Playbill.com Picks the Top Theatre Stories of 2007

By Zachary Pincus-Roth
December 24, 2007

It was the strike that many thought wouldn't happen. And, when it did, who could have predicted it would last two-thirds of a month? The stagehands strike was the most-written-about theatre story of the year. Ten others made Playbill.com's annual list of top stories.

The editors and writers of Playbill.com put their heads together this month and looked back at the events of 2007 to choose significant news stories that made headlines and touched the industry uniquely. The eleven picked follow.

THE STRIKE
For the first time in its 121-year history, Local One of IATSE, the stagehands union, went on strike, shutting down all but a handful of Broadway shows for 19 days before they finally hashed out a new contract with The League of American Theatres and Producers — the trade association for the Broadway industry that has since changed its name to The Broadway League — on Nov. 28. The strike was a huge blow to the Broadway box office and the city as a whole, as it disrupted the typically busy Thanksgiving week and cost New York tens of millions of dollars in lost tourism revenue. The stagehands were reacting to the producers' desire for an end to many of the traditional work rules that govern how many stagehands need to be hired, what tasks they're allowed to do and for how long. In the end, the strike was settled as the stagehands agreed to ease up on the work rules in return for a healthy raise. Let's hope the Actors' Equity negotiations — Equity contracts are up in June — go more smoothly.

Amy Morton in August: Osage County, one of many new plays on Broadway.
photo by Joan Marcus
YEAR OF THE PLAY Over the next decade, when you hear someone bemoaning the state of the Broadway play — and you will — you can always say, "Remember Fall 2007." The veterans David Mamet, Tom Stoppard, Conor McPherson and Aaron Sorkin and the Broadway newcomers Tracy Letts and Theresa Rebeck all had new plays on Broadway this fall, with revivals by Harold Pinter, Terrence McNally, Chazz Palminteri, George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare. There was also a world premiere from Mark Twain, who literary managers are now calling an "emerging playwright." The first half of the year wasn't bad either, with plays by Joan Didion, Peter Morgan, Eugene O'Neill, John Van Druten, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, August Wilson, Craig Lucas, Brian Friel, Eric Bogosian, McNally again, Stoppard again and R.C. Sherriff, whose Journey's End took home the Tony for Best Play Revival.

Gallagher, Jr. and Groff in Spring Awakening.
photo by Joan Marcus
SPRING AWAKENING This year's musical-that-could overcame its poor early business and became a hit, on the strength of rapturous reviews, a tireless cast — including Tony Award winner John Gallagher, Jr., Tony nominee Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele — and a unique-sounding alternative pop score by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, not to mention this year's Tony Award for Best Musical. Spring Awakening single-handedly demonstrated that an edgy, youthful show — with an onstage sex scene between teenage characters, no less — can succeed on Broadway. The show is probably the reason why the similarly unpredictable Passing Strange — which features book and lyrics by singer-songwriter Stew and music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald — is taking a shot at Broadway this spring.

Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar for her performance in "Dreamgirls."
photo by Dreamworks

MOVIE MUSICALS How can you tell movie musicals had a good year? It's the first time the Golden Globe nominees for Best Musical or Comedy are mostly musicals since…well, depending on what you call a musical, let's say 1981 ("Coal Miner's Daughter," "Fame" and "The Idolmaker"). First we had "Dreamgirls," which actually opened last year but this year won an Academy Award for Jennifer Hudson. "Hairspray" became the first movie based on a musical that itself was based on a movie to become a commercial and critical hit (sorry, "The Producers"). The premiere of Disney Channel's "High School Musical 2" was the top-rated basic cable show in television history. And, while the Beatles' jukebox film "Across the Universe" split the critics and wasn't exactly the highest-grossing movie of all time — it wasn't even the highest-grossing Julie Taymor movie of all time — it had its advocates and joined "Hairspray" in the Globes' Best Musical or Comedy category. "Enchanted" made Amy Adams the new Julie Andrews, with a score by the all-star Broadway team of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.

And, then, ladies and gentlemen. On film. Sondheim-approved. Tim Burton-directed. No opening number. No Judge Turpin version of "Johanna." And, no, the actors don't play tubas in this one. That's right. It's "Sweeney Todd." The film stars Johnny Depp, who, as Burton and Sondheim remind us in every single article about the film, didn't audition but "wouldn't have agreed to do it if he thought he couldn't." Yes, who ever heard of movie stars overestimating their own talents? Fortunately, Depp did pretty well, as he received a Golden Globe nomination along with Burton, Helena Bonham Carter and the film itself for Best Picture. Let's hope next year's "Mamma Mia!" — and the in-the-works "Nine" — can live up to their predecessors.

