In late December, the editors and staff of Playbill On-Line pulled out their notepads and revisited hundreds of past articles on our site to determine the most important theatre stories in 1999.
What makes a story "important"? We chose the trends, events, productions, people and milestones that had immediate -- and, possibly, lasting -- impact on the industry and theatregoers. Often, these were the stories that got a lot of ink, both electronically and on newsstands. This is the news that made us think more thoughtfully and feel more deeply about our shared experience of going to the theatre.
Complete coverage of Playbill On-Line's picks for the top theatre stories of 1999 can be accessed by typing keywords (for example, "SFX" or "Pimpernel") in a News search on the home page.
Playbill On-Line's top theatre stories of 1999, in no particular order, are:
• LIVENT SOLD: Beating out competitors, SFX Entertainment, Inc., bought the bankrupt, Canadian-based production company, Livent, for $115 million and got most of its assets, including theatres and current and in-development shows. SFX, which runs Pace Theatricals, now controls the Broadway and touring productions of Ragtime and Fosse and the 2000 musical, The Seussical. SFX is the world's largest diversified promoter, producer and venue operator for live entertainment events. • COST-CUTTING TREND: Producers scaled back productions in 1999. Radio City Entertainment and Ted Forstmann, after giving The Scarlet Pimpernel a makeover in 1998, decreased the size of the cast, trimmed some scenic elements, toured the tuner over the summer and brought it back to Broadway in September. The costly Ragtime tour was similarly shut down, trimmed and reimagined by its creative team, making the show more human-scale and actor-driven. Some argue that actors are losing work when ensembles are trimmed, but others argue that the lives of shows are prolonged and actors have guaranteed work -- to say nothing of years of work for replacements. There was talk (and still may be) of a scale-back for the Broadway Ragtime, but producers announced the show would close Jan. 16, 2000. There are no theatres available in the first four months of 2000 to accommodate a trimmed Ragtime. Disney's Beauty and the Beast moved from the Palace to the Lunt Fontanne, trimming its cast from 39 to 32, according to a comparison of Playbill title pages. As of this writing, The Civil War, a Broadway flop in 1999, was being reconceived and trimmed as a concept concert for the road, beginning performances in January 2000.
• FRANK WILDHORN: The pop theatre composer flirted with Broadway history in the spring when he became the rare American songwriter with three shows running on Broadway at the same time. (Stephen Schwartz did the same in the 1970s.) Jekyll & Hyde, The Civil War and The Scarlet Pimpernel were playing concurrently, but by the end of 1999, only the bloody Jekyll & Hyde was still singing.
• IN MEMORIAM: The death of George C. Scott was a loss for those who knew his confident stage work (National Actors Theatre's Inherit the Wind, Circle in the Square's Present Laughter) and admired his film work ("Patton," "Dr. Strangelove"), the loss of director Jose Quintero is noted because perhaps more than any other theatre artist he helped the country rediscover Eugene O'Neill's talent in major productions of A Moon for the Misbegotten, The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night. The death of Mike Ockrent, in addition to being a personal loss to friends, colleagues and wife Susan Stroman, has an impact on at least one planned-for-Broadway show. Ockrent's death from leukemia leaves The Night They Raided Minsky's, a new tuner by Charles Strouse and Susan Birkenhead, without a rudder. A June 2000 preview period in Los Angeles has been announced. Like the loss of Jonathan Larson, we will never know what future magic the director of Crazy for You and Me and My Girl might have conjured. He was 53.
• GOTTA DANCE: Dance-oriented shows were all the rage on New York stages, with the openings of Fosse, Contact, Swing!, Tango Argentino and Saturday Night Fever. Expected in early 2000 at the Gershwin: Riverdance. Does this mean fewer book musicals in the future?
• NEW THEATRE MUSIC: This year saw the coinage of the term "new theatre music," a category meant to encompass the challenging, often brooding work of such young composers as Michael John LaChiusa (Marie Christine, The Wild Party), Jason Robert Brown (Parade), Adam Guettel (Floyd Collins) and Ricky Ian Gordon (Dream True). The term first appeared in a New York Times Magazine article about actress-singer Audra McDonald, who, through her album "Way Back to Paradise" and performance in LaChiusa's Marie Christine, has emerged as the favored interpreter of this new breed of composer. Meanwhile, LaChiusa -- the most produced and prolific of the group -- seems to have become, albeit unwittingly, the movement's official spokesman, writing think pieces in the Times and championing his colleagues. The "new theatre music" has yet to produce a breakout hit; Parade closed prematurely and Marie Chistine, despite McDonald’s presence, is not extending or transferring (though Floyd Collins has enjoyed a prolonged life in regional productions). The next test will be the Broadway production of LaChiusa's The Wild Party, which boasts a cast including Mandy Patinkin, Toni Collette and Eartha Kitt.
• ARTHUR MILLER: Young at 84, playwright Arthur Miller's reputation as a master dramatist was solidified (as if it needed to be) with a Tony Award-winning revival of Death of a Salesman, and a fall 1999 revival of The Price (1967). Miller received a special 1999 Tony Award for lifetime achievement. Plans are afoot for a 2000 run of his bigamy-themed drama, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, seen previously at The Public Theater. What else is up his sleeve?
• PLAYBILL ON-LINE: OK, so we're blowing our own horn. But, internet coverage of the theatre is a growing phenomenon and becoming one of the art form's chief sources of publicity, encouraging instant, international word of mouth. Playbill On-Line celebrated its fifth anniversary in November with a reception that included Broadway and Off-Broadway stars, writers, producers, press agents and theatre artists. Having blossomed into a news service that offers hundreds of news and/or feature stories per week, Playbill On-Line prompts millions of page views per month and boasts 130,000 Playbill On-Line club members receiving weekly discounts and offers. Stay tuned.
Happy New Year.
The Playbill On-Line staff includes editors Robert Simonson and David Lefkowitz, staff writer/photo editor Christine Ehren, and staff writers Kenneth Jones and Murdoch McBride.
-- By Kenneth Jones and staff