The battle of the Big Broadway Musicals, The Lion King and Ragtime, which began nearly two years ago, finally produced a decision this week: Ragtime lost. The Stephen Flaherty Lynn Ahrens musical, which became the Ford Center for the Performing Arts' first tenant on the day after Christmas, 1997, announced it will fold on Jan. 16, 2000, ending a valiant two-year run.
Livent's Ragtime was half of the big story of the 1997-98 season. Long before it and Disney's The Lion King opened, the two were seen as the front-runners for that year's awards and audiences. The rivalry couldn't have been more clear-cut or symbolic. At the time, Disney and Livent were the only major corporate forces on a Broadway only newly used to the ways of big business. The shows' theatres, the Ford Center and Disney's refurbished New Amsterdam, were directly across the street from each other, as if daring the other to step into 42nd Street and duke it out. Both productions had artistic pedigrees: Flaherty, Ahrens, bookwriter Terrence McNally and director Frank Galati on the Livent side, and director-designer Julie Taymor (who is like four artists rolled into one) on the Disney end. And to add even more kick to the rivalry, the recently deposed Disney honcho, Mike Ovitz, suddenly invested heavily in Livent, challenging his former boss Michael Eisner in a very direct and dramatic fashion.
In the end, though, Disney had deeper pockets and the right trophies. For, though Ragtime earned Tonys for best score and book (and many considered it the superior, overall creation), The Lion King netted bragging rights as the 1998 Tonys' choice as best musical. Without that key weapon, it was hard for Ragtime to attract the capacity audiences it absolutely required.
Furthermore, Ragtime had other things to contend with, including a financial scandal which rocked Livent, led to the ouster of its creative leader, Garth Drabinsky, and saw the company fall like a house of cards in little over a year.
Drabinsky was a legendary spendthrift and the money lavished on Ragtime is apparent for all to see. While fellow producers deplored Livent's profligate habits, many agree that the closing of Ragtime closes an era on American theatre. In a Broadway populated by scaled down Pimpernels and Beasts, the grandeur of Ragtime isn't likely to be seen again. Regarding The Scarlet Pimpernel, its looks as if "Version 3.0" hasn't worked on Broadway any better that "1.0" or "2.0." The cast was reportedly told this week that the show would shutter in January. That makes two big houses suddenly free for the many theatre productions looking for homes.
Of all the musicals currently playing in New York, however, the one theatre aficionados want to see most is the one they can't get into to. No, not Contact; folks can buy tickets for the upcoming Vivian Beaumont run, after all. I'm talking about Wise Guys, the latest from Stephen Sondheim, which began a month-long workshop at New York Theatre Workshop this week. Nathan Lane, Victor Garber and Sam Mendes will all be there, but you won't, unless you're a renewing subscriber at NYTW. Non-members will have to hope the workshop goes well and comes to Broadway next April.
One new musical still not ready for critics but which you can take in if you choose, is Marie Christine, which began previews at the Vivian Beaumont Oct. 28. Audra McDonald is the murderous title character in Michael John LaChiusa's modern musical retelling of the Medea story. (After the way McDonald treated her baby in Ragtime, you'd think producers would keep her away from children.)
As for that rarity on Broadway: the new, non-revival, non-musical play, Broadway is losing one but will soon be gaining two. Warren Leight's Side Man ends its long and extraordinary run on Halloween, having moved from off-Broadway's CSC to the Roundabout's now-defunct Stage Right to the John Golden Theatre in its two year, Tony-winning Broadway journey. Meanwhile, a couple of important, New York-bound shows opened this week. Wrong Mountain, the first play from David Hirson since La Bete and the first stage project featuring Ron Rifkin since Cabaret, opened at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre Oct. 27. And Lisette Lecat Ross' Scent of the Roses, starring theatre legend Julie Harris, begins an out-of-town tryout at the Helen Hayes Performing Arts Center in Nyack, NY, Oct. 30.
Last, but not least, let it not be said that Broadway is ever long bereft of an Arthur Miller revival. The Price's first preview at the Royale Theatre is Oct. 29, roughly one week before the final, Nov. 7 performance of the Brian Dennehy-Robert Falls Death of a Salesman at the Eugene O'Neill. Salesman, of course, opened on Jan. 2, only four months after the end of the Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway mounting of A View from the Bridge, starring Anthony LaPaglia. Now would be a good time for producers to start work on that new production of The Crucible.