It began Sept. 9, 1999 and lasted, without interruption, until Oct. 24, 2001. A mere two years or so, but it seemed an eternity , did the era of Susan Stroman's invincibility. The era was born on the first preview of her dance theatre piece Contact at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center Theater. Since then, Contact has transferred to Broadway (where it is still running) and knocked down every traditional book-and-score musical to grab a bunch of Tony awards, including one for choreography. That same season, she opened her Broadway revival of The Music Man, another hit, and one which allowed her to compete against herself, as both director and choreographer, at many an award ceremony. Then, she topped her seemingly untoppable achievements by shepherding Mel Brooks' triumphant The Producers into town. This meant not only another hit, more money, more glory and more Tonys; it meant one of the biggest smashes in theatre history. Stroman was golden. Stroman was teflon.
The thing that ran it all aground opened on that second date mentioned above — a little show about murder and lust, a musical where Emile Zola meets Harry Connick, Jr. (wherever that place might be) called Thou Shalt Not. Dark, morbid and serious, it was the antithesis of the pep, zip and show-biz dazzle that propelled Stroman to the top of her profession. And critics, incredulous and puzzled, panned it.
Theatre historians, however, looking back at this time, will probably see Thou Shalt Not as more of a hiccup in Stroman's career, a momentary detour. Her luck will continue. Oklahoma!, which looks like an ace in the hole for Stroman, finally arrives on Broadway this spring. After that, there are productions of Contact and The Producers to mount in Britain, Japan and beyond.
A musical theatre artist who does not have Stroman's luck is composer Jason Robert Brown. A Tony Award and the helmsmanship of Harold Prince couldn't turn his ambitious show Parade into a hit. And now his follow-up, The Last Five Years, is stalled. The two-character musical was praised in a summer run at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, IL, and then announced for Lincoln Center Theater (which has originally commissioned it). But there will be no NYC staging for the time being.
Both a spokesman for LCT and Brown's lawyer, Mark Sendroff, would only say that the theatre and Brown were not able not come to an agreement. But word in the theatre community said that the threat of a lawsuit, possibly brought by his ex-wife, Theresa O'Neill, is standing in the way of future stagings of the intimate show. The musical charts the rise and fall of a marriage of a "nice Jewish boy" and an Irish Catholic girl in New York City, over five years and from different points of view. It was widely thought that the show was inspired by Brown's own broken marriage. However, Brown, asked pointedly if the work was a roman a clef, he said it was not.
If a lawsuit has indeed been brought against the musical, it is not clear if money is being sought or if the goal is to kill the project. Lawsuits generally keep potential producers away from new works. Because of its intimate scale and economical two-person cast, The Last Five Years was thought to be highly producible, with a rosy future in the regional theatre circuit. The Post noted that the show may still be staged in New York, reporting that producers Marty Bell and Ariel Tepper are interested in optioning it for a Broadway or off- Broadway production next year.
The effects of Sept. 11 continue to be felt. Though concessions from the theatrical unions ended on Oct. 21, Broadway isn't out of the woods. Tourist business is still markedly down and producers are worried what the grim months of January and February will bring. Theatre attendance is down in other cites too, as evidenced by the actions of the presenters at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre, Toronto's Hummingbird Centre and Boston's Wang Center for the Performing Arts, who all canceled their scheduled runs of Matthew Bourne's new dance-meets-musical theatre work, The Car Man. and blamed weak ticket sales on the terrorist strikes.
Here in New York, plain old bad reviews shut down the Off-Broadway musical Reefer Madness. Taking its place at the Variety Art will be Summer of '42, beginning Dec. 11. The David Kirshenbaum and Hunter Foster show is based on the movie about a Maine war bride Dorothy, who teaches 15-year-old Hermie a bittersweet lesson in love.
Finally, this week the men and women behind The Producers, a show which has been struggling to find an audience on Broadway, steeled themselves and mustered up the courage to raise the top ticket price to $480. The quarry of these happy warriors? Why, the foe of every true-blue, decency-loving theatregoer: the ticket scalper. Beginning next month, 50 prime seats a night will be out of those devils' hands and put within reach of "large corporations" and "first-class tourists," individuals who heretofore been cruelly thwarted in their pursuit of good theatre tickets. The move left other, more cowardly Broadway producers wondering how they, too, might strike a blow for justice. Oh, courage! Oh, happy land!