The first announcement of a new Broadway-bound musical called Houdini was made this week, and even the most jaded theatre observer had to take notice of the exciting-cum-bizarre creative team. Scott Sanders, who made his reputation as a producer of The Color Purple, is teaming to present to the show with David Rockwell, a restaurant and hotel design giant who in recent years has carved a niche as a Broadway set designer (Hairspray). Here, he will not only do the sets but co-produce. What's more, it was Rockwell who asked Sanders to co-produce, not the other way around.
You know you're dealing with an interesting project when David Yazbek, the iconoclastic composer of The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, can be considered the seasoned veteran of the crew. Yazbek will pen only the lyrics this time around, leaving the music to Danny Elfman, the one-time leader of the punk group Oingo Boingo who has, in the past 20 years, become one of Hollywood's leading film-scorers ("Batman," "Men in Black"). Writing the book is the ultimate fish out of water: Kurt Anderson, the novelist and journalist who, during his salad days, when he was founding and running the snarky Spy magazine, probably spent a good deal of time making fun of the Broadway world. Just goes to show that underneath the tough hide of every hard-bitten New Yorker is someone whose always wanted to write a Broadway musical.
Keeping these characters in line will be the ultra-professional, three-time Tony Award-winning director Jack O'Brien. Houdini is aiming to bow in spring 2010.
Also coming to Broadway — aren't they always coming to Broadway? — are the director-actor team of Robert Falls and Brian Dennehy. And, yes, it is a Eugene O'Neill play. At this point, I'd say this duo has done as much to keep the reputation of O'Neill alive as anyone since Jose Quintero and Jason Robards. The project this time around is Desire Under the Elms, which was last seen on Broadway in 1952. It will bow first at Falls' Goodman Theatre, with Dennehy playing Ephraim Cabot, in early 2009. In the past, these Windy City-born Falls-Dennehy collaborations have been brought to Gotham by producer David Richenthal. This time, however, producer of the moment Jeffrey Richards (August: Osage Country) is stepping up to the plate.
Since its premiere in 1983, Lyle Kessler's three-hander, Orphans, about two directionless youths and the wise guy who comes to control them, has been catnip for older actors, owing to the juicy nature of the elder role. So it remains, this time ensnaring the interest of none other than Al Pacino, who was most recently on Broadway in a curious 2003 quasi-staging 2003 of Oscar Wilde's Salome.
A casting notice indicates the revival will begin at a Shubert theatre-to-be-announced in early January 2009. David Esbjornson will direct. Producers are Frederick Zollo, Jeffrey Sine and Bill Kenwright. Of course, Pacino's interest in various projects has run hot and cold in the past, so we shall see.
Pacino headed the cast of a Los Angeles workshop of Kessler's drama in 2005 at the Greenway Court Theatre.
In the nonprofit Broadway world, Manhattan Theatre Club told all that would listen that it would bring the dark screwball comedy, To Be Or Not To Be,, to the Biltmore Theatre this fall. Based on the 1942 movie about theatre troupers in Poland during Nazi rule, it has been adapted for the stage by Nick Whitby and will be directed by Casey Nicholaw. The show has two meaty parts in Joseph and Maria Tura, the married leads of a Polish stage company trying to outwit the Germans. The original Ernst Lubitsch film starred Jack Benny and Carole Lombard.
Also to come to the Biltmore will be the Broadway premiere of Richard Greenberg's play The American Plan, which had its world premiere at MTC back in 1990. This the second time a Greenberg play of fairly recent vintage has found its way from Off-Broadway to Broadway, following the Julia Roberts revival of Three Days of Rain.
As for the Broadway of the here and now, there was an opening this week: the new Harvey Fierstein-John Bucchino musical A Catered Affair, which officially opened at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre April 17. Broadway has not seen a chamber tuner this intimate or intentionally small-scale in some years and, as far as the critics were concerned, the modest Paddy Chayefsky-inspired tale of a disappointed Bronx family's wedding plans was either one's cup of tea or it wasn't. Some reviews for the John Doyle-directed piece were very positive, while others couldn't have been more opposite.
Off-Broadway, the Vineyard Theatre unveiled Jenny Schwartz's verbiage-heavy, abstract study of loss and sorrow, God's Ear, directed by Anne Kauffman. An adverturous work, even by Vineyard standards, critics found it either engrossing or confounding. Many found it both.
Of Liz Flahive's more realistic drama of a family anguish, From Up Here, which opened Off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club, in a production starring Julie White, critics found encouraging things to say about the young Flahive's fresh talent, while noting the script's structural and stylistic flaws.
The downturn in the U.S. economy is determined to leave no industry unscathed, it seems. The New York Times reported recently that all six employees on the production staff of the New York Theater Workshop were told that they will be laid off as of May 30, and "that their jobs will be performed in the future by temporary workers in a bid to cut costs." Apparently, Rent giveth and Rent taketh away. The musical, which began at NYTW, recently announced the end of its long Broadway run, which means the end of an additional source of income for the nonprofit. The board of directors, the Times said, told the theatre's management that it would need to whittle its yearly operating budget from $4.5 million to $3.5 million. And next season will boast three full productions and three shows in its new Off Again series, rather than six full productions as usual.
Finally, its contract talks time again. With Broadway not yet emotionally recovered from last fall's 19-day stagehands strike, the Actors' Equity Association commenced discussions with Broadway producers. As noted above, the country doesn't have the same economy it had six months ago. Whether that will prove a factor in the negotiations remains to be seen. Hold on tight.