Playbill.com Picks the Top Theatre Stories of 2008

Special Features   Playbill.com Picks the Top Theatre Stories of 2008
 
The editors and writers of Playbill.com put their heads together this month and looked back at the events of 2008 to choose significant news stories that made headlines and touched the industry uniquely.
Gerald Schoenfeld
Gerald Schoenfeld

They follow, in no particular order of importance.

THE END OF AN ERA
From the beginning of their theatre dynasty, in the early 1900s, the Shuberts were the Shuberts themselves: the brothers Sam, Lee and J.J., and, later, their great-nephew Lawrence Shubert Lawrence, Jr. But from the early seventies on, "The Shuberts" were Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard B. Jacobs. Former lawyers for the vast organization, they moved into the head office of the Shubert Theatre's attic rooms in 1972. While they were there, there was little that went on in the New York theatre world that they didn't know of or had a hand in. As the steward of 17 Broadway theatres, producers of dozens of shows, leading figures in labor negotiations and the heads of a rich charitable foundation, there was no avoiding them, and there was no way their actions and decisions couldn't influence the shape of the American theatre. Mr. Jacobs died in 1996. Far from retiring, the tireless Schoenfeld, the Chairman of the organization, soldiered on until his death, at 84, on Nov. 25. One week later, Philip J. Smith, the President of The Shubert Organization, and Robert E. Wankel, the company's Executive Vice President, were named Co-Chief Executive Officers of the theatrical company. This ensured a smooth transition, but with Schoenfeld's passing, the curtain nonetheless fell on an important act in the story of one of the oldest and most important organizations in the American theatre.

the [title of show] show

CUBBY, TOSSERS, AND THE SMALL WHITE WAY
Broadway discovered YouTube this year. Leading the way were the scrappy creators of the Off-Broadway musical [title of show], who kept the Broadway hopes of their little show alive by creating "the [title of show] show," a semi-fictional episodic series about the continued adventures of the character/actors featured in the quasi-autobiographical meta-musical. The power of YouTube as a free, easily accessible marketing tool was illustrated when [title of show] did make it to Broadway, partly due to its visibility on the Internet. During the Tony Awards season, the producer of another underdog show, Xanadu, highlighted the show's (slim) chances for victory through a succession of YouTube videos featuring fictional pre-teen Tony Campaign Manager Cubby Bernstein. Xanadu didn't win, but the videos generated buzz and ink. This was followed by the recurring "Legally Brown," in which Broadway luminaries such as Matthew Morrison and Allison Janney competed to become the next Piragua Guy, a minor part in the musical In the Heights. This trend's poster boy? Actor Cheyenne Jackson, who appeared in all three series.

Kiril Kulish in Billy Elliot
photo by David Scheinmann

FRESH YOUNG TALENT
And we mean young! There have always been a fair share of child actors on Broadway; the musical theatre has long seen to that (think The Sound of Music, The Music Man, Annie, Oliver!, etc.). But tutors and stage mothers were in great force this season. Talented youngsters could be found in The Little Mermaid and Shrek, and the leading role in this season's musical hit, Billy Elliot, is filled by three young teens — David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish — who alternate in the role. As for the cast of Jason Robert Brown's 13, well, there are no adults on stage. SCREEN TO STAGE AND BACK AGAIN
They've been making musicals and plays out of movies for some time, and you didn't think they were going to stop now, did you? This year we saw The Little Mermaid, Cry-Baby, Billy Elliot, White Christmas, 9 to 5 and Shrek. But the big surprise is how this creative train now regularly makes a round trip. Stage shows that debuted in the cinemas this year included Mamma Mia!, Frost/Nixon and Doubt, with Passing Strange and In the Heights on the way.

THE REAL WORLD MEETS THE STAGE WORLD
Another trend that's not going away is the use of reality television to spark interest in stage productions. The unknown Bailey Hanks became the new lead in Broadway's Legally Blonde by winning MTV's reality casting competition "Legally Blonde The Musical: The Search for Elle Woods." Overseas, Jodie Prenger won the role of Nancy in a new revival Oliver! via the BBC1 reality TV show "I'd Do Anything." And, the production that started it all — the recent Andrew Lloyd Webber-produced London revival of The Sound of Music — had its Canadian premiere in October. As in London, the Maria was cast in a reality TV competition. Elicia MacKenzie won the CBC-TV audition "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" to play governess Maria von Trapp. As always, each show came up with clever, show-specific titles for their programs. If they ever use a reality show to cast A Little Night Music, could they call it "Send in the Clowns"?

