Playbill.com Picks the Top Theatre Stories of 2006

Special Features   Playbill.com Picks the Top Theatre Stories of 2006
 
The editors and writers of Playbill.com put their heads together this month and looked back at the events of 2006 to choose significant news stories that made headlines and touched the industry uniquely.
Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens.
Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens. Photo by Joan Marcus

They follow, in no particular order of importance.

OFF-BROADWAY ON BROADWAY: Off-Broadway has been feeding Broadway with productions for some years now, but in 2006 Manhattan nonprofits seemed to be beating a path to Times Square with greater frequency. Or maybe Off-Broadway's presence was more keenly felt because the shows being transferred were so fresh and exciting. Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which began at the Atlantic Theater Company, was one of the most acclaimed plays of the spring (though The History Boys would best it at the Tonys). Douglas Carter Beane's Hollywood satire The Little Dog Laughed, born at Second Stage, now reigns as the sole new comedy by an American playwright to grace Broadway. As for Grey Gardens (from Playwrights Horizons) and Spring Awakening (another Atlantic creation), they are only the two most talked about musicals of the new season and among the most radical examples of the genre to date. In years past, producers would probably have transferred such experimental properties to a tidy commercial house south of 42nd, but of late the tight economics of Off-Broadway have made such moves undesirable. Result? Broadway is a newly adventuresome address. Gardens and Spring will likely vie for top Tony honors come spring. Whichever wins, Off-Broadway can claim the victory.

Richard Griffiths in The History Boys.
photo by Joan Marcus

THE BOYS OF SUMMER (AND SPRING): When producers Bob Boyett and Bill Haber decided to bring in the London hit The History Boys—about a clutch of frolicsome Sixth Formers in England and the two very different teachers who politely battle for their souls—they probably thought they'd gain a classy credit on their resume, some points for professional altruism and maybe an award or two for the trophy case. What they got instead (or, rather, in addition) were through-the-roof reviews, ear-shattering buzz, a box-office bonanza, lightning-fast recoupment, a citywide love affair with the play's endearing and witty star Richard Griffiths, and a record number of Tony Awards for a straight play. A nice payoff for following one's nobler instincts.

Connie Fisher in The Sound of Music.
photo by Tristram Kenton

JUST TWELVE AUDITIONS, AND YOU'RE IN!: The producers of musicals have been casting alumni of reality shows like "American Idol" for a few years now, but in 2006, in a queasy-making development, they started creating reality shows to cast their productions. Andrew Lloyd Webber was at the forefront of this movement. When Scarlett Johansson, his dream Maria, proved unavailable to star in his upcoming revival of The Sound of Music, he decided the only way find a star as good (or to secure as much publicity as Scarlett would have stirred up) was though an "American Idol"-like talent contest. Thus, "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" was born. It began its run on BBC-1 in July and was widely watched (and widely derided). After much glitz and kitsch and sturm and drang, one Connie Fisher (aka "Intense Maria," her nickname on the program) emerged as the winner. Before the contest was even concluded, Webber's co-producer David Ian hatched his own idea (or stole Webber's idea, depending on who you ask) for his own reality show. Titled "You're the One That I Want," its goal is to find the two leads for a new Broadway revival of Grease It will begin airing on NBC on Jan. 7. And Webber's back at it again. BBC News reported that the title player in an upcoming West End revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat will be found through a television reality show, titled “Any Dream Will Do."

Charlotte d'Amboise in A Chorus Line.
photo by Paul Kolnik

THE SAME, ONLY DIFFERENT: This fall, Broadway saw the return of two of its most fabled musicals: A Chorus Line, which had been absent for 16 years, and Les Misérables, which hadn't seen a New York production in, um, three years. In both cases, it was as if the show had never left, so similar were the revivals to the original stagings. Were the producers simply choosing not to mess with perfection, or were they playing it safe? Either way, audiences didn't seem to mind — both shows are doing nice business, and Les Miz recently extended its limited engagement through the summer.

Julia Roberts in Three Days of Rain.
photo by Joan Marcus

STAR WATTAGE: Two of the brightest bulbs in the Hollywood marquee abandoned sunny California for chilly Broadway this year. Julia Roberts starred in a spring revival of Richard Greenberg's contemplative three-hander about family and memory, Three Days of Rain; and Julianne Moore took a leading role in the fall premiere of David Hare's latest political drama, The Vertical Hour. As in the past, such ventures are a crapshoot, career-wise. Sometimes the critics embrace you as a long-lost member of the theatre family (Nicole Kidman, Antonio Banderas, Hugh Jackman). Other times they question your bona fides as an actor (Kelsey Grammer, Denzel Washington). Neither lady was embraced as a stage natural, though, with Roberts (the verdict is still out on The Vertical Hour), capacity audiences made up for the lack of critical love.

