Playbill On-Line Staff Picks the Top Theatre Stories of 2000

News   Playbill On-Line Staff Picks the Top Theatre Stories of 2000 MTC, THE PLACE TO BE: Manhattan Theatre Club, the nonprofit resident Off-Broadway company that two years ago was bruised in a public relations nightmare over Terrence McNally's controversial Corpus Christi, is riding high as the hitmaker company of 2000. Both Charles Busch's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife and David Auburn's Proof started at MTC in 2000 and transferred to Broadway by fall, earning raves, and A Class Act, the intimate musical portrait of lyricist Ed Kleban, ended its run there Dec. 10 prior to a spring 2001 Broadway transfer. The U.S. premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's Comic Potential was embraced by critics and audiences and a commercial transfer was mulled, but a suitable theatre could not be found. Late in 2000, the troupe announced a plan with a developer to restore and take up residence at the dilapidated Biltmore Theatre, which would finally give MTC a home on Broadway. The multi-million dollar plan has some hurdles to jump, but an opening in the 2002-2003 season is planned.

MTC, THE PLACE TO BE: Manhattan Theatre Club, the nonprofit resident Off-Broadway company that two years ago was bruised in a public relations nightmare over Terrence McNally's controversial Corpus Christi, is riding high as the hitmaker company of 2000. Both Charles Busch's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife and David Auburn's Proof started at MTC in 2000 and transferred to Broadway by fall, earning raves, and A Class Act, the intimate musical portrait of lyricist Ed Kleban, ended its run there Dec. 10 prior to a spring 2001 Broadway transfer. The U.S. premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's Comic Potential was embraced by critics and audiences and a commercial transfer was mulled, but a suitable theatre could not be found. Late in 2000, the troupe announced a plan with a developer to restore and take up residence at the dilapidated Biltmore Theatre, which would finally give MTC a home on Broadway. The multi-million dollar plan has some hurdles to jump, but an opening in the 2002-2003 season is planned.

ROUNDABOUT OUT AND ABOUT: Like Manhattan Theatre Club, the titanic nonprofit Roundabout Theatre Company expanded its horizons in a major way. In June, it sunk in formal roots on 42nd Street, opening the American Airlines Theatre—a smart new home which elicited cheers for its $25 million restoration of the old Selwyn Theatre, and grumbles for its ultra-corporate moniker. Soon after, the company revealed it will assume a commercial lease on the American Place Theatre (111 W. 46 St.) in November 2002, while, for the time being, holding onto to Off Broadway's Grammercy Theatre and Studio 54, which houses its production of Cabaret.

THE DEATH OF GIANTS: This was the year Broadway's Goliaths fell to the ground. While venues on the Great White Way made room for straight plays and newfangled tuners, some of the epic musicals that kept marquees lit up all through the 1990s have hit the millennium like a brick wall. The first was Cats: the longest running Broadway show ever (at 7,485 performances) ended Sept. 10 at the Winter Garden Theatre. That venue will close for several months, empty the litter boxes, and reopen with the ABBA-based musical Mamma Mia! in October 2001. Though The Phantom of the Opera remains a box office powerhouse at the Majestic, both Miss Saigon and Les Miserables underwent different kinds of downsizing. Miss Saigon announced a closing date of Dec. 31 and then changed it to Jan. 28, 2001, so it could run another month and feature Broadway notable Ruthie Henshall and its original, Tony-winning Kim, Lea Salonga. Boublil and Schonberg's other mega-hit, Les Miz is staying put but running shorter. To cut costs (and, presumably, soothe theatregoers' aching fannies), the producers and creators of Les Miserables have cut nearly 15 minutes out of the show's 192-minute running time.

