SEPT. 11: The events of Sept. 11 had an impact on every New Yorker, every American, every business and profession, and the theatre was no exception. Indeed, if anything, the New York theatre community was more acutely affected than most. The fallout began simply, with a two-day shuttering of Broadway. Then the shows reopened, shakily, uncertain of their mission in a post-Sept. 11 world, with casts making curtain speeches and singing God Bless America." But they sang to empty seats; much of their audience, now clinging to a bunker mentality, had stayed home. Airports were closed, airlines grounded, and the tourist trade quickly evaporated. Manhattan was sealed off below 14th Street, crippling many Off-Broadway shows and theatres. Suddenly, a terrorist apocalypse, which seemed to have nothing to do with the theatre, was killing the theatre. Broadway faced the biggest financial crisis in its history. Several shows closed. Powerhouse musicals teetered in the balance. A planned revival of Assassins was perceived as striking the wrong note and postponed.
Producers appealed to the unions and won a month of salary cuts for five long-running musicals, eventually bringing the struggling Kiss Me, Kate and The Music Man into the fold when it looked like those shows would die. Box office soon rebounded, but not to 2000 levels, and Off-Broadway continued to suffer severely, with several shows eventually folding and others opting to take weeks-long hiatuses. Meanwhile, new marketing campaigns saw the Broadway community singing "New York, New York" in Times Square and the Off Broadway world belting "Downtown" in Washington Square Park. By November, theatre companies like the Public and Brooklyn Academy of Music were forced to lay off staff. Shows across the nation, such as Richard Nelson's The Vienna Notes at the McCarter, were found newly insensitive to the emotional climate and were canceled. Other shows benefitted, such as Tony Kushner's Kabul/Homebody, which proved timely in ways the playwright couldn't have predicted; and Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, an interpretation of Ovid's myths which provided a balm to battered New Yorkers. By year's end, the city had stepped up and bought $25 million in Broadway tickets to fend off a feared winter slump. And, in the saddest stroke of all, the community mourned Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9, known as Broadway's firehouse, which lost 15 firefighters in the attack on the World Trade Center.
THE PRODUCERS UBER ALLES Only at a time marked by the events of Sept. 11 would The Producers be the second biggest theatre story of the year. This juggernaut of a musical, which has already passed from history into legend and myth, resists comparisons to anything that came before it. It is simply the hit of hits, the smash of smashes, the hugest commercial and public relations (if not quite artistic) phenomenon in the history of the American theatre. It is the one show every American has heard of, the one ticket they can't get. It is the show which resurrected the old, enjoyment-based values of traditional musical theatre, making the stage safe once more for melody and political incorrectness. It is the show which gave Nathan Lane his apotheosis and a dream six-show-a-week schedule. It is the show with no shame, which suffered not a jot the financial crisis which plagued Broadway all autumn — indeed, by October, the producers saw fit to start selling 50 tix a night for just under $500 a piece. Well, if you won every Tony Award you were nominated for, what would you do?
PUBLIC DISPLAYS: No theatre in American had more ups and downs than the Off-Broadway nonprofit Public Theater/ New York Shakespeare Festival. If you looked at the artistic picture, 2001 seemed to only get better and better at the Public. Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Lackawanna Blues and Jose Rivera's References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot were extended successes and Obie winners. Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks' latest, was also a hit and eventually achieved a jump to Broadway, set for March 2002. Summer brought the headline-making Central Park rendering of The Seagull, directed by Mike Nichols and starring nearly every name in Hollywood. But fall carried the best tidings of all, as Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, directed by George C. Wolfe, became the must-see show of the season, winning a transfer to Broadway. Yet, despite all of the above, the Public couldn't quite shake its image as an embattled institution. Two of the theatre's largest donors, Larry E. Condon of the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, and Dorothy Cullman, resigned from the board, both giving as their reason the company's poor fiscal management. Days later, the company, stripped by the Mayor's office of 15 percent of its budget, announced major staff cuts. Exacerbating these and other setbacks was the white-hot coverage of a New York Times seemingly ill-disposed to Wolfe and Co.
MTC ON BROADWAY: By this point, we're used to seeing Manhattan Theatre Club productions on Broadway. Last season alone, there was Proof, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, King Hedley II and A Class Act. Well, now the outfit actually owns real estate on the Rialto and won't have to go around renting theatres. On Dec. 12, MTC broke ground on a $35 million renovation of the dilapidated Biltmore Theatre. The Biltmore is expected to be operational on or around fall 2003, and it will be "a house of origination," meaning new plays and musicals will premiere there. That will make for three nonprofits with a Broadway presence—the Roundabout and Lincoln Center being the others — and another great Broadway theatre rescued from the ashheap.
