, presumably a prelude to Gotham. But, now, not even that will happen. "I've never had trouble raising in money in the past," said Hess, who said he thought there may have been "lingering doubts" from potential investors about the show's thematic content. The opening at the Ahmanson didn't stay vacant long: by week's end, James Joyce's The Dead had booked its first regional production. (The Ahmanson can't seem to keep that slot filled; Finian had been a replacement for the canceled The Night They Raided Minsky's.) Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown (Parade) has a new musical ready. Called The Last Five Years, it will be first seen at the Chicago-area Northlight Theatre in May 2001. The show seems to be on a smaller scale than Parade (what wouldn't be?). It's described as a "romantic musical about a nice Jewish boy and a good Irish Catholic girl in New York City who fall in love."

Hm. Jewish boy. Irish girl. Seems to me there was a small hit some years ago along those lines. Ah, yes, Abie's Irish Rose, which seems to be catnip to composers lately. Due to begin a four-week run at NYC's Jewish Repertory Theatre April 29 is a little something called Abie's Island Rose. There's still a Jewish boy, but now the girl is Afro-Caribbean. Ron Sproat wrote the book, Richard Engquist and Frank Evans the lyrics, and Doug Katsaros the music.

Elsewhere in New York City, August Wilson's Jitney opened Off-Broadway to sanguine notices, Elaine May's Taller Than a Dwarf opened on Broadway to less-than-sanguine notices, and Susan Stroman's The Music Man was, by and large, warmly received, setting up a fierce battle between it and Kiss Me, Kate for the season's best musical revival awards. Both were nominated in the category by the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk, which were announced this week.

Finally, on April 29, Rent is four years old. Earlier this spring, it seemed every show boasted an alumnae of this musical. Adam Pascal was in Aida. Taye Diggs and Idina Menzel were in The Wild Party at Manhattan Theatre Club. And Daphne Rubin-Vega was in Two Sisters and a Piano at the Public Theater. Little did I know -- former Rent-ers are weaved through the very fabric of New York theatre. Aida has not only Pascal but Sherie Rene Scott, Schele Williams and Damian Perkins; Kiss Me, Kate's Amy Spanger starred as Maureen in the Rent national tour; and Footloose and Saturday Night Fever feature alums Jeremy Kushnier and Richard Blake and Kris Cusick. Topping them all, Jesus Christ Superstar's followers include seven ex-Renters: Tony Vincent (Judas), Maya Days (Mary Magdalene), Rodney Hicks (Peter), Shayna Steele, David St. Louis, D'Monroe and Michael Lee (Simon Zealotes). Does that make Jonathan Larson God?