THINGS TO DO IN DENVER: Two productions out of the Denver Center Theatre Company helped bring attention to that industrious nonprofit troupe on the edge of the Rocky Mountains. Peter Hall's staging of John Barton's Trojan War epic, Tantalus, running more than 10 hours, drew praise in the fall from international critics and made Denver ground zero for ambitious, serious, new theatre. Theatregoers in cities much larger than Denver booked flights there or simply envied the lucky Denver audience from afar. The staging, in association with Royal Shakespeare Company, plays England in early 2001. In February 2000, the theatre also premiered Moises Kaufman's serious-minded docudrama, The Laramie Project, about the aftershocks of the murder of gay Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. The work, seen by Wyoming and Colorado residents especially touched by violence in recent years, got international attention and moved to an Off-Broadway run by late spring. A film version is planned, and regional productions are slated. The word "new" is nothing new to DCTC — artistic director Donovan Marley is passionate about new voices and new works, programming 3-5 world premieres a year (including adaptations or translations, to say nothing of the annual TheatreFest of staged readings each spring). In 2001, expect Pork Pie, 1933 and Inna Beginning as works to watch there. Is it any wonder that DCTC received a special Tony Award for outstanding regional theatre in 1998?

THE BEST LAID PLANS...: The proverbial best-laid plans of mice and men are nothing compared to those of Broadway producers. As in years past—and perhaps a little moreso—the Broadway season calendar for 2000-01 ended up looking quite different than the one we expected, with some of the most strongly hyped and anticipated shows falling by the wayside. Early on, the season was supposed to bring us a new Kander and Ebb, Donald Sutherland in a drama, Louisa May Alcott set to music, and wartime swing dancing. All of these projects have either stalled or delayed. The Visit, a musicalization of Friedrich Durrenmatt's caustic satire, courtesy of John Kander and Fred Ebb, was all set to debut with Angela Lansbury as its vengeful protagonist. But her husband's illness caused the actress to leave the production, and producers couldn't find a suitable replacement in time to open in the fall. Chicago's Goodman Theatre is considering premiering the work next season, with an eye toward Manhattan after that. Little Women, an adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic, was set for this season until the producers chose to replace original songwriting team Kim Oler and Allison Hubbard with Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein. The overhaul proved complex enough to require a season's delay, and now the show will workshop at Duke University and have a regional tour before looking towards Broadway again. Yet another musical went through two - count `em, two - lead actresses before putting its best foot forward. Thoroughly Modern Millie was to be a Kristin Chenoweth vehicle, but she got a TV sitcom, so the producers drafted Erin Dilly as the lead. A few creative differences later, and Sutton Foster was the new star. Technical difficulties and delayed opening nights added further turmoil to the revival's La Jolla Playhouse premiere, and yet, lo and behold, reviews were darn good, and the only thing keeping Millie away from Broadway in the spring was a wall of booked-solid theatres. Two other plays, a revival of A Thousand Clowns starring Tom Selleck, and Tallulah, a solo for Kathleen Turner, also claimed the booking jam as an excuse for bypassing this season. One show that appeared to have it all together creatively was The Rhythm Club. But the Matthew Sklar and Charles Beguelin tuner lost a major backer, and the scramble for new capital pushed the show into next season. Another show, Enigma Variations, with Donald Sutherland, had hoped to travel from Toronto to Broadway. But critiques weren't necessarily "money" reviews, and the producers took their chances with London instead. Other shows that talked the talk but didn't walk the walk included Hans Christian Andersen, which premiered at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre but didn't get the groundswell of critical and popular support it needed to follow through on early talk of Broadway plans; The Night They Raided Minsky's, which might have been further along in development had co creator Mike Ockrent not passed away at the end of last year; an in-rep revival of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, first truncated to just Brighton Beach Memoirs and then ditched altogether (with star Linda Lavin becoming an Allergist's Wife instead), Cameron Mackintosh's lauded UK revival of Oklahoma!, which overcame trans-Atlantic union differences only to became mired in scheduling difficulties, again postponed. Whew! SEEING DOUBLE (OR TRIPLE): Hollywood routinely finds itself with two films about the same subject matter on its hands. (Usually the theme is natural disaster). This year the phenomenon spread to the stage. The most high profile occurrence was, of course, last spring's pair of dueling musicals, both called The Wild Party, both inspired by Joseph Moncure March's 1928 narrative poem about a decadent 1920s soiree. The bout, however, proved a bit of a fizzle, as neither The Public Theater's Broadway production of Michael John LaChiusa's musical nor Manhattan Theatre Club's Off-Broadway mounting of Andrew Lippa's version fared terribly well (though both spawned cast albums). Their lack of success, however, didn't stop three Tallulah Bankhead shows from targeting New York later in the year. First came Tovah Feldshuh's Tallulah Hallelujah!, then playwright Nan Schmid's Dahling!. The Kathleen Turner vehicle, Tallulah, now on tour, has yet to reach NYC, but plans for a Broadway run in fall 2001 are in place. Will the upcoming twin shows based on the Ugly Duckling fable (The Olivier Award-winning Honk! and Henry Krieger and Bill Russell's Everything's Ducky) and — we kid you not — the Lindbergh baby kidnapping (Baby Case and Lindbergh Baby Kidnapped) prove, once and for all, that two shows are better than one, or that seeing double is making audiences (and critics) woozy? Time will tell.

