But there were things to warm the hearts and imaginations of stage folk, including an onslaught of star charisma, a London lucky streak and a Best Picture Oscar for an example of that once seemingly extinct animal, the movie musical.
The editors and writers of Playbill On-Line put their heads together this month and looked back at the events of 2003 to choose significant news stories that made headlines and touched the industry uniquely.
WHAT NEXT? LOCUSTS?: Broadway couldn't catch a break in 2003, a star-crossed dozen of months by even the most buoyant optimist's measure. What could happen, happened. Nature and mankind pooled their resources and found several ways to stop Times Square cold. The February blizzard was severe (nearly two feet of the stuff). But, folks figured, you have to expect some snow in winter. The war in Iraq certainly didn't help business. Still, world events will sometimes intrude on box office. (Did, however, the New York Time have to run that front page photo of armed guards surrounding the half-price ticket booth in Duffy Square?) The March labor strike was more of a shock (see below). And by the August blackout, producers had started comparing themselves to Job. Then the fall began, and how things did fall. Shows closed in a month (Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks), a week (Laughing Room Only), a day (The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All) or didn't open at all (Bobbi Boland—the first Broadway play to close in previews in a decade). Others ran aground out of town due to a lack of artistic chemistry (Little Shop of Horrors, The Miracle Worker) or a sudden want of money (Harmony). What did a nice street like Broadway ever do to deserve this?
WORKERS UNITE!: The contract negotiations between the League of American Theatres and Producers and American Federation of Musicians' Local 802 weren't supposed to end in a crippling labor-wide strike. But that's what happened on March 7. The economic impact of a dark Broadway was significant enough to spur City Hall on; Mayor Bloomberg sequestering both sides in Gracie Mansion until an agreement was reached. The sticky wicket all along was minimums—the number of players required in Broadway orchestras. Producers got the tallies lowered, but nobody viewed them as victorious; they had begun by hoping to eliminate minimums altogether, after all. And the show of union solidarity was mighty impressive (actors, stagehands and many other professionals joined Local 802 on the picket line). Observers expect the walk-out to embolden Actors' Equity in its upcoming talks with the producers. And in an ironic coda, several fall musicals saw producers willingly exceed orchestra minimums. Go figure.
STAR TURNS: Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz. Donna Murphy in Wonderful Town. Antonio Banderas in Nine. Kevin Kline in Henry IV. The year saw several performances so impressive and admired that critics and theatregoers could not easily separate the accomplishment of the actor from the show's success. Arguably part of this collection of star vehicles were Gypsy (with Bernadette Peters) and Wicked (with Kristin Chenoweth). Capping the year was news of the return of the ultimate show-making stars: Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick of The Producers. THE BACK STAGE FOLLIES: Who's starring? This year, it depended on the night you attended. In many cases, the actors announced to headline a show were nowhere to be seen on opening night. Other performers were constantly opening their mouths not to sing, but to welcome a thermometer. Others still opted to insert a foot. No company, perhaps, suffered more than Manhattan Theatre Club. The inaugural production of its swanky new Broadway home, the Biltmore Theatre—Richard Greenberg's The Violet Hour—lost both Laura Benanti (in rehearsal) and Jasmine Guy (in previews). They represented two fifths of the cast. Meanwhile, at MTC's City Center home, Mary Tyler Moore didn't take kindly to the criticism of Neil Simon and promptly walked out on the New York premiere of the playwright's Rose's Dilemma. All three actresses, however, did better than Jenna Elfman, who, though trumpeted to enter the cast of Nine, never joined owing to needed extra prep time (Sara Gettelfinger played the role the rest of the run.) Neither did Billy Crudup see a single performance of Henry IV, in which he was to have played Prince Hal. Bernadette Peters and Donna Murphy are both still in their star vehicles, Gypsy and Wonderful Town, respectively. But if you saw them during previews, it was your lucky day; the game girls were felled by illness and each missed several performances. Finally, even if the stars did make it to opening night, that was no guarantee they were going to behave. Witness Ned Beatty, openly criticizing his castmates in the pages of the New York Times; and Whoopi Goldberg and Charles Dutton, defaming the producers of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom to TimeOut New York. All of the above activities generated plenty of publicity, though not the kind producers crave.
