Playbill On-Line Selects the Top Theatre Stories of 2002

News   Playbill On-Line Selects the Top Theatre Stories of 2002 What captured your imagination in the world of theatre this year? What trend emerged? What event or person reminded us of the greatness of the past or had impact that will echo into 2003? Who died and left the landscape of the theatre a little more arid?

The editors and writers of Playbill On-Line put their heads together this month and looked back at the events of 2002 to choose significant news stories that made headlines and touched the industry uniquely.

VARIETY TONITE!: A few years ago, the Tony Awards added the category of Best Special Theatrical Event to address non-traditional shows that might not be deemed a "play" or "musical." This year saw a number of unusual offerings on Broadway that may or may not fall into that slot. "Variety" was a watchcry this year as Broadway welcomed the hip-hop poets of Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on Broadway; the dance-driven musical, Movin' Out, with a male singer covering Billy Joel songs as a company of dancers acted out the story-rich work of choreographer Twyla Tharp; a troupe of young performers singing Puccini's La Bohème in Italian under the direction of Baz Luhrmann; and Nora Ephron's play-with-music, Imaginary Friends, a surreal examination of the fiery relationship between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman (with Swoosie Kurtz and Cherry Jones dressed as children, singing and dancing downstage). Solo acts this year included Elaine Stritch at Liberty, Bea Arthur on Broadway, Barbara Cook singing Mostly Sondheim and John Leguizamo in sexaholix...a love story. Frank Gorshin is currently starring in the solo play, Say Goodnight Gracie.

CAN'T STOP THE BEAT: The positive buzz of its Seattle tryout in early summer 2002 led to a boom at the box office for Hairspray once it opened on Broadway in August. The new musical comedy based on the John Waters film is a rare case of a summer opening becoming a box office and critical hit (producers usually try to position their shows before the Tony Awards in the hope the show will be fresh in the mind). The score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman borrows a page from Mel Brooks' The Producers by creating pastiche songs that have both heart, comic zest and a sense of period. Hairspray delighted audiences with its satiric but warm-hearted look at teens in 1960s Baltimore who just wanna get along with their folks, find a dance partner (black or white) and get seen on TV (maybe changing the world at the same time). On Aug. 15 alone, Hairspray took in $1.7 million at the box office — before the solid reviews even appeared.

IT'S A HIT!: The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, did what the composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim has done most of his career — experimented. Over the summer, six Sondheim musicals were produced, in repertory, to offer a kind of curated living exhibit of Sondheim's output. The series was such a hit, and attracted so many stars, the DC performing arts giant is looking ahead to a Tennessee Williams festival. For the record, DC audiences saw Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George, Company, Merrily We Roll Along, A Little Night Music and Passion. Eric Schaeffer served as artistic director.

MOSCOW THEATRE TRAGEDY: In late October, the world was shocked when a Moscow theatre was taken over by Chechen rebels during a performance of a native musical, Nord Ost. Hundreds of hostages and terrorists who were hungry, under stress and sleep-deprived, later died in a rescue attempt by Russian soldiers, who sent a usually non-lethal gas into the building. The tragedy reminded us that in a time of political upheaval and terrorism even the theatre — traditionally a home to civility,order and aspiration — is not immune from negative outside forces. A SCRIPT IN THE HAND: Is it a play if the actors haven't memorized their lines and are reading from notecards or a script? A producer might call you narrow for thinking "no" and invite you to reconsider your definition of theatre, while theatregoers might be a little cranky paying top dollar for a show that includes a little more than a desk, a podium, a music stand and a chair. A.R. Gurney's Love Letters and Ancestral Voices are earlier examples from the genre of script-in-hand exercises. In 2002, we had readers read acting The Guys, a play about 9/11, with rotating casts; The Exonerated, a play about wrongfully-convicted people on death row, with rotating casts; Eve Ensler's continuing The Vagina Monologues, with rotating casts (it closes in early January 2003 with Ensler flying solo in its final weeks). Is it the future?

VOICES RISING: This year, the voice of African American women playwrights was clearer than ever, as Suzan-Lori Parks won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Topdog/Underdog, seen on Broadway following its run at The Public Theater (the show was nommed for a Best Play Tony, as well). One of three women runners-up for the Pulitzer was Dael Orlandersmith, whose Yellowman, a moving examination of racism within the black community, played regional theatres throughout the country (with Orlandersmith also performing) before settling down for a fall run at Manhattan Theatre Club. This year also saw New York premieres of works by African-American actress-playwrights Regina Taylor (Crowns), Charlayne Woodard (In Real Life) and Oni Faida Lampley (The Dark Kalamazoo).

EVERYTHING WAS ROSIE: Comedian, actress and talk show host Rosie O'Donnell, a Broadway actress in Grease! and Seussical, was a huge booster of Broadway on her nationally-syndicated talk show, "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," but she left the airwaves this year. For her final show, Broadway casts laid down fresh vocal tracks, parts of Times Square were roped off and performers sang and danced in tribute to O'Donnell in a video segment that rivaled the annual Tony Awards location shoots. Publicists lamented the loss of O'Donnell, who regularly had Broadway stars as guests (often performing from current shows — Titanic benefitted greatly from the exposure in 1997). O'Donnell (who also came out of the closet as a lesbian this year and also shut down the magazine with her name on it) said she will produce the Boy George musical, Taboo, on Broadway in 2003.

