PLAYBILL PICKS: The Top Theatre Stories of 2011 — From Spider-Man to Sondheim to Site-Specific Shows
By Robert Simonson
Following a year in which dancing-singing Mormons stop the show every night and a malfunctioning Spider-Man literally stopped the show some nights, Playbill.com put their heads together and looked back at the events of 2011 to choose significant news stories that made headlines and touched the industry uniquely.
SPIDER-MAN OPENS (!) AND DOESN'T CLOSE (!!!): Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark has generated so many headlines since it cast a web in the direction of Broadway that it feels like it's been around for a decade. In truth, it only began previews at the Foxwoods Theatre in November 2010. But the problems, accidents, actor injuries and delays that plagued the gargantuan musical were enough to make it a top theatre news story of 2010. Now, here we are at the end of 2011, and it's still one of the top theatre stories. Even more so, actually. Why? Well: The production delayed its opening again and again, until the critics got fed up and reviewed the show (negatively) in February; the opening was again put off until June, with the producers shutting the production down for three weeks while director Philip William McKinley and playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa were brought in to overhaul it; original director Julie Taymor was given the boot; Taymor then complained she was owed hundreds of thousands by the producers, filing a lawsuit; an investor, too, filed a lawsuit, saying she was owed money. And, the most shocking headline of all? The show didn't collapse and close, as every critic and observer in the theatre predicted. Here's our June Playbill On Opening Night coverage. The week ending Dec. 18, Spidey grossed $1,460,570 with an average ticket price of $110.66 filling the Foxwoods to 85.5 percent of capacity. Read The Leading Men column about stars Patrick Page and Reeve Carney.
MORMON WORTH ITS SALT: Broadway hadn't had a true, juggernaut mega-hit — the kind that gets everyone, theatregoers and non-theatregoers alike, talking and racing to the box office — since The Producers and Jersey Boys. And, as with those two shows, The Book of Mormon came from New York theatre outsiders. Trey Parker and Matt Stone were not who you pictured when you thought of theatre people. The sassy "South Park" creators were, in fact, just the sort of people you thought might have beaten up theatre geeks in high school. Yet, with effortless ease, they turned out a gangbuster crowd-pleaser (their co-writer was Avenue Q's gifted co-author Robert Lopez). Sure, it made savage fun of the fastest growing religion in the United States, had dozen of jokes about AIDS, civil war and homophobia, and an "up" number about giving the finger to the Almighty. But a number of critics also noticed that it had a lot in common, plot-wise and sentiment-wise with The Music Man. It didn't hurt its profile that the show opened in a year when prominent Mormons (Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman) were running for President. Here's the spring Brief Encounter interview with Lopez, who, with Parker and Stone, won 2011 Tonys for their work. The show also snagged the Tony for Best Musical.
PORGY AND BESS AND STEVE: One of the cardinal unspoken rules of conduct in the theatre is that, unless you're a critic, you don't publicly bad mouth a production in which you have no involvement. Live and let live — wish everyone the best in public, and tell the truth privately. But Stephen Sondheim is old and iconic enough to live by his own rules. So, when he didn't like the direction the creative team of the new revival of Porgy and Bess were taking the classic Gershwin show, he didn't only speak up. He spoke up in the pages of the New York Times — at great length. He said, in part, "These characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theatre, as has been proved over and over in productions that may have cut some dialogue and musical passages but didn't rewrite and distort them." His blistering assessment was such that the letter to the editor almost actually capsized the production. Critics rushed to Boston to register their own reservations with the revival, and reports circulated that the show would not make it to Broadway. Producers had to assure the public again and again that they would indeed open. And director Diane Paulus, and new bookwriter Suzan-Lori Parks and musical adaptor Diedre Murray, couldn't do an interview without addressing the Sondheim issue. The musical is now playing the Richard Rodgers Theatre. It stars Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis. Read our August feature in which Paulus discusses the 1935 folk opera and check out Playbill Video's recent visit to the show's rehearsal studio, where the cast and creative team talked about the project.
BACKED THE RIGHT HORSE: A three-hour English play about a boy and his horse, whose biggest star is a puppet? Lincoln Center Theater probably thought they'd get a nice bit of family fare with a pretty British pedigree when they brought in War Horse from the National Theatre. Instead, they got a hit with no closing date in sight, one with strong enough legs to replace the recently departed South Pacific. Some critics called it sentimental with little in the way of original drama or characterizations. But none complained about the majestic and graceful equine puppets, manipulated by multiple humans into creatures as alive as the actors. And, by Tony time, War Horse had won enough good will to beat out more literary efforts to win Best Play. Handspring Puppet Company got a Special Tony for their work, and a national tour and a Toronto company will soon trot. (A Steven Spielberg film version of the source novel is released Dec. 25.) Here's the Playbill On Opening Night coverage.
THE FOLLIES OF 2011: Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's elegiac concept musical Follies is widely regarded as one of the crowning achievements of the musical form. It's also a source of regular heartbreak for musical devotees. With the grand scale of its themes, cast, scenic and costume design, it's a tough peak to scale, and critics and audiences have gotten used to productions that don't measure up in one respect or another. Moreover, it's so expensive to mount, the idea of a commercially successful Follies had all but been abandoned. That changed this year when director Eric Schaeffer mounted a Washington, DC, production starring two-time Tony winner Bernadette Peters that reviewers applauded, theatregoers liked, and, when it transferred to New York, Broadway ticketbuyers rushed to, in its current limited run. (Read the fall 2011 Diva Talk interview with star Elaine Paige.) It will move to L.A. come spring. A hit Follies? Somewhere, Ziegfeld is proudly tightening the knot in his lavender tie. Here's our fall interview with Stephen Sondheim, who talks about the show's new cast album, among other things.
