Playbill On-Line Picks the Top Theatre Stories of 2004

Special Features   Playbill On-Line Picks the Top Theatre Stories of 2004 Puppets. Political plays. The Public Theater. These, among others, were newsmakers in The Year in Theatre 2004.
From Top: The
From Top: The "Avenue Q and A"; All Shook Up; Billy Crystal in 700 Sundays; Oskar Eustis; Cameron Mackintosh; Andrew Lloyd Webber; Cy Coleman and Fred Ebb

How will you remember 2004? Shocked at the outcome of the Tony Awards (Avenue Q beats Wicked)? Hopeful about the opening of a beehive of new Off-Broadway theatres (Dodger Stages)? Energized by the theatre's response to politics (Stuff Happens, Mrs. Farnsworth, Embedded)?

The editors and writers of Playbill On-Line put their heads together this month and looked back at the events of 2004 to choose significant news stories that made headlines and touched the industry uniquely. They follow, in no particular order of importance.

BUSH, THE MUSE: You couldn't avoid politics during 2004, and the theatre didn't choose to. In fact, the political play was embraced in a way it hasn't been since perhaps the late '60s. Considering the presiding political bent of theatre people (and New Yorkers in general), the unifying theme wasn't surprising: intense criticism of Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush. Gentle dramatist A.R. Gurney approached the topic in a gentle way, imagining a shy patrician wife who's considering writing about her college affair with W., in the much-extended Mrs. Farnsworth. Tony Kushner was typically blunter, having First Lady Laura Bush read bedtime stories to dead Iraqi children in the short, unfinished Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, which was presented in numerous star-laden readings right up until the election. Broader still was frequent GOP target Karen Finley's George & Martha, which imagined an illicit affair between Bush and Martha Stewart. In August, meanwhile, the New York International Fringe Festival presented a gaggle of anti-George comical screeds, with names like The Passion of George W. Bush. Californian Tim Robbins brought his hit anti-war satire Embedded to The Public Theater and then London, while Londoner David Hare saw his National Theatre hit Stuff Happens, about the ramp-up to the Iraq war, get some pre-election readings Stateside. All that work and creativity-and Bush still won. Perhaps there's a bright side. Nixon didn't exactly please all, but he furnished the country's artistic tapestry with an enduring character ("Nixon," "Secret Honor," Nixon's Nixon, Nixon in China). Perhaps Bush will make the same contribution.

CAMPAIGN PROMISES: The theatre scholars will remember Avenue Q as a scrappy, witty show in the Urinetown mold that pushed along the evolving form of the musical comedy in the first years of the 21st century. The men and women who produce theatre, however, will remember it as the upstart which forever changed the way the all-important Tony Award race it won. To give itself a chance against the mighty Goliath Wicked, the producers of "The Little Show That Could," Avenue Q, brought Hollywood-style awards campaigning to Times Square. Buttons urged Tony voters to "Vote Your Heart" and clever, soft-sell skits were enacted to steal affections. It worked. Broadway likes a Cinderella story and Q won the prize. Then the cynicism concomitant with every political campaign arrived: the Q producing team decided against the national tour that the wooed Tony-voting road presenters had believed would be launched. Team Q opted instead for a lucrative and exclusive sit-down production in Las Vegas, courtesy of casino mogul Steve Wynn. The whole affair was the epitome of the localized Times Square tempest in a teapot, a controversy that wouldn't mean diddly to the average citizen. However, within the narrow world of theatre, the repercussions could be lasting.

PUT ANOTHER DIME IN THE JUKEBOX, BABY: The Jukebox Musical has been with us for some time. Buddy, after all, plundered the Holly songlist as far back as the late '80s. The form succeeded splendidly (in commercial terms anyway) with the ABBA-inspired Mamma Mia! and the Billy Joel-extracted Movin' Out, while other attempts, fueled by the songbooks of The Pet Shop Boys, The Beatles and Rod Stewart (all seen in London), went down to fairly quick deaths. In 2004, the new genre struck producers' fancy with a vengeance. The Queen musical, We Will Rock You, is now playing Vegas. All Shook Up, an Elvis Presley songfest, will soon play the Palace. Good Vibrations, brimming with Beach Boys songs, is at the Eugene O'Neill. A Four Seasons musical, The Jersey Boys, has extended its run at the La Jolla Playhouse and will likely reach Broadway. In the works are projects built on the greatest hits of John Lennon (Lennon), Bob Dylan (a new venture by director choreographer Twyla Tharp), Chicago (a book musical called Colour My World) Pink Floyd's Roger Waters (a stage version of the concept album The Wall) and Earth, Wind & Fire (Hott Feett). The trend makes musical theatre purists (and more than a few critics) groan, but as long as there's the possibility of another Mamma Mia!, producers will try and try again. ONE FOR THE SHOW One person and a story. That was the formula Broadway liked best during the last month of 2004. Over a six-week period beginning Oct. 25, the Rialto saw five solo gigs take root: Mario Cantone's Laugh Whore, Eve Ensler's The Good Body, Whoopi Goldberg's Whoopi, Dame Edna's Back With a Vengeance (she has a backup pianist and four dancers) and Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays. In contrast, the stage at the Royale, home to the two-hander 'night, Mother, looked positively crowded.

