On Sept. 4, Joan Rivers died at the age of 82, after being in a coma for days, the result of a surgery that went awry. Four days later, the news emerged that the Broadway League, the trade organization representing Broadway theatre owners and producers, had decided to not dim the lights of the Broadway marquees in honor of the comedienne. "Under our criteria people need to have been very active recently in the theater, or else be synonymous with Broadway – people who made their careers here, or kept it up," the Broadway League's executive director Charlotte St. Martin told the New York Times.
St. Martin had a point. Rivers had only three Broadway credits. She was in the short-lived Fun City in 1972 (which she also wrote), assumed the role of the mother during the run of Neil Simon's Broadway Bound in the 1980s, and starred in her own play Sally Marr…and Her Escorts in 1994, which was also short-lived, but netted her a Tony nomination. She was hardly the ultimate stage trouper along the lines of Elaine Stritch and Eli Wallach, other recently passed stars who were honored by the dimming of lights. One thought many things about Rivers — stand-up, talk show host, TV star — before one thought "Broadway Baby."
However, the League's argument was undermined by its own recent activity. The group has decided to dim the marquees for Robin Williams and James Gandolfini, who each had few Broadway credits. Were they "synonymous with Broadway"? Certainly not. Moreover, Rivers boosters noted that she was a fixture at Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, regularly seen in the audience and championing the work of the theatre community. This was certainly true.
And then the Twitter campaign began. Tweets criticizing the League's position were accompanied by the hashtag #Dim4Joan. Some of the tweets were simply irked theatre and Rivers fans. But heavy hitters like actors Harvey Fierstein and Audra McDonald also weighed in, as did some theatre journalists (including Playbill.com staff members), people who rarely enter into advocacy when theatre politics rears its ugly head.
The League was blindsided by the reaction. And then it began to suffer defections. Sept. 8, Jordan Roth, the head of the Jujamcyn Theatres chain — and, as the youngest (by far) of the Broadway titans, the one to best understand the power of social media — tweeted that Jujamcyn would dim its theatre's marquees in honor of Rivers. The owner of the independent Helen Hayes Theatre followed suit. By Sept. 9, the League was ready to cry "uncle." It declared all Broadway theatres would dim their lights in honor of Rivers. So, the tweeters won. And they'll arguably have to live with the possible repercussions of that victory. According to the New York Post, the Rivers decision occurred because, "Many producers and theater owners think the dimming of the lights is becoming as easy as, well, flicking a switch. For years, the honor was reserved for theater royalty. You had to be Richard Rodgers or Ethel Merman or Charlotte St. Martin to deserve a dimming. But lately the honor’s been bestowed upon second-tier producers, movie and TV stars who appeared on Broadway once or twice, stage managers, press agents — even journalists."
Chances are, the League won't take the chance of incurring the wrath of the Twitterverse again. So the theatre community may now live in a world where Elaine Stritch and Nicole Kidman (one Broadway appearance and counting) are equals in the eyes of every bulb on Broadway.
The theaters in Chicago and Milwaukee also took the unusual measure of dimming the marquees of their theatres this week.
Broadway in Chicago, in conjunction with the League of Chicago Theatres, announced it would dim the marquee lights at the Bank of America Theatre, the Cadillac Palace Theatre, the Broadway Playhouse and the Oriental Theatre Sept. 11 at 7:30 PM in memory of Chicago theatre veterans Molly Glynn and Bernard Yvon and WGN Radio personality Roy Leonard.
Glynn and Yvon were killed in separate accidents Sept. 6. Both were active in the Chicago theatre scene.
"In keeping with a long-standing Broadway tradition, Broadway In Chicago will dim the marquee lights to provide Chicago with an appropriate moment to reflect," Lou Raizin, president of Broadway In Chicago, said in a statement. "Our theatre family is suffering huge losses and they will be greatly missed."
Elisabeth Moss is now free of her "Mad Men" duties. The final demi-season, which will air next year, is a wrap. And so it's off to the stage.
It was announced that she will star opposite A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder's Bryce Pinkham and "American Pie" actor Jason Biggs in the first-ever Broadway revival of Wendy Wasserstein's Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Heidi Chronicles. Pam MacKinnon will direct.
The production is slated to begin performances in February 2015, around the time "Mad Men" will conclude on AMC, and open in early March. A theatre has not yet been announced.
The success of The Heidi Chronicles catapulted Wasserstein to the first rank of American playwrights, where she remained until her death in 2006. The story tells of a feminist art historian and her friends — male and female, gay and straight — as they mature from the 1960s-80s as they search for political, professional and personal fulfillment.
Kenneth Lonergan's 1996 play This Is Our Youth has its Broadway debut this week, on Sept. 11, in a Chicago-born production starring Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Internet fashion teen star Tavi Gevinson, directed by Anna D. Shapiro.
Critics were high on the play, the production and the cast. "Shapiro… knows how to scale up intimate confrontations to Broadway dimensions without losing nuance," wrote the Times. "Under her direction, Youth becomes more explosively physical than I recalled it, a ballet of gracefully clumsy collisions. And Mr. Cera, Mr. Culkin and Ms. Gevinson imprint highly legible and individual signatures onto their characters, in ways that extend into every inch of their postures."
As far as the AP was concerned, "Michael Cera, making his New York stage debut, once again perfectly captures being an awkward man-boy, while veteran fashionista and acting newbie Tavi Gevinson matches his goofy nervous energy. Kieran Culkin is marvelous as their smug, narcissistic friend. Spending two hours watching these wealthy, unmoored slackers is a treat, even without the contact high."
And Time Out New York declared, "Anna D. Shapiro's clear-eyed and tight staging brings out earnest, honest performances from the young trio. Cera's facial deadpan and vocal drone have the curious effect of deepening, not lessening, our sympathy for Warren. Culkin gets to shine in the flashier role, and Gevinson toggles amusingly between prim ingenue and panicked urbanite."
Also opening this week to some acclaim was Playwrights Horizons' New York premiere of Bootycandy, a new play written and directed by Robert O'Hara about growing up black and gay.
"Bootycandy… kicks off the season at Playwrights Horizons, where it opened on Wednesday night, with a big, bold bang," wrote the Times, "underscoring this theater's reputation as one of the city's more adventurous incubators of daring playwriting."
However, others found the structure, which veered from wild satire to tender drama and back again, scattershot and uneven. "O'Hara gives us a collection of skits that play like a chitlin circuit Hee-Haw," said New York magazine. "But in the end neither the satire nor the straight-up drama is allowed a chance to thrive; I couldn't help feeling that this was an unconscious strategy to repel criticism of either, in the same way that some animals evolve ingenious anti-predator adaptations to make themselves inedible."