It's fall on Broadway. A new, highly anticipated musical opens. It's a British import that tells a rather silly story by incorporating the songs of a popular 1970's disco act. There is a large cast of relative unknowns. The music is loudly amplified. Audiences during previews dance in the aisles. There is a hefty advance at the box office. Finally, it opens.
And the critics slaughter it. The show in question is 1999's Saturday Night Fever, and it was treated with withering disdain during its entire 15-month run.
Flash forward to the present day. It is again autumn. And a British import musical is once again the event opening of the season. ABBA, not The Bee Gees, is the pop group being drawn upon this time (a Swedish foursome that was, ironically, vastly less popular in the U.S. than the Australian trio). But, this time most critics are kind, almost goofy with glee and forgiving of the show's every fault.
Who can say why Mamma Mia! has triumphed on these shores where Fever, following basically the same recipe, abjectly failed. Perhaps reviewers took to heart the avalanche glowing notices England heaped on the show. Perhaps beleaguered New York audiences are currently desirous of a guilty pleasure. Or perhaps — perhaps — Mamma Mia! is actually a better show.
Who can say? But Broadway has one more big old hit in what is turning into a season of big old hits. (Can anyone remember a Broadway season that, by mid-October, was so well set up?) Nor is the industry resting on its laurels. On Oct. 16, it was busy launching possible future hits, as three shows ? the new revival of Noises Off, directed by Jeremy Sams and starring Patti LuPone and Peter Gallagher; the long-awaited Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn musical confection, By Jeeves; and Neil Simon's new comedy 45 Seconds from Broadway, directed by Jerry Zaks ? all gave their first preview. And still more shiny new bills are being whipped up for 2002. The London revival of Noel Coward's Private Lives, starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, and directed by Howard Davies, may reach New York next spring. So, too (after a stop in Stamford), will Alan Bates, starring in Turgenev's rarely staged Fortune's Fool. A third play for the new year ? an original one this time ? will be Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? at the Belasco Theatre in February. (Bowing around the same time Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company premieres the equally improbably-titled, I Think Back Now on Andre Gide; I guess when you're as big as Albee, you can call your plays whatever you want.)
Another Broadway arrival is one we've seen before: The Rocky Horror Show, which collapsed after Sept. 11, will rise again on Oct. 30 at the same place, Circle in the Square. However, the cast, which was always frighteningly eclectic, has grown more terrifying. Replacing Dick Cavett, who leaves the role of the Narrator after the first week, is talk show host Jerry Springer (Nov. 27-Dec. 2). Following him will be Sally Jesse Raphael (Dec. 11-16), Penn and Teller (Dec. 18-23), Dave Holmes (Nov. 20-25), Cindy Adams (Dec. 4-9) and Robin Leach (Nov. 6-11). Additionally, former heavy metal head banger Sebastian Bach will play Riff Raff.
As far as 2002-03 is concerned, next season's Mamma Mia! may be the Mark Taper Forum's newfangled revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song. Robert Longbottom directs and choreographs and playwright David Henry Hwang was given permission by the composers' estates to heavily revise the dated book. The critical reaction to their years of hard work was tumultuous. The papers and trades all but carried the cast and creators out onto the street on their shoulders. (To think the revival almost didn't get on, after Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre, strapped for funds, dumped it late last year.) The show, before always thought a lesser light in the R&H pantheon, now seems a certainty for Broadway.