The Theatrical Year in Review

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As the curtain starts to descend on 1996 in a welter of A Christmas Carols, its time to journey back over the year with the Ghost of Theatre Past and look at some of the major events on stages around the world.

As the curtain starts to descend on 1996 in a welter of A Christmas Carols, its time to journey back over the year with the Ghost of Theatre Past and look at some of the major events on stages around the world.

* Seasons of Rent -- Not since A Chorus Line has there been such buzz on a new American musical. This updating of Puccini's La Boheme to the AIDS-era East Village in New York won both the Pulitzer and the Tony, broke records for the amount paid for its original cast album and film rights, and has spun off at least two big lawsuits -- all for a show that sings the praises of small, personal and non-commercial. Perhaps most dramatic of all was the death from an aortic aneurysm of its 35-year-old composer/lyricist/librettist Jonathan Larson on the night of the show's final rehearsal, and an aching sense of loss that echoes the one following the death of George Gershwin at nearly the same age (though after far more shows) in 1937.
Rent and Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk (see next entry) made 1996 a watershed year for American musicals, a fundamental shifting in our sense of what musicals are capable of, on par with 1927 when Show Boat opened, 1943 with Oklahoma!, 1957 West Side Story, 1968 with Hair, 1976 with A Chorus Line, and 1985 with Les Miserables (significantly for the 1980s, in London). New artists, a new sensibility and a new audience arrived with these shows, and the results will reverberate into the 21st Century.

* Pounding 'da Feet -- And, once again, not since A Chorus Line has a show found such a fresh a new way to use dance to tell a story, and yet also achieved such commercial success, as Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, which is regularly selling out to a new, younger audience that will be now expecting different things from musicals. Noise/Funk tells the history of black people in America entirely through the history of their dance, with an emphasis on the origins and evolution of tap. Savion Glover won the Tony for Best Choreography, and now has everyone wondering, in a very positive way: What's next?
The pounding foot was the star in show after show this year, all influencing one another. The Harlem tapping of Savion Glover is cousin to the Irish clogging of Riverdance (also shown nationally on PBS) which sold out on both sides of the Atlantic, Bob Avian's faux-medieval stamping in Martin Guerre, joined by Australia's Tap Dogs and Hot Shoe Shuffle, plus the long-running Stomp and Blue Man Group, which launched national tours this year.

* The Tabloid Tonys -- The Tony Awards appeared on front pages across the U.S. in 1996 -- though not for the reasons its organizers would have liked. The Tony nominations nearly always prompt some controversy, but this year they prompted a boycott and a lawsuit. When the committee failed to nominate big musicals Big and Victor/Victoria in favor of the long-closed Swinging on a Star and Chronicle of a Death Foretold for Best Musical, there was some bitter complaining. But Vic/Vic star Julie Andrews, noting that she was the only person from her show nominated for anything, withdrew her name from consideration for the Best Actress Award, announcing at a dramatic curtain-call press conference that she would stand with the rest of the "egregiously overlooked" company in boycotting the Tonys. In the end, the Best Musical controversy was moot; Rent steamrolled all competition.

* The Merrick Suit -- But the Tonys weren't done with controversy. Octogenarian producer David Merrick sued when his adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical State Fair was Tony-nominated for only that part of the score that was new to the project. The suit was promptly dismissed by a judge who said, in effect, that once Merrick agreed to play by Tony rules, he had no "right" to be nominated. However Merrick's charges that not all the members of the Tony nominating committee had seen all the Broadway shows helped result in a restructuring of the Tony committee for 1997. Merrick says he'll give his own theatre awards. * Broadway Gets Ever Longer: One of the most dramatic developments in American theatre since World War II has been its decentralization, with New York remaining preeminent but major regional theatres rising, thriving and originating major new plays and playwrights. Each year the regionals get a little stronger, and 1996 was no exception. Shows have always opened "out of town," but usually in tryout productions created by New York talent and designed to end up in New York. That's still sometimes the case, but now, if there is a Broadway transfer, it's often an afterthought, a way of capitalizing on the success of an indigenous production elsewhere.
Many of the biggest openings of the year took place in the burgeoning theatre centers of Toronto (Ragtime and Jane Eyre), San Diego (Play On!), Chicago (Randy Newman's Faust), Seattle (An American Daughter and City Kid), Washington DC (Webber's Whistle Down the Wind and look for Sondheim's upcoming Wise Guys), Atlanta (Last Night of Ballyhoo), Louisville, KY (One Flea Spare) and Baltimore (Triumph of Love).

