Reality Bites: When Fate Messes With Broadway Shows

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23 Jun 2010

Danielle K. Thomas, with Nicholas Kohn and Cullen R. Titmas, in <I>Avenue Q</i>
Danielle K. Thomas, with Nicholas Kohn and Cullen R. Titmas, in Avenue Q
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Gary Coleman in Avenue Q. The AIDS crisis and La Cage aux Folles. Patriotism and Assassins. Playbill.com looks at how breaking news can throw a show for a loop.

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For seven years, since it debuted Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, the musical Avenue Q made sport of the woes of former child actor Gary Coleman. Not only did the creators of the musical make the "Diff'rent Strokes" star a character on the fictional, "Sesame Street"-like thoroughfare, they made him everyone's superintendent. And they had Coleman played by a woman in male clothes. "I'm Gary Coleman, from TV's 'Different Strokes," sang the character in introduction, during the song "It Sucks to Be Me." "Made a lot of money that got stolen by my folks/Now I'm broke and I'm the butt of everyone's jokes." The other characters responded that, yes, it did indeed suck to be him more than it did to be anyone else.

The sequence was comedy dynamite. The audience roared every night. Until May 28, when the news broke that Gary Coleman had died at the age 42. While making fun of the actor's career misfortunes was acceptable while Coleman was alive, when the actor passed such jibes suddenly seemed in poor taste.

The show responded immediately with a series of actions. A May 28 statement released by the show read, "The creators, producers, and company of Avenue Q are terribly saddened to hear of the death of Gary Coleman, whose tremendous gifts brought delight and inspiration to audiences around the world. While everything in life may be only for now, we suspect that Gary's legacy will live on for many years to come. Gary's memory will certainly endure in the hearts and minds of those of us who live on Avenue Q." That evening, actress Danielle K. Thomas, who currently portrays Coleman in the musical at New World Stages, paid a tribute to him from the stage.

A few days later, it was announced that selected lines from the show involving Coleman would be altered. "I was on alert," said composer-lyricist Bobby Lopez. "[Librettist] Jeff Whitty had called me and said Gary was in the hospital. And we sort of knew there might have to be changes." Lopez called the producers and discussed the matter. They didn't know how the show would be affected. "In the end, we changed very little. All the songs were kind of fine as they were. There were just a couple lines that seemed to be in the wrong spirit, given his death."



When putting together a show, there are certain factors for which producers and creators can reasonably prepare. Workshops, readings and previews help to gauge audience reaction, problems in the script, and potential design difficulties. Heads are put together to determine the right theatre to book, the right time to open, the appropriate budget, and the correct marketing avenues. But you can't prepare for the reality of breaking news. Every now and then, that old devil "current events" throws a monkey wrench into the smoothest production, leaving the creators scrambling to set the machinery aright.

Another production arguably thrown a curve ball by the fates this season was Enron. The Lucy Prebble play about the duplicitous American corporation was a hit in London, and producers expected it to perform well on Broadway, too. Many thought it would be the play to beat during the Broadway spring season.

Enron's Norbert Leo Butz
photo by Joan Marcus

But the show won bad notices and closed after 16 performances. Some observers thought the tenor of the times did the show in. The narrative had been upstaged by the more recent crash of Wall Street giants that began in fall 2008, and the Senate grillings of too-big-to-fail investment houses. "It did not attract the Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan crowd," producer James Fuld, Jr., told the Wall Street Journal, "perhaps [with] the Goldman Sachs testimony on television, people could see it for free." As for the folks from Main Street, it was thought they were too weary of the Wall Street scandals to pay money to see another corporate scandal onstage.

However, Time Out New York critic David Cote doesn't necessarily think bad timing was the only reason Enron flopped. "There were several reasons why Enron failed in its commercial Broadway run, but reality wasn't the main one," he said. "I find it amusing that critics and pundits tried to argue that the average ticket buyer already knew all about Enron, Madoff, Goldman Sachs and the like and so they learned nothing new at Enron, the play. That's bunk. How many Broadway audience members watch docs such as 'The Smartest Guys in the Room' or Congressional hearings involving Goldman Sachs? Not that many, I'd imagine. Anyway, Enron was more than a lesson in economics, not that most critics could see that. Basically the show should never have tried to compete in the marketplace; it should have had a limited nonprofit run at Studio 54, Circle in the Square or St Ann's Warehouse."

Continued...

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