The Year in Theatre: From Sondheim to Spider-Man, Playbill.com Picks the Top Stories of 2010

News   The Year in Theatre: From Sondheim to Spider-Man, Playbill.com Picks the Top Stories of 2010 The editors and writers of Playbill.com put their heads together this month and looked back at the events of 2010 to choose significant news stories that made headlines and touched the industry uniquely.

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Stephen Sondheim
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The Year of Sondheim: He Is a Parade!
The master American musical theatre composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim turned 80 years old on March 22, and the milestone was celebrated around the world with revivals of his musicals (Passion and Into the Woods in London, an all-male Forum at Williamstown Theatre Festival, the continuing A Little Night Music on Broadway), the premiere of a new revue (Sondheim on Sondheim, created James Lapine, on Broadway), concerts (for the BBC in London, by New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, by the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, by Roundabout Theatre Company, by Encores! at New York City Center, among others), public on-stage interviews (in New York City and Toronto) and the re-naming of a Broadway theatre (Henry Miller's Theatre was named the Stephen Sondheim, unveiled in September). In October, "Finishing the Hat," the first volume of his collected lyrics (1954-81), was published, offering readers not just verse, but lively reflections on his work and mini-essays about the major (dead) theatre lyricists of the last century. The Tony Award-winning, Pulitzer Prize-honored songwriter of Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Follies, A Funny Thing Happened, Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park With George, among others, spoke to Playbill.com in November, saying he's looking forward to the calm of 2011, because "nobody celebrates your 81st."

Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey
photo by Aubrey Reuben

A Serious Success: Next to Normal Wins the Pulitzer Prize: The already Tony Award-winning rock musical Next to Normal by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist-librettist Brian Yorkey won the 2010 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Pulitzer board decided to award the honor to Normal rather than one of the three finalists chosen by a jury (The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz; Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph; and In the Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl). The Pulitzer folk recognized the work for its subject matter (in it, a suburban mom struggling with grief and mental illness creates earthquakes in her family, and she seeks relief in electroconvulsive therapy), saying that it "expands the scope of subject matter for musicals." After the April announcement, jury members went public about being overridden by the board. Also touching on serious subject matter (interracial love in the American South of the late 1950s, albeit with a happy-ending production number) was the pop musical Memphis, by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, which was named Best Musical at the 2010 Tony Awards.

Rodney Hicks (standing) and Joshua Henry in The Scottsboro Boys
photo by Paul Kolnik

Ambitious Topics, Short Broadway Lives
The history of theatre is packed with examples of unlikely subject matter hitting it big at the box office: Evita, anyone? Sweeney Todd? Richard III? In 2010, three Broadway shows plucked people and events from history, but audiences did not support their resurrection (even if some critics did). The Scottsboro Boys, the final musical that the songwriting team of Kander & Ebb worked on before Ebb's death, told the story of the "Scottsboro case," in which nine African-American males under the age of 20 were wrongly convicted of rape in 1931 Alabama. And, its theatrical frame was a minstrel show, the controversial and outdated entertainment known for racial stereotypes and blackface (reworked to criticize the injustice). Some critics embraced it as The Best Musical of the Year, but it closed on Broadway six weeks after it opened (though there is talk of a return in 2011.) Enron, Lucy Prebble's London hit that pokes American greed in the eye by adding song, dance, projections and mask work to tell the story of the fall of the famed energy corporation, was a quick Broadway flop. Likewise, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers' antic downtown musical — equal parts sketch comedy, underground rock concert and a revisionist history lesson — about the notorious U.S. president, was a critics' darling, but was not supported on Broadway. It closes Jan. 2, 2011, two-and-a-half months after opening.

A scene from Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark
photo by Jacob Cohl

A Web of Intrigue: Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark
The $65 million Broadway musical Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, directed by Julie Taymor, with songs by Bono and The Edge, was originally to begin previews at the Hilton Theatre in January 2010 prior to a February opening, but a cash-flow problem put summer 2009 rehearsals on hold. New producer Michael Cohl stepped in, work continued, some actors pulled out, the massive Hilton — which was renovated to accommodate Taymor's cirque vision for the comic-book show — was renamed the Foxwoods Theatre, actors were injured in rehearsal, previews continued to be delayed. And then it began on Nov. 28. A "60 Minutes" feature on Taymor's ambitious show offered national exposure and goosed the box office. More actors were injured, this time in performance (including a stuntman plunge that prompted investigations by state officials and unions, and made international headlines). Changes to the script and score are expected before the official opening of Feb. 7, 2011. You can't look away, can you? Neither can the crowd: The Foxwoods box office for the week ending Dec. 19 hit $1,036,133, representing 98.9 percent capacity and an average ticket price of $90.

Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters in A Little Night Music
photo by Joan Marcus

Passing the Crowns and "Send in the Clowns"
Broadway's A Little Night Music starring Catherine Zeta-Jones (who won a Tony Award for her work) and Angela Lansbury (beloved for Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd) was announced to close in early summer at the end of its leading ladies' contracts. And then the unthinkable happened. Sondheim and the producers urged Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch — two other leading ladies with strong ties to legendary Sondheim shows — to take over the roles. They said yes, adding six months to the run of the Trevor Nunn-directed production (and allowing Stritch as Madame Armfeldt to say a famous line that the actress also uttered in Company: "I'd like to propose a toast!").

Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess in Love Never Dies
photo by Catherine Ashmore

Phantom of the Opera Gets a Sequel
Andrew Lloyd Webber's Love Never Dies, the pop-opera sequel to the international smash The Phantom of the Opera, opened in London to a raft of negative reviews on March 9. In the new tale, the Phantom and his favorite soprano, Christine, have resurfaced in Coney Island, NY. A gunshot at the climax of the show was probably not what fans were hoping for. A Broadway bow in fall 2010 was bumped to spring 2011, and has since been taken off the schedule. The London production shut down for several days in November to allow for rewrites and revisions. Critics are invited back. The wildly popular Phantom, meanwhile, continues as Broadway's longest-running musical (and remains a fixture in London and Las Vegas; the 18-year-old U.S. national tour closed on Oct. 31 in Los Angeles).

Lea Michele in "Glee"
photo by FOX-TV

"Glee" Mania!
Why is the popular FOX TV series "Glee" one of our Top Theatre Stories of the Year? Because it's wildly popular with our readership. Because it borrows musical theatre conventions — characters singing in presentational sequences as high-school glee club performers and in representational moments as emotionally conflicted characters. Because it swipes songs from the pop catalog as well as the musical theatre songbook (a gay boy sings "Rose's Turn"? Sign us up!). Because it's likely to populate future Broadway shows with its stars (Lea Michele as Funny Girl?). Because it will influence a new generation of kids to care about telling stories with songs. But, mostly, because it's Sondheim approved. When we suggested to the master that the songs in "Glee" often seem too unconnected to plot, he told us: "That's part of the fun of it, when they use the music right and freshly and it is in some way connected to plot — even if it's just emotionally, even if the lyric doesn't seem to be connected to plot, but the feeling of the song is. I like that. Obviously, it's very up and down, the episodes I've seen — even within the episodes they're up and down. In a way, it's a very daring show, and they are taking chances, and a lot of it is whimsical in the true sense of the word."

Jill Clayburgh
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Other Stories That Caught Hearts and Minds
We lost Lynn Redgrave (The Nightingale, Shakespeare for My Father, The Constant Wife) of the Redgrave acting dynasty in 2010, as well as beloved musical actress Marcia Lewis (a Tony nominee for Chicago) and actress Jill Clayburgh ("An Unmarried Woman," Pippin, The Clean House)…London's Menier Chocolate Factory continued to export shows to Broadway (the vest-pocket La Cage aux Folles won the Tony as Best Revival of a Musical, and Night Music began there, too)….Arena Stage in Washington, DC, opened a $135 million new home at the Mead Center for American Theater, a second-act for one of the first American regional theatres…The specialty-act pairing of Dame Edna and Michael Feinstein fell flat at the Henry Miller's Theatre, but The Pee-wee Herman Show was a hit in the fall at the same venue (under the name of The Stephen Sondheim Theatre), and HBO is filming it…The New York City flop Almost, Maine is the most-produced title in American high schools, Dramatics magazine reported…London's Donmar Warehouse production of John Logan's Red, about painter Marc Rothko, won the 2010 Tony Award as Best Play…The Public Theater's Central Park staging of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Daniel Sullivan and starring Al Pacino as Shylock, got raves and moved from the outdoors to in — at Broadway's Broadhurst, where the run has since been extended...Actress Megan Mullally quit the Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway production of Lips Together, Teeth Apart (she has not spoken publicly about the reason), scuttling the production but making way for a last-minute replacement of Sherie Rene Scott starring in Everyday Rapture, which she co-wrote with Dick Scanlan (she earned a Tony nomination for her performance and Best Book of a Musical)…Director and co-writer Michael Mayer was viewed as the architect of the musical American Idiot, a vibrant re-imagination of the Green Day punk album, yet was ignored by the Tony Award nominators....Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong added electricity to a sagging box office at American Idiot by performing the role of St. Jimmy in a week of shows in the fall (he'll return in early 2011)…Writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda starred in a one-week engagment of the Latin-kissed musical In the Heights when it played San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the fall, the first time an Equity first national tour played the city.

(What do you think we missed? Tell us what you think the Top Theatre Stories of the Year were. Write kjones@playbill.com.)

Billie Joe Armstrong, John Gallagher Jr. and Rebecca Naomi Jones
Billie Joe Armstrong, John Gallagher Jr. and Rebecca Naomi Jones
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