YEAR IN REVIEW: 1995
In theatre circles, 1995 will be remembered as the year of the star. On Broadway, on tour, and at regional theatres, giants from movies, TV, pop music -- and Broadway's own golden past -- commanded the landscape.
THE BIG NAMES
Theatre fans had to wait 35 years to see Julie Andrews singing in a Broadway musical -- but it happened in 1995 when the original Eliza in "My Fair Lady" returned to the stage in a tour and Broadway stand in "Victor/Victoria."
Andrews had plenty of company: Carol Channing came back down those stairs in that red dress in "Hello, Dolly!," Carol Burnett poured out her bag of beloved tricks in "Moon Over Buffalo," Glenn Close won a Tony for "Sunset Boulevard," Betty Buckley succeeded her in that show, Patti LuPone sang all her hits in a one-woman show, and Zoe Caldwell thoroughly convinced everyone that she was Maria Callas without ever singing a note. More stars: New York didn't get to see him, but Tommy Tune tapped across America in "Busker Alley" before breaking his foot (and musical-lovers' hearts). Jerry Lewis yelled "laaaady" and the line formed at the "Damn Yankees" box office in NY and at dozens of cities across the U.S. Kathleen Turner and Eileen Atkins committed "Indiscretions," Matthew Broderick won a Tony in "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," Nathan Lane appeared in "Love! Valour! Compassion!" clad in nothing but an apron and red pumps. The Pointer Sisters made a family affair of "Ain't Misbehavin'." Latino crooner Jon Secada turned himself into a bona fide matinee idol in "Grease!" Ellen Burstyn tackled the Catholic Church in "Sacrilege."
Among writers, Randy Newman fulfilled his fans' dreams of writing for the stage by composing a musical, "Faust," seen in San Diego. In that same town, composer Stephen Sondheim raised eyebrows by writing a non-musical "comedy thriller," "The Doctor Is Out," which has been retitled "Getting Away With Murder" for its 1996 Broadway transfer.
Now if only Barbra Streisand would follow their leads . . .
Two of theatre's giants ended their long runs this ùear: director George Abbott died at 107 after a directing/ writing/ producing/ acting career that stretched back to the 1910s. Ginger Rogers, stardust partner to Fred Astaire in Hollywood films (and later on stage) died this year as well.
Other runs continue:
"The Fantasticks" reached its 35th anniversary and still puttering along at the Sullivan Street Playhouse off-Broadway after more than 14,500 performances.
Several long-running Broadway shows surpassed some of the classics on the all-time long-run list: "Les Miserables" passed "42nd Street" and the original "Grease" to become the fourth-longest running show in Broadway history (after "A Chorus Line," "Oh! Calcutta" and the still-running "Cats"). "The Phantom of the Opera" passed "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Life With Father" to become the seventh-longest run.
"Miss Saigon" has run longer than "Pippin," "South Pacific" and "Hair." "Crazy for You" passed "Evita," "The Sound of Music" and "The Music Man." Also Off-Broadway, the still-running "The Perfect Crime" and "Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding" became the second and third-longest running in OB history.
Perhaps going hand-in-hand with the year of the Star, theatre in 1995 seemed occupied with larger-than-life personalities and supernatural forces.
"Camping With Henry and Tom" showed us the private side of President Warren Harding, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. "Nixon's Nixon" dealt with the 37th president. Suzan-Lori Parks "The America Play" examined with the 16th president. The trend looks like it will continue in 1996 with Larry L. King's "The Dead Presidents Club," which will find four former presidents in the afterlife.
"Vita and Virginia" showed us a pair of literary titans. "Master Class" let Maria Callas live again. Christopher Walken's "Him" presumed to deal with Elvis Presley. "Night and Her Stars" provided a different angle on the 1950s quiz show scandals.
IT WAS A GOOD YEAR FOR:
* Horton Foote won a long-overdue Pulitzer Prize for "The Young Man From Atlanta," produced off-off-Broadway by Signature Theatre Company, which had devoted its entire 1994-95 season to his works.
* Jerry Herman scored big on two continents. While his "Hello, Dolly!" was selling out on Broadway, a London revival of his 1974 "Mack and Mabel" (which he's often named as his favorite score) won the U.K. equivalent of the Tony Award. He's reportedly revising his "Mrs. Santa Claus" as a TV special in 1996.
* Carol Channing is a star again, thanks to "Dolly," appearing everywhere from Letterman (where she planted a big lipsticky kiss right on the camera lens) to Vanity Fair magazine (where she appeared clad in nothing but a big feather boa). * Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" continued to break box office records in eight cities worldwide.
