PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 17-23: He Used to Be the King

ICYMI   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 17-23: He Used to Be the King The Producers used to be the king, the king of old Broadway. But on April 22 it will abdicate. That's when what is, at the least for now, arguably the most famous musical of the 21st century, will end its run after six headline-packed, superlative-filled years at the St. James.
Original Producers star Nathan Lane.
Original Producers star Nathan Lane.

The news was not unexpected. For the past several months, there have been regular reports that attendance was down and the end was near. The one thing that might have staved off the inevitable would have been the (second) return of the show's original dynamic duo, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, reprising their performances at showbiz shysters Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom. But they reportedly passed and the musical will run down the clock in quieter fashion.

Six years is a respectable mark by any measure. But, when remembering the way the Mel Brooks show roared out of a Chicago tryout in spring 2001 like the Twentieth Century express on fire, you have to wonder why the show didn't run longer. When the heraldic reviews came out and the Tonys were delivered by the bushel, the producers thought The Producers would run on automatic for a decade. But trouble set in when Lane and Broderick — and their magic chemistry — left the building. It seems they were at least part of the reason the crowds were coming. It also became clear that the two killer roles — Max in particular — were hard to fill, and couldn't be performed by any mere mortal. In fact, Lane's initial replacement, Englishman Henry Goodman (a surprise choice), was himself replaced before he could even officially open. When Lane and Broderick returned in 2003 for a three-month victory lap (at $100,000 a week each), their reputations as the true Max and Leo were cemented.

That's not to say the show didn't have appeal based on name alone. The Broadway show raked in $300 million by itself, while worldwide profits soared past $1 billion. The producers made that money in some creative ways, including charging $100 for orchestra seats the day after the reviews came out and introducing the now widespread idea of the "premium ticket." The Producers' premium ducats went for $480 and you'll now find variously priced versions of them at every in-demand show in town. Very likely, when The Producers is recalled in future history books, it will be remembered as much for the financial precedents it set as for its artistic achievements.

It's primary artistic achievement may end up being one of the big-picture variety. The Producers was the first all-American, old-fashioned musical comedy to have an impact on Broadway in years. It arrived after 20 years of domination by British mega-musicals and returned the Broadway musical to its roots, paving the way for shows like Hairspray, Spamalot, The Drowsy Chaperone (all box office hits) and others. Old-style bookwriters (Thomas Meehan in particular) were once again in demand, as were old-style, stop-the-show, musical-comedy performers (Harvey Fierstein, Norbert Leo Butz, Sutton Foster).

Brooks intends to get in on this general trend one more time before it is eclipsed by a new generation of musicals (perhaps epitomized by adventurous shows like Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening). He will move his Young Frankenstein into the St. James in the fall, taking a few of his Producers pals along with him, including director-choreographer Susan Stroman, librettist Meehan and actor Roger Bart. ***

The news of the end of The Producers almost overshadowed the gangbuster reviews that welcomed the new British-born revival of R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End, a sleeper which one reviewer accurately called the stealth bomber of the season. Almost. Reviews that good are hard to miss.

The British imports will continue with the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Sunday in the Park with George, which will arrive in New York in January 2008. Roundabout Theatre Company will present the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical at Studio 54. It will continue a trend in which hardly any season this century has passed without a major Broadway revival of a Sondheim show, including revisitations of Assassins, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd and Company.

Elsewhere, the final leg of Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia, Salvage, opened to reviews that remained strong, though not as strong as the set that met Voyage and Shipwreck. And Signature Theatre Company's new Off-Broadway production of August Wilson's King Hedley II began Feb. 20. Like the two Wilson productions before it in the Signature season, it is sold out.

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In other Off-Broadway news, Make Me a Song, the latest revue of songs by William Finn (this guy's full of revues) will move into Off-Broadway's Zipper Theatre for an April 6 first preview. Rob Ruggiero directs the same cast he helmed for the show's 2006 world premiere in Hartford, CT. The Zipper engagement is the first commercial venture of Junkyard Dog Productions, run by Sue Frost and Randy Adams, known for their advocacy of new musicals when they were respectively attached to Goodspeed Musicals and TheatreWorks in California.

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Finally, in casting news, the uniquely named Sierra Boggess will don a tail and a couple of scallop shells as Ariel in the Broadway-bound Disney musical The Little Mermaid. She currently portrays Christine Daae in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom — The Las Vegas Spectacular, so she's already used to half human-half animal characters. And "American Idol" veteran Fantasia Barrino will step into the role of Celie in The Color Purple, which has been flagging at the box office and looking for a shot of new blood. She will not be the first "American Idol" contestant on Broadway, Lord knows, but she'll be the first winner.

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