REGIONAL BUILDING SPREE: The old saw that the theatre is dying would be news to construction firms across the nation. This year, several regional houses either opened new and expanded facilities or announced plans to do so in the future. The most prominent ribbon-cutting was in Chicago, where the Goodman Theatre opened in October it's first new home in 75 years—a North Loop two-theatre complex on the historic site of the Garrick and Woods theatres and the landmark Harris and Selwyn theatres. Due north, Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre revealed plans for a new three theatre building in the Mississippi Mill River District. The new space, estimated to cost $60-$70 million, is expected to open in 2004. Meanwhile, in Boston, the Huntington Theatre also has big ambitions. Newly appointing artistic director Nicholas Martin unveiled a plan to construct a 350-seat legitimate theatre—Boston’s first in 70 years—as well as a 200-seat black box meant to provide performance space to smaller theatre organizations.

IN MEMORIAM: Several theatrical eras passed into memory this year with the departure of the people who embodied them. David Merrick and Alexander H. Cohen both belonged to a bygone school of producing, when one name appeared above the title and plays were driven by the passion and gambling instincts of a highly individualistic, typically megalomaniacal mind. Merrick, "The Abominable Showman," was the most famous and successful of the two, an entertainingly unscrupulous Showbiz Machiavelli who fostered such whopping successes as Hello, Dolly!, Mame, 42nd Street. Cohen, though just as irascible, was more of an aesthete, suffering as many flops as hits in his devotion to high brow drama and British imports. Both shared a passion for the theatre and a distaste for each other. Competitive to the last, Merrick upstaged his colleague one more time by dying just days after Cohen did...Along with Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud and Alec Guinness defined British acting in the decades before and after World War II. One of the first non-star stars, an unidentifiable chameleon famous for being nondescript, Guinness got his first leg up from Gielgud. But Guinness left the theatre in the mid-60s and eventually retired from acting altogether. Gielgud began acting in 1921 and never stopped. Intelligent, witty and possessed of perhaps the finest voice in the theatre, he was not surprisingly one of the most famous Hamlets of the century and, perhaps more unexpectedly, just as successful a Romeo...Gwen Verdon: An inspiration for several generations of dancers, the Tony Award-winning dancer actress Gwen Verdon died Oct. 18 after a long career that included Broadway chorus-girl work, bringing down the house in featured Broadway parts (Can-Can) and then being a bonafide star of musicals (Damn Yankees, Redhead, New Girl in Town). The wife of choreographer-director Bob Fosse, she was not only the star of his Sweet Charity and Chicago, but the keeper of his flame after his death — she was the hands-on artistic advisor on the recent hit Broadway musical revue, Fosse. In the show's development, she stretched and warmed up with the company every day, thrilling the young dancers who viewed her as the standard they hoped to achieve. Beyond her memorable dancing, she introduced a number of memorable theatre songs, including "Where Am I Going?," "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "Whatever Lola Wants," "Roxie," "Two Lost Souls" and "Merely Marvelous."...Jason Robards was an acting talent nearly as towering as Gielgud and Guinness, and of a distinctly American stripe. His performances as Hickey in The Iceman Cometh and James Tyrone in A Long Day's Journey Into Night were for the ages and singlehandedly reestablished Eugene O'Neill as the country's pre-eminent playwright. The crumpled, beaten-down authority he brought to the stage ennobled whatever role he played and enlarged whatever play he inhabited...

—By Robert Simonson
and David Lefkowitz, Kenneth Jones, Murdoch McBride