* Changing of the Guard -- That success was built largely on the work of the pioneers of the resident theatre movement, the artistic directors who defined the movement from the 1960s onward. In 1996 several of the highest-profile of such pioneers announced that they were retiring or going independent. The most prominent include Daniel Sullivan of Seattle Repertory Theatre, Arvin Brown of Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, and Douglas Wager of Arena Stage in Washington.
Broadway, too, saw a major change at the top: Bernard B. Jacobs, long-time president of the Shubert Organization, passed away in August. He was succeeded in that post by Philip J. Smith, who will, with Chairman Gerald Schoenfeld, steer the powerful company that owns and books half the theatres on Broadway, and co-produces many of the shows seen in them. Senior vice president and chief financial officer Robert E. Wankel was promoted to fill Smith's position as executive vice president. Michael I. Sovern, a member of the board of directors, was named president of the Shubert Foundation.

* Hollywood Rediscovers Broadway -- Suddenly in 1996 cineplex marquees began to look like West 45th Street, with the high-profile adaptation of many stage shows. This was, after all, the year William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet spent a week as the #1 highest grossing film in the country. Arthur Miller's Crucible was a modest hit with Daniel Day-Lewis. Other prominent stage-to-screen adaptations included The Substance of Fire, I'm Not Rappaport, Marvin's Room and, And coming at the end of the year, the grand momma of them all, Evita, which could, if a hit, create a fresh appetite for musicals among the general public.

* Cast Recording Cascade -- After many dry years, when reissues ruled and new cast albums came at just a trickle, 1996 produced a flash flood of them. Some of the biggest were Rent, Ragtime (technically "songs from" but containing virtually the entire original cast), Noise/Funk, Martin Guerre, Big and Randy Newman's Faust, but there also was a very healthy second level in the Nathan Lane Forum revival, the Donna Murphy King and I revival, the Karen Ziemba/David Garrison I Do! I Do! revival, By Jeeves, State Fair, Louisiana Purchase, Bed and Sofa and you could throw in the Evita soundtrack.

* High-Profile Flops -- The year was not without its share of flops. Two of the most anticipated shows of the year, Maltby & Shire's Big and Stephen Sondheim's first non-musical on Broadway, Getting Away With Murder, closed quickly, Big losing more than $10 million. Big producer James Freydberg had an especially rough year, having also produced Julia Sweeney's God Said "Ha!", which closed quickly in the fall.
Other high-profile short-runs: Sam Shepard's first full-length Broadway play, Buried Child and David Merrick's production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's State Fair; Christopher Durang's panned Sex and Longing; truncated national tours of Funny Girl and Applause.
New York's Circle Repertory Company dissolved unceremoniously in the fall, and the venerable Circle in the Square ended the year struggling to put together a season and attract subscribers after declaring bankruptcy and losing its artistic directors in August.

* The Resurrection of 42nd Street as a theatrical thoroughfare. Momentous changes took place on the block that once was the Olympus of American Theatre. The New Victory Theatre was refurbished and reopened as a children's theatre; the shuttering of the last porno cinema and the last XXX-rated book shop on 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. Major construction took place this year on Ziegfeld's old New Amsterdam Theatre, and the site was cleared for Livent's Lyric/Apollo complex, with other theatre refurbishments (and a few demolitions, unfortunately) on the way. The Virgin megastore opened in nearby Times Square, instituting a policy of staying open late and putting new cast albums on sale at 12:01 AM the morning of release, lending a new event atmosphere to the Crossroads of the World.

* Wilson vs Brustein Debate: Two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson and critic/director Robert Brustein spent much of the year locked in an increasingly heated debate -- carried on in speeches and articles, and preserved as transcripts by American Theatre magazine -- about the deeply sensitive issue of race in theatre. Perhaps the African-American Wilson's most startling assertion -- that color blind, "non-traditional" is wrong and even destructive of African American culture -- will continue to reverberate in 1997 and beyond. The even wider implications of their debate as it applies to race in all of American culture and society was not lost on them or on commentators.