THE ROYAL TOUCH: All the Royal National Theatre of London needed to change its luck was a regime change. Under Trevor Nunn, it was a target for the barbs of London critics. His successor, Nicholas Hytner, however, is a close relative of King Midas. Jerry Springer: The Opera, Tom Stoppard's Jumpers and Michael Frayn's Democracy barely touched the stage at the National before talk of West End and Broadway transfers began. (The first two are already in the West End.) His Girl Friday, adapted by John Guare from The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and directed by Jack O'Brien, and a new revival of O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra starring Helen Mirren also attracted attention. Hytner's coup de grace was collecting a cool $1.35 million from American producers Bob Boyett and Bill Haber for the Yankees' right for first refusal on all New York transfers.
PUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN: It was said in 1998, after the success of Julie Taymor's The Lion King on Broadway and Basil Twist's Symphonie Fantastique Off-Broadway, that puppets have arrived as a theatrical force. If that was true, the trend was a sleeper, for 2003 was clearly the year cloth actors came into their own. Avenue Q, the quirky and affable musical which offered a sort of adult version of "Sesame Street," led the way; more than half the characters were puppets. Soon after came the Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors, featuring the mother of all theatre puppets, man-eating plant Audrey II; Recent Tragic Events, which offered a sock-and-yarn version of Joyce Carol Oates; and Paula Vogel's spiritual The Long Christmas Ride Home, which drew on the Bunraku tradition of Japan. The movement appears to, ahem, have legs.
WAIF GOODBYE: Like dominos, the British mega-musicals have tumbled in recent years. Following the demise of the long-running Broadway productions of Cats and Miss Saigon, Les Misérables closed on May 18 after 6,680 performances. Its departure leaves only lonely old The Phantom of the Opera among the musicals producer Cameron Mackintosh shepherded to New York in the 1980s.
YOU WIN ONE, YOU LOSE ONE: Theatres, that is. One moment the old Biltmore Theatre blazed anew with life, following 16 years of darkness, as the new Broadway home of Manhattan Theatre Club. The next, Urinetown was told it would have to vacate the Henry Miller Theatre. The Durst Organization, which owns the theatre, plans to build a new 57-story skyscraper on the site, putting the Miller out of commission until 2008. In other real estate developments, the Roundabout Theatre Company (which was responsible for reclaiming the Henry Miller for its production of Cabaret) made Studio 54 (where Cabaret moved) its own for now and always. And Martin Beck lost his bid for immortality. The one-time vaudeville titan's theatre was renamed for late caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
TWO YEARS LATER: Though some were written soon after the planes hit the World Trade Center, plays which took the events of Sept. 11 as their inspiration didn't ascend New York stages in numbers until this year, which began with Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat and ended with the triple bill of Craig Wright's Recent Tragic Events, Jonathan Bell's Portraits and Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros' Omnium Gatherum. All dealt with the tragedy in a somewhat oblique fashion and most critics agreed that a significant 9/11 drama has yet to surface.
LA GRAN VIA BLANCA: The Broadway advent of Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics showed the Street something it's rarely, if ever, seen. Not a Pulitzer Prize winning play—every other victor gets a Broadway production. Not a post-Pultizer New York arrival; that's happened, too. But an all-Latino cast in a straight play—that was something unique. (And a separate press preview aimed specially at the city's Spanish language media—that definitely was something new.)
BROADWAY WINS BACK HOLLYWOOD: The last time it happened was in 1968, but after a long period in artistic exile, the movie musical staged a triumphant comeback in 2003, when Rob Marshall's box office bonanza screen version of Kander and Ebb's Chicago captured the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. The team behind the flick, Miramax and Storyline Entertainment's Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, soon announced plans to develop Guys and Dolls, Pippin and Damn Yankees for the silver screen. As Hugh Jackman sings nightly at the Imperial: Everything old in new again.