KEEP IT GAY: Gay marriage became legal in New York State this year (read the theatre community's response). And, the theatre seemed to reflect and celebrate the sea change. Larry Kramer's seminal play The Normal Heart finally made it to Broadway, and won the Tony for Best Play Revival (read Playbill magazine's A Life in the Theatre feature on producer Daryl Roth and the Playbill On Opening Night coverage). 8, the new drama by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black that chronicles the reversal of California's anti-gay marriage legislation, Prop. 8, received a starry Broadway concert staging Sept. 19. And, Standing On Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays, a mix of short plays that addressed the on-going battle for marriage equality throughout the United States, ran at Off-Broadway's Minetta Lane Theatre after a run in California.
NOT SO FUNNY: Funny Girl, the 1964 musical telling of the life of Fanny Brice, was a huge hit when it opened, but hasn't been revived once. Why? Two words: Barbra Streisand. She was the original Brice, and left such a mark on the property that it's long been accepted wisdom that the show can't be mounted again on Broadway without an actress of comparable talent and profile. And who, today, can go toe to toe with Streisand? Thus, the dilemma. Still, it seemed the musical would finally see the light of Times Square again this season. The producers seemed determined. A star, Lauren Ambrose was announced. ("A shiksa?" howled some critics at the news.) But then it all fell apart. Producer Bob Boyett lost four investors and nearly $1 million. He said, "I just kept hearing from other producers, and then from my investors, that the timing was wrong and that the economic landscape wasn't right to try to do a top-level revival of Funny Girl." Director Bartlett Sher said he was "shocked" by the postponement, and Ambrose was "heartbroken." And so this parade was postposed due to rain once again. Read our special 2011 feature about a new musical being developed from Funny Girl lyricist Bob Merrill's catalog of songs.
YOU HAD TO BE THERE: Site-specific theatre is nothing new. But in 2011, it seemed to be, well, all kinds of places. Also, it was popular. Punchdrunk's wordless, sprawling, non-linear take on Shakespeare's Macbeth, held in the fictional McKittrick Hotel (really an old Chelsea club), extended and extended again, attracting an atypical theatre audience. (So trendy has it become that it was mentioned in an episode of "Gossip Girl.") The Woodshed Collective opened The Tenant, a five-story theatrical adaptation of Roland Topor's novel (famous for being made into a Roman Polanski film) at the West-Park Presbyterian Church. It, too, extended its run — check out Playbill Video's walking tour of the show's playing spaces. The Amoralists' production of HotelMotel — three one-acts by different playwrights — was set at The Gershwin Hotel. And, you know a trend's afoot when four-time Tony winner Zoe Caldwell makes one of her rare stage appearances, in Elective Affinities, set in an Upper East Side townhouse.
FAMILY THERAPY: The Addams Family didn't quite get the critical reception its creators expected when it opened on Broadway in 2010. So, when it was time to send the creepy, kooky clan off on the road, the show was overhauled (and Playbill got the exclusive in a sitdown with the director Jerry Zaks and producer Stuart Oken), getting a new central plot conflict, new or revised or reordered songs to replace old ones, fresh orchestrations and dance where necessary, and perhaps a little more sexual chemistry — but not involving a squid. Here's a Playbill magazine feature about Douglas Sills, who plays Gomez on the road.
RUNNING WILDHORN: Following the deflation of his sudden prominence in 1999, when he had three plays simultaneously running on Broadway (none of which made their money back during their Broadway lives), nobody was exactly sending composer Frank Wildhorn a gilt-edged invitation to come back to Broadway. But it turned out the songwriter wasn't checking his mailbox anyway. He was busy writing new shows (internationally) and finding fresh backers (his Dracula musical played Broadway, briefly, in 2004). In 2011, against all odds, he returned with two musicals: Wonderland, a modern take on "Alice in Wonderland," which ran a few weeks in the spring; and Bonnie & Clyde, which won from the stubborn critical corps what are arguably the best reviews of Wildhorn's career. If little encouragement led Wildhorn to a year like 2011, imagine what he'll do with a little encouragement. Bonnie & Clyde will close prematurely on Dec. 30. Read the Playbill magazine feature about the making of Bonnie & Clyde.
Vaclav Havel, the only playwright in our time (or, surely, any time to come) to be elected president of his country — the Czech Republic — died at 75. Arthur Laurents, who created two of the most perfect books in musical theatre — West Side Story and Gypsy — and stayed active until the age of 93 to fiercely protect them from all comers and pretenders, passed. (Read the reflections of his colleagues.) Lanford Wilson, a loving portrayer of life's downtrodden, unfortunate and misunderstood, who was one of the most innovative of American playwrights in the 1960s, and one of the most popular in the 1970s, died at 73. Also gone is one of Wilson's early producers, Ellen Stewart, the Mama in LaMaMa E.T.C. since the downtown company's first days in the early '60s helping launch the Off-Off-Broadway movement. At 91, she was still in charge.
OPEN THE VAULT: Shameless plug time. Playbill launched the most comprehensive Broadway databse on the internet this month with the Playbill Vault, an interactive treasure trove. If there's a news story, photo, Playbill, cast list, creative team or any other piece of information about any Broadway show that you can't find on the site, we'd be surprised. Explore it here.
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