THE PUBLIC WINS AN OSKAR: The Public Theater spent almost the year searching for someone to replace its departing leader, George C. Wolfe. The list of candidates seemed to include nearly every major figure in the theatre at one time or another, including Doug Hughes, Daniel Sullivan, Mark Russell, Moises Kaufman, Robyn Goodman and James Nicola. In the end, the keys to what the Public attested was The Most Important Theatre in America were put in the hands of a dark horse, Oskar Eustis, the fairly obscure artistic director of Rhode Island's Trinity Rep best known for his connection with Tony Kushner. Rhode Island to Manhattan Island; not a bad jump. Also provoking considerable interest were Roger Rees' appointment to succeed Michael Ritchie as the head of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and 30 year-old Aussie Vallejo Gantner's ascension of the P.S. 122 throne after Mark Russell's surprising resignation late last year.

HARD TIMES: A chill wind blew out of West 43rd Street this year. The source was The New York Times, the commanding journalistic voice of the New York theatre since City Hall named a square after it. But producers haven't much liked what the daily has had to say recently. The theatre community suffered a series of seemingly theatre-unfriendly changes at the hands of the Paper of Record-the elimination of the Friday theatre column; the discontinuation of the free Sunday theatre listings; the often negative tone of many Sunday features. The producers were so upset and angry, they convened for a town hall meeting on Oct. 21 to discuss what to do. Little was accomplished, however. Other theatre pros sent the broadsheet a petition asking that the free listings be reinstated. The Times is reportedly considering this; producers are searching the Times tower's chimnies for signs of white smoke.

RETURN OF THE KINGS: Producer Cameron Mackintosh and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber ruled the West End and Broadway during the '80s. They returned to London this year with fresh work. Mackintosh co-produced the raved-about Mary Poppins (which has been on his schedule for years) with Disney, and Lloyd Webber unveiled his latest The Woman in White. Expectations are high and both are expected to reach New York.

A VERY GOOD YEAR: A handful of artists had banner years in 2004. Stephen Sondheim saw dramatic new Broadway productions, and critical reassessments, of his musicals Assassins and Pacific Overtures. Playwright John Patrick Shanley witnessed his many years in the theatre rewarded when the Manhattan Theatre Club production of Doubt-one of three Shanley productions in New York City the fall-was picked up by a commerical producer to become (in spring 2005) the dramatist's first play to reach Broadway. Craig Lucas' Small Tragedy won an Obie Award, his early play Reckless received its Broadway debut and his new musical with Adam Geuttel, The Light in the Piazza, was picked up for a 2005 Lincoln Center staging. And director Doug Hughes was hired to stage nearly everything, from the Tony-nominated Frozen to the praised Doubt to the upcoming New York debut of the new play by Jon Robin Baitz, The Paris Letter.

VIVA LAS VEGAS!: It's not just for Wayne Newton and white tigers anymore. Las Vegas is developing into America's second Broadway. Stunt shows like Blue Man Group and Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding dipped a toe in the desert long ago, but this year big boy We Will Rock You put out a shingle, following the 2003 lead of Mamma Mia!. The Really Useful Group Ltd. and Clear Channel Entertainment announced a new production of The Phantom of the Opera would open there. And crowning Sin City's new legitimacy was the news that Avenue Q-a Tony-winning musical beloved by critics and never accused of being shlock- would forego a traditional national tour for a long-run production on The Strip. There is now so much theatre in Las Vegas that it can be satirized: Forbidden Vegas, a branch of the long-running Forbidden Broadway series, began performances Nov. 19 at the Westin Causarina Hotel & Spa.

BLOOD, SWEAT AND TIERS: The League of American Theatres and Producers and Actors' Equity finally addressed the nagging issue of non-Equity road tours in their summer contract negotiations. The new touring system will offer different actor salary levels depending of the size of show "and other variables." Bottom line, actors on the road will probably make less money more often. But then, producers, now compelled to use union actors, will also probably make less money more often. Still to be seen is whether either side will be happy with their lot in four years-when the current pact expires.

WITCHCRAFT/CLASS: Few members of the old school of musical theatre songwriting remain. In 2004, we lost two giants: composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Fred Ebb. They never collaborated, but their parallel careers both began in the early '60s. Each had reason to thank Frank Sinatra (Coleman for the early hit "Witchcraft," Ebb for his biggest hit, "New York, New York"). Both profited from the talents of Broadway's leading ladies (Gwen Verdon in Cy's Sweet Charity, Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli in just about everything by Ebb and his partner John Kander). They also shared an industriousness that kept them busy and productive until mortality put a stop to their efforts. The theatre hasn't heard the last of either; Coleman and Ebb left at least three or four shows apiece which are yet to produced (at least, in New York). So, perhaps, as the Coleman song goes, "The Best Is Yet to Come."

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