David Mamet
photo by Aubrey Reuben

MEGA-MAMET
Playwright David Mamet is becoming the Stephen Sondheim of the non-musical theatre: regularly revived on a grand scale. This year began with a new Mamet play, November, debuting on Broadway, and concluded with two major Broadway revivals of Speed-the-Plow and American Buffalo. True, the latter closed in a week and the former recently lost one of its stars, Jeremy Piven, to that old devil sushi (i.e. high mercury levels in the actor's blood). Still, a banner year by any measure. TKTS TKO: We waited years for it. But, by the time it was done it was well worth it. The Theatre Development Fund finally unveiled its new Duffy Square half-price ticket booth this fall. It was greeted by applause all around. A sleek fiberglass booth with many more ticket windows than before and the ability to take credit cards, it is backed by an eye-catching flight of red stairs. The staircase makes for nice seating day and night, providing a perfect view of bustling Times Square; and becoming illuminated eye candy at night. Furthermore, Duffy Square has increased its acreage, transforming it into an informal gathering place for local and tourist theatregoers alike. It should also be noted that a Brooklyn-based TKTS booth was launched in July on the ground floor of 1 MetroTech Center.

MONEY'S TOO TIGHT TO MENTION
The spectacular and — in the experience of most people still living — unprecedented economic tailspin Wall Street went into beginning in September affected every aspect of American life —and the theatre was by no means an exception. Some high-roller brokers and moneymen who regularly attended the theatre as a matter of course abandoned that luxury, and many foreign tourists, also hurt by the recession, stayed home. Investors to whom producers regularly turned to — both individual and corporate — started holding on to their money. Suddenly, shows people expected to stick around for a while (Gypsy, Spamalot, Spring Awakening) announced closing dates, while productions scheduled to make it into town (Godspell, For Colored Girls…, Brigadoon) never got past the Hudson River. There are still plenty of shows on the winter and spring Broadway docket, but stars (Jane Fonda, Jeremy Irons, Will Ferrell, Rupert Everett and Laura Graham are all headed to town) may now be the key to survival.

CALIFORNIA SPLIT
Playwrights sometimes tackle politics in their work, but offstage the theatre tends to steer clear of thorny political issues — to a certain extent because members of the traditionally liberal theatre community are usually of the same side of the fence, and have little to argue about. A rare exception to this state of affairs came in the form of a very public disagreement this fall about Proposition 8 — the California ballot proposition that amended the state Constitution to restrict the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman. When it was discovered that Scott Eckern, artistic director of California Musical Theatre, had financially supported the measure, prominent theatre practitioners including composer Marc Shaiman, playwright Jeff Whitty and actress Susan Egan, lashed out in word and e-mail. Soon, Eckern had resigned, and both his attackers and observers of the dispute expressed misgivings about whether Eckern had been unfairly blacklisted for his beliefs, however understandably insensitive they may have seemed to many in the theatre. Still, the battle against Prop 8 continued, with Shaiman taking it the furthest. At a moment's notice, he wrote a short musical, cast it with Hollywood actors Jack Black and John C. Reilly and slapped it on YouTube. The clip attracted millions of viewers.

GOODBYE, LOVE
Rent, the landmark Broadway musical that melded a rock sound with story and character like no other musical before it, ended its 12-year run Sept. 7 at the Nederlander Theatre. At its close, the Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning musical by the late lyricist-librettist-composer Jonathan Larson had played 5,124 performances and 16 previews, making it the seventh longest-running musical in Broadway history. Critics and fans observed that what made the show so groundbreaking was not its use of a current pop sound (Hair, Dreamgirls and Promises, Promises had done that before), but the intricacy and depth of the marriage between music, lyric, character and message as well as the topics it covered: homosexuality, sex, death, prejudice, AIDS, artistic expression, media, celebrity, selling out, friendship and existential angst. Not only did director Michael Greif's career blossom following the debut of Rent, but many of the members of the original cast — showbiz nobodies, for the most part — found themselves in a national spotlight (on the Tonys, on the cover of Newsweek, in gossip columns) and their careers were made. Rent also became the first Broadway show to be filmed live for a limited release in movie theatres around the country (and subsequent DVD release).

The cast of Marc Shaiman's "Prop 8 - The Musical."
The cast of Marc Shaiman's "Prop 8 - The Musical."
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