* For the month of September, San Diego was the center of the theatrical world, with openings of Randy Newman's "Faust" and the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth non-musical, "The Doctor Is Out."
* Songwriters Leiber and Stoller's "Smokey Joe's Cafe" got mildly approving reviews and was shut-out of the Tony Awards -- but was near sell-out for much of the fall.
* The late lyricist Johnny Burke failed in his three attempts to write a Broadway musical -- one of his big regrets when he died in the early 1960s. But through the persistence of his widow, the Burke-themed "Swingin' on a Star" was a sleeper hit of the fall. The show warmed up in two productions at Goodspeed Opera House, which hasn't fared well in other recent Broadway transfers, including spring's "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."
* Leslie Bricusse can tell the critics to kiss off: his "Victor/Victoria" on touò and Broadway, and "Jekyll and Hyde" on tour continue to mint money despite critical brickbats. Audiences simply want to see his shows.
IT COULD'VE BEEN A BETTER YEAR FOR
Several high-profile playwrights saw productions go south with astonishing rapidity in 1995.
* Neil Simon thumbed his nose at the Broadway establishment, but then his "London Suite," which opened off-Broadway, lasted barely six months.
* Budd Schulberg tried adapting his classic film "On the Waterfront" to the stage, but critics told audiences to stay home and rent the movie. At eight performances, it was the year's most conspicuous flop.
* Faint praise sank Brian Friel's "Translations," despite the presence of the similarly-named stars Donal Donnelly, Dana Delaney and Brian Dennehy.
* "Moonlight," Harold Pinter's first full-length new drama in several seasons, also went into eclipse off-Broadway despite Jason Robards in the lead and a sterling production by Roundabout.
* "Cryptogram" got good reviews and even was chosen as one of the year's "Best Plays." But ticket buyers weren't buying. * Producers Fran and Barry Weissler had a good year with a stream of new stars flowing into their Broadway "Grease!" but their big original musical -- "Busker Alley" -- collapsed in Florida when star Tommy Tune broke his foot. Then Raquel Welch reportedly withdrew from their planned tour of "Applause."
* Despite Gary Sinise directing a warmly-received revival of "Buried Child," Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre spent most of the year in upheaval over the resignation of executive director Randall Arney, and the breaking of the fellowship that had run that theatre from its founding.
* Two regional theatres turned out their lights, apparently forever: Blackfriars in California and Philadelphia Drama Guild.
* Sondheim, Lloyd Webber, Coleman and Boublil & Schonberg all took the year off, and it showed. The joy over the high quality of revivals like "Dolly" and "How To Succeed" obscured the fact that only two new musicals opened on Broadway during all 1995, and both used material already heard elsewhere: "Smokey Joe's Cafe" in the spring, and "Victor/Victoria" in the fall.
MIXED EMOTIONS FOR:
* Terrence McNally won the Tony for "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and won awards seemingly every place his "Master Class" played. But everyone expected him to win the Pulitzer this year -- reportedly including Horton Foote, who actually took it home.
* Nathan Lane was the most in-demand actor of the year -- except by the Tony nominating committee. When the nominations came out without Lane's name (for "Love! Valour! Compassion!") it was too late -- he had already agreed to co-host the Tony broadcast. He good-naturedly made fun of the situation by sobbing on the show. His turn (with Gregory Hines) singing showtunes originally written for women was the highlight of the Tonycast.
* Charles Busch performed out of drag for the first time in many people's memories in his farce, "You Should Be So Lucky." But the theatre owner closed the show early to make way for Mamet's "Cryptogram," and Busch was back in wig and heels for "Stage Door Canteen" before the year was out.
* Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS became a powerhouse fund-raiser, taking in record amounts for events from the Easter Bonnet competition to the Gypsy of the Year. But AIDS continues to take its terrible toll of theatre people everywhere.
HISTORY BEGINS AT HOME
Every person reading this story was making theatre history as well. The year 1995 saw Playbill On-Line launch, and then redesign, its website on the Internet, flooding cyberspace with every manner of theatre news, features, opinion and fun.
Though PBOL launched on Prodigy in November of 1994, the year 1995 saw its expansion into all other major online services. Dozens of show business personalities were introduced to the online world through PBOL's auspices, including Tune, Channing, Broderick, Burstyn, Secada and many more.
Playbill On-Line empowers an often-forgotten segment of theatre: the audience. With theatre people from across the U.S. and around the world sharing ideas and feelings in a way never before possible, who knows what 1996 will bring?
-- By Robert Viagas