THIS PLACE IS CALLED URINETOWN: The surprise hit of the season, this wry, sardonic musical almost justifies the existence of the New York International Fringe Festival, where it had its humble beginnings in 1999. Few believed a show with that title, with such subject matter (a drought ridden dystopia where you must pay a Draconian corporation for the "privilege to pee") could succeed outside a Fringe-y environment, its witty book and winning score notwithstanding. But the Araca Group and Dodger Theatricals held firm and coaxed talents such as director John Rando and actor John Cullum aboard. A low-profile Off-Broadway run became a sold out cult hit. And an unlikely Broadway transfer won over critics, audiences and triumphed over Sept. 11 adversity to become a solid success. It's only a matter of time before celebrities will be forced to say the name of the show on the nationally-broadcast Tony ceremony. HEDDA STEAM: Like Judge Brack in the Tesman household, Hedda Gabler was "cock o' the walk" of the American theatre scene this year. Ibsen's confounding anti-heroine could be seen toying with guns and lives on Broadway, as well as in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Boston. The highest profile was cut by Nicholas Martin's Broadway mounting of Jon Robin Baitz's adaptation, which featured a heralded, career-altering performance by Kate Burton. But praise was also rained on Martha Plimpton's Hedda at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Judith Light at the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C. So hot was the play that Burton even received some direct competition in the form of the Ibsen Series' considerably smaller Off-Broadway rendering of the drama. Why was Hedda suddenly a Hydra? Perhaps it was a case a nonprofit lockstep, perhaps the simultaneous interest of bankable actresses. Who knows? But the spate of productions put the neglected classic back in the national repertory, where it belongs.
NEW YORK'S KIND OF TOWN: Chicago long ago won a reputation for producing superior American theatre. Recently, it seems bent on winning a reputation for producing top-notch New York theatre. The Producers began its march to glory here, and, currently, one of the biggest Broadway shows of next year, Sweet Smell of Success, is hoping to follow suit. Northlight Theatre hosted the premiere of Jason Robert Brown's lauded two-hander musical, The Last Five Years, now due Off Broadway, and Steppenwolf Theatre Company sent its One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to Broadway. But, the heftiest exporter of goods by far is the Goodman Theater. When not arranging the transport of the latest Rebecca Gilman play, or showing the nation that Alan Ayckbourn's complex duet of plays, House and Garden, can be staged successfully, the powerhouse company managed to book, within the space of one season, three almost surely Gotham-bound shows: Kander and Ebb's The Visit; the latest Robert Falls-Brian Dennehy collaboration, Long Day's Journey into Night; and the Harold Prince-directed Carol Burnett-Carrie Hamilton play Hollywood Arms. These days, the wind in the Windy City blows east.
SONDHEIM'S BLUES: Foxy Sondheim's boy just couldn't catch a break this year. Things started out well, with the Roundabout Theatre Company giving Follies its first Broadway staging in 30 years. But critics didn't cotton to director Matthew Warchus' dark the-book-is-more important-than-the-score approach or to the they-can't-sing-much-but boy-can-they-act cast. Hoped for awards didn't materialize and an extension through September was rolled back. But at least Sondheim had the Roundabout fall production of Assassins to look forward to. Finally, the musical look at presidential assassins, which was hobbled in its 1991 premiere by the outbreak of the Gulf War, would get its due as a work of art, rather than as a political lightning rod. Then came Sept. 11, and history repeated itself: the revival was indefinitely postponed. But the worst came last. The composer's attempts to finally win a mounting for Gold! — a musical (previously titled "Wise Guys") he's been working on forever — were thwarted by the legal threats of disgruntled producer Scott Rudin, who claimed to own the rights to the piece. Sondheim's $5 million lawsuit against Rudin was answered with an $8 million counter lawsuit by the producer. But, not to worry. A giant like Sondheim doesn't stay lonely for long. Chances are he will be happy again in 2002, when Into the Woods reaches Broadway and the Kennedy Center mounts a round half dozen of his works.
MEE, MEE, MEE!: For many observers of the theatre scene, the sudden preeminence of playwright Charles L. Mee came out of nowhere. But how can you begrudge a man who has so much love to give? Mee's triple-fronted attack on New York City began with the first part of the "Love Trilogy," First Love, about amore between an aged couple, staged at New York Theatre Workshop in August. Then came True Love, about a woman who, Phaedra-like, falls in lust with her stepson. That show bowed in November at the new Zipper Theatre Off-Broadway. Finally, preceded by a host of ballyhooed regional stagings, came Mee's love of loves: Big Love, a sprawling, hyper-physical updating of Aeschylus’ The Supplicant Women, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Will the theatre continue to love Mee back? Wait and see.
SOON IT'S GONNA CLOSE: If you haven't used one of 17,162 opportunities to see The Fantasticks at Off-Broadway's Sullivan Street Playhouse, you're out of luck. On Jan. 13, it's over. It's really, really over. And that's what's known as the end of an era.
—By Robert Simonson with the Playbill On-Line staff