Megan Dodds as Rachel Corrie.
photo by Stephen Cumminskey

CRI DE CORRIE: Last winter, the respected Off-Broadway nonprofit New York Theatre Workskop quietly took a pass on presenting the Gotham premiere of the London solo, My Name Is Rachel Corrie, penned by actor Alan Rickman and journalist Katherine Viner, about the death of an American protestor killed in the Gaza Strip. Or, at least, it hoped the pass would be quiet. It wasn't. Hue and cry, such as the theatre hadn't seen in some time, ensued. Both NYTW and the Royal Court, which produced the play in London, were thrust into a press-statement war immediately after the decision to delay the work; the London-based company and the play's creators accused the New York company of censorship, while the New York troupe stated it merely sought to present the play in a climate suitable for the volatile work. Barnard College hosted an April 7 panel discussion on the controversy. Playwrights sounded off publicly. Finally, Rachel Corrie won a New York home at Off-Broadway's Minetta Lane Theatre Oct. 15. And then it opened. The reception? Well, remember a decade ago when there was all that fuss about Terrence McNally's "gay Jesus" play Corpus Christi and then New York Times critic Ben Brantley opened his review with the line, "The excitement stops right after the metal detectors." It was kind of like that. The engagement extended nonetheless.

Met general manager, Peter Gelb.
photo by the Metropolitan Opera

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA: Where have all the theatre artists gone? Why, to the Metropolitan Opera, of course. As part of his new regime as general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb has set his sights on the theatre's finest directors, playwrights and stars. Bartlett Sher directed this past fall's acclaimed new staging of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and Jack O'Brien will pilot Il Trittico in the spring. Four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald is being sought to star in the upcoming New York premiere of the John Adams opera Doctor Atomic, and the Met hired Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth to make her New York opera debut in John Corigliano's opera Ghosts of Versailles. And that's to say nothing about the host of composers and playwrights who have been commissioned to write new operas. So, next time a theatre artist says they have a show coming up at Lincoln Center, don't assume it's at the Beaumont.

Julie White in The Little Dog Laughed.
photo by Carol Rosegg

HEY, LADIES!: Christine Ebersole and Julie White—two stage veterans who have paid their dues, been regularly adored by critics, yet for whom The Main Chance always seemed just out of grasp—finally achieved their apotheosis this year. In her choice dual roles as Big Edie Beale (Act One) and Little Edie Beale (Act Two) in the musical Grey Gardens, Ebersole executed the kind of untouchable performance and collected the sort of high praise that secures a musical theatre actress her place in the pantheon. As for White, after years of shining in Off-Broadway roles, she finally won a Broadway berth in the comedy The Little Dog Laughed, and critics offered rave upon rave. Tony nominations are surely in both actresses' futures.

Jill Clayburgh in The Clean House.
photo by Joan Marcus

CALL CLAYBURGH: Was there ever an actress who made it so abundantly clear that she wanted to work as did Jill Clayburgh in 2006? Following her return to the New York stage in late 2005 in A Naked Girl on the Appian Way (and her daughter Lily Rabe's emergence as a stage star), she has been hard to escape. She made another Broadway turn in Barefoot in the Park, and then replaced Christine Lahti in the premiere of The Busy World Is Hushed by Keith Bunin at Playwrights Horizons. All three plays struck out critically, but number four was a charm: The Clean House at Lincoln Center is a hit. Now, on to 2007.

Ashley Brown as Mary Poppins.
photo by Joan Marcus

DISNEY X 2: Disney returned to the Broadway stage with a vengeance in 2006, opening two new musicals, Tarzan at the Richard Rodgers and Mary Poppins at the New Amsterdam, which had been the long-time home of Disney's biggest stage hit, The Lion King. Despite less-than-stellar reviews for Tarzan, the musical seems to be hanging on at the Rodgers, and it looks like everyone's favorite nanny will be flying through the New Amsterdam for quite awhile.

Jennifer Hudson in "Dreamgirls."
photo by Dreamworks SKG

DREAM COME TRUE: Four years after the success of the film version of Chicago, Hollywood has finally come up with a successful follow-up movie musical. The eagerly awaited DreamWorks/ Paramount film of the Broadway musical Dreamgirls has pulled down dreamy reviews and has been posted record numbers in limited release. It goes national Dec. 25, but "American Idol" cast-off Jennifer Hudson, who plays Effie, has already received her Christmas present. The film has made her a star. (Robert Simonson is Playbill.com's senior correspondent. He can be reached at rsimonson@playbill.com.)

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