IF YOU BUILD THEM, THEY WILL COME: In Houston, the multi-million dollar Hobby Center for the Performing Arts opened as the home of national tours of the resident producers, Theatre Under the Stars. Off-Broadway, the commercial Shubert Organization built the $12 million, 499-seat Little Shubert Theatre (it was aglow starting Nov. 26 for Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails); and a few doors down on 42nd Street was the reconstructed five-venue, $15 million complex known as Theatre Row, for showcase, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway productions. As early as January 2003, Playwrights Horizons, on the same block, opens its new building, and by fall 2003 Manhattan Theatre Club relights the neglected Biltmore Theatre, giving MTC a Broadway presence.

NUDE, NUDE, TOTALLY NUDE: This year, putting on a show in New York sometimes meant actors had to take it off. Kathleen Turner and the successive Mrs. Robinsons of The Graduate revealed themselves in dim light (there were cheers at the Plymouth Theatre stage door nightly, while across the street Frank Langella and Alan Bates slipped into their limousines quietly following their fully-clothed Music Box turns in a Turgenev play); the ballplayers of Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out stripped and took showers in a play about male ego, insecurity, celebrity and exposure; Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci were nakedly real in a play about naked emotions, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune on Broadway (Rosie Perez and Joe Pantoliano step in come January).

BROOKS CALLS BIALYSTOCK BAGEL: British actor Henry Goodman filled the shoes of original Max Bialystock Nathan Lane in The Producers on Broadway for only a few weeks before Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman decided the shoes didn't fit. Not funny enough, they said. Goodman, the respected West End actors seen on Broadway in Art, was told by his agent, via telephone, he was being cut loose. Brad Oscar, the show's original Franz Liebkind (and Lane standby), graduated to the role and got raves. Goodman later appeared in a summer run of Follies in England and is currently in Roundabout Theatre Company's Tartuffe.

LONDON CATS HEADS TO HEAVYSIDE LAYER: On May 11, the 21st anniversary of its opening, the original London staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats closed, further ushering out the era of the 1980s British mega-musical. The final show was broadcast via live screen relays to theatregoers outdoors in the Covent Garden Piazza. By fall, the Broadway production of Les Misérables announced that it would end in March 2003. The Phantom of the Opera, the last 1980s smash by Lloyd Webber (working again with Cats producer Cameron Mackintosh, who also guided Les Miz to fame), shows no signs of slowing in London or New York. Mackintosh said he has retired from producing any new works, but will continue maintaining his existing shows and show that were in the planning stages, such as Mary Poppins.

BRAVE NEW WORLD: Borrowing a phrase from Shakespeare's The Tempest, New York theatre artists created a Brave New World, a three-day theatrical memorial to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. At Manhattan's Town Hall more than 150 theatre artists came together for the benefit event Sept. 9-11. The line-up, particularly on the first and final nights, was rather awe-inspiring: The Other Line, a new play by Alfred Uhry, with Dana Ivey, directed by Doug Hughes; "A Song for LaChanze" a new song by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, written for and sung by LaChanze, who lost her husband, financial trader Calvin Gooding, in the attacks; and No One You Know by Neal Bell, performed by Peter Gallagher and Lorraine Bracco, directed by Mark Wing Davey.

TRY TO REMEMBER: Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones' The Fantasticks, the longest-running show in the history of New York theatre, closed Jan. 13 after 42 years and 17,162 performances at Greenwich Village's Sullivan Street Playhouse. The fable, about iconic lovers purposely separated by their fathers so they would fall in love, played to thousands of theatregoers in the living-room-sized Sullivan Street, offering work to countless actors (including originals Jerry Orbach and Rita Gardner). Producer Lore Noto made clear that real estate was the main culprit — the building's new landlord noticed that real estate prices in the neighborhood were escalating precipitously and had other ideas for the space. The musical was suggested by Edmond Rostand's Les Romanesques, and gave the world "Try to Remember," "Metaphor," "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "I Can See It" and "They Were You." Within six months of the closing, producer Noto died, having left his mark on American theatre history.

NOTABLE PASSINGS: The theatre lost major figures in 2002, including lyricist-librettist-actor Adolph Green, who co-wrote On the Town, Bells Are Ringing and The Will Rogers Follies; producer Robert Whitehead, who mounted works by Arthur Miller, Terrence McNally and the Greeks over the years; actress Kim Hunter, the original Stella of A Streetcar Named Desire; designer Maria Björnson, so responsible for the look of the international smash, The Phantom of the Opera; Vinnette Carroll, the Tony nommed creator of Your Arms Too Short to Box With God; Marvin A. Krauss, the longtime Broadway general manager; actor Richard Harris, remembered as King Arthur in Camelot on stage and screen; Lore Noto, producer of the long-running The Fantasticks; critic Martin Esslin, who penned "Theater of the Absurd"; actress playwright Carrie Hamilton, who co-wrote Broadway's Hollywood Arms with mother Carol Burnett; director Josie Abady, of the Cleveland Playhouse and Circle in the Square; classical actress Irene Worth, who worked in London, on Broadway and at Ontario's Stratford Festival; Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda, who pushed the boundaries of scenic design and theatrical dimension.