Laura Osnes and Max Crumm won the reality competition "You're the One That I Want."
photo by NBC
REALITY TV CASTING Max or Austin? Laura or Ashley? Musical theatre on TV? Yes, this year's revival of Grease — now playing the Brooks Atkinson Theatre — became the first Broadway show cast by a reality show since Elia Kazan cast Marlon Brando on NBC's "Hey, Stella!" Max Crumm ("Slacker Danny") and Laura Osnes ("Small-town Sandy") captured America's hearts, and the show itself consistently filled at least 90 percent of the seats. Over in England, where "Big Brother" contestants are one step below royalty, last year's Sound of Music reality show, "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?," begat this year's "Any Dream Will Do," which cast Lee Mead in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and begat another show to cast Oliver!, planned for next year. Meanwhile, Canada has set auditions for its own Sound of Music TV casting show.

Fantasia in The Color Purple.
photo by Paul Kolnik
AMERICAN IDOLS ON BROADWAY Broadway also continues to be flooded by contestants from that original singing reality show, "American Idol." And not just the contestants Simon Cowell thinks are "too Broadway." This year the Rialto got its very first "Idol" winner, Fantasia Barrino, who won raves for her performance as Celie — the role created by Tony winner La Chanze — in The Color Purple at the Broadway Theatre. In addition, her "Idol" competitor Latoya London joined The Color Purple tour, Tamyra Gray starred in Rent and Anthony Fedorov and Constantine Maroulis starred Off-Broadway in, respectively, The Fantasticks and Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. To top it off, one of the most successful "Idol" finalists, Clay Aiken, is making his Broadway debut in Spamalot beginning in January. Director Mike Nichols calls him "an excellent comic actor and a master of character." Let's hope he's right.

Christian Borle and Laura Bell Bundy in Legally Blonde.
photo by Paul Kolnik
LEGALLY BLONDE ON MTV This year, in a unique arrangement, the cable channel MTV teamed up with the original music video — musical theatre — by filming the new Broadway musical Legally Blonde (which continues to play Broadway's Palace Theatre) and premiering it Oct. 13. In perhaps an attempt to create a phenomenon of the "High School Musical" sort, MTV filmed the show multiple times with with multiple cameras and at least once before a house full of screaming teenagers in pink T-shirts. The airing — starring the Tony-nominated Laura Bell Bundy as Elle Woods, the role created on screen by Reese Witherspoon — didn't appear to do all that much for the show's box office, but it sure didn't hurt. It remains to be seen whether other Broadway shows will follow Legally Blonde's lead.

Onstage seating at Xanadu.
photo by Paul Kolnik
ONSTAGE SEATING First, the Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater musical Spring Awakening invited audience members to sit amongst the performers at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre for only $31.50. Then Doug Hughes' production of Inherit the Wind — the spring revival at the Lyceum Theatre — had audience members take the place of the show's spectators and jury. Now, several lucky Xanadu ticket holders get to sit onstage at the Helen Hayes Theatre in a miniature amphitheatre, in keeping with the show's references to ancient Greek drama. Previous shows — from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats to Michael Frayn's Copenhagen — have had onstage audiences, but 2007 was the first year in memory in which it became a trend.

Patti LuPone in Gypsy.
photo by Joan Marcus
GYPSY In July, City Center Encores! inaugurated its new Summer Stars series with a production of Gypsy starring Patti LuPone, Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti and directed by the musical's librettist, Arthur Laurents. Now, while the Encores! spring series has prompted such past Broadway productions as Chicago, Wonderful Town and The Apple Tree, its summer series is one for one, as Gypsy is transferring to Broadway. LuPone's portrayal of the legendary character Mama Rose was much-discussed in the theatre community, and the conversation is sure to continue in March when the show moves into the St. James Theatre. LuPone will mark the fifth Broadway actress to open a production of Gypsy on Broadway and play the original domineering stage mother: She follows in the illustrious footsteps of Tony winners Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and, most recently, Bernadette Peters.

Martha Plimpton earned a Tony nomination in The Coast of Utopia.
photo by Paul Kolnik
MARTHA PLIMPTON When Martha Plimpton was searching for treasure in "The Goonies" and having Keanu Reeves' baby in "Parenthood," who would have thought that two decades later she'd be one of the hottest stars on the New York stage? Although Plimpton had previously appeared on Broadway in Sixteen Wounded (2004) and Shining City (2006), 2007 seemed to be her year: The stage and screen star received a Best Featured Actress in a Play Tony nomination (as well as a Drama Desk Award) for her performance in Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia and stellar notices for two Shakespeares: Midsummer Night's Dream in Central Park and Cymbeline at Lincoln Center. Plimpton's already booked for 2008: She'll star in Caryl Churchill's Top Girls — under the direction of James Macdonald — at the Biltmore Theatre beginning in April.

Roger Bart, Sutton Foster and Christopher Fitzgerald in Young Frankenstein.
photo by Paul Kolnik
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN Mel Brooks' follow-up to The Producers would be a big story no matter what, but what's surprising is the stir it caused on the business side. Before it even opened at the Hilton Theatre, Young Frankenstein announced a tiered pricing system in which a couple hundred or so of the best seats on weekends and matinees would go for $450 or $375 each. The show then broke tradition by refusing to disclose its weekly gross receipts to the League of American Theatres and Producers or Variety. Max Bialystock would approve.