* Rock On: With The Who's Tommy an international hit and Elton John Broadway-bound with an adaptation of his Disney film musical The Lion King, old-time rockers are giving stage musicals fresh consideration. Randy Newman's Faust was a hit in Chicago and appears ready to try Broadway in 1997-98. Meat Loaf's songwriter Jim Steinman has teamed up with Andrew Lloyd Webber for his new Whistle Down the Wind. Paul Simon is hard at work on Capeman. Billy Joel also reportedly working on a show. Just call Broadway "Backbeat Alley."

* The Big Mouse: Disney continued its march on Broadway with the ongoing renovation of the New Amsterdam Theatre, plans announced for the oratorio King David, the stage adaptation of The Lion King and long-range development of Elton John's Aida. Meanwhile, at the Palace, Beauty and the Beast played its 1000th performance.

* No Room: After years of watching certain Broadway theatres sit empty and dark, Broadway is now in the second season of a painful booking jam. The two biggest hits of the season Rent and Noise/Funk are selling out at the Nederlander and Ambassador theatres -- houses that previously had been among the least-used In New York. And why? Because nearly all the other musical houses are booked with long-running hits like Cats, Les Miserables, Phantom, et al. The booking jam that created a Darwinian environment favoring smaller shows, since smaller theatres were the only ones available.
Several major productions were unable to open in spring 1996 because no suitable theatre was available. State Fair wound up cramming itself into the Music Box, and Jekyll & Hyde postponed altogether. The ex-epic is now planning to open this April in a scaled-down version, designed to fit into one of the smaller available theatres. Nine Broadway shows are scheduled to close between Christmas and Jan. 15, and all but one of those theatres already has a new booking.
In a scenario straight out of Darwin, the straight plays and comedies that might be booking some of the mid-size theatres are finding themselves crowded out by chamber musicals like Play On! that are the only shows currently able to book. The few large-scale incoming shows -- Steel Pier at the Rodgers, Candide at the Gershwin, Titanic at the Lunt-Fontanne, Whistle Down the Wind at the Martin Beck -- angled hard to get their theatres when previous shows closed.
As of this writing, Dec, 24, only two theatres are available -- the Belasco and the Lyceum -- and the Lyceum is expected get Tony Randall's Gin Game revival. The Atkinson will open up when Taking Sides closes Dec. 29.
New spaces are being renovated or built, but who knows how long this glut will last?

* The Les Miz Mess: Non-star cast changes don't usually make news -- but one did in 1996. John Caird, co-director of Les Miserables sat in on the Broadway production, well into its ninth year, and reportedly was very unhappy with what he saw. Initially it was said that the entire cast was being replaced. Then it was announced that about two-thirds of the cast was being dismissed and the national touring company was being pulled off the road while a new Broadway cast was rehearsed in time to open on the show's tenth anniversary, March 12, 1997. There were threats of union action, which have not yet been carried out.
Responding to a poll about the issue, a consensus of Playbill On Line members said they felt the director was within his rights to replace cast members, but that he had done so in a way that needlessly humiliated the actors in question.

* The Year of Terrence McNally: Yes, he was overlooked for the Pulitzer again, but 1996 was a banner year for America's most successful unknown playwright. McNally won the Best Play Tony Award for the second year in a row -- Master Class in 1996, Love! Valour! Compassion! in 1995. Also, his libretto to Ragtime got raves in its pre-Broadway run in Toronto.

* C'est le Guerre: Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg worked harder than they perhaps expected to in following up their Les Miserables and Miss Saigon with a third hit. Their Martin Guerre opened in London in July to very mixed press. After several months of non-full houses, they took the unusual step of completely rewriting the first act, then suspending the show for a week in November so the cast could learn the changes. Then the cast album came out with the alternate leading lady -- the one who performs the show on matinees - singing the lead. The show is being promised for Broadway, but no firm dates, cast, theatre or anything else announced.

This was the theatre news in the world at large, but where theatre truly happens is in the heart and soul of each theatregoer. Please share with us YOUR impressions of 1996, which we will post online. Please write about the theatrical experience this year that most thrilled you, moved you, touched you, made you think, or perhaps even changed your life.

You can do a "Top 10" if you like, or just write about a single show. It doesn't matter whether the experience was on Broadway, regionally, off Broadway, community theatre or high school theatre. As long as it was live theatre.

Send your submissions to Managing Editor Robert Viagas at robert_viagas@playbill.com. A selection of the results will be posted starting Saturday, Dec. 28.

-- By Robert Viagas

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