A Look Back at the 1996-97 Broadway Season

Tony Awards   A Look Back at the 1996-97 Broadway Season


In a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, Frank Rich, the Times's former drama critic, wrote of his growing optimism about the future of Broadway. A trip to Barrymore William Luce's new play about one of the early century's greatest actors, which stars one of the latter century's greatest actors (Christopher Plummer) with Rich's young son set Rich thinking about what Broadway will have evolved into when his child grows up.

Rich has reason to feel good about Broadway's future: this past season was one of the liveliest in recent years. And that makes Tony night all the more exciting: with seven new musicals and nine new plays to choose from, the list of deserving talent in each category is much longer than the four slots allotted for nominees. Choosing the winners is no enviable task this season, and though it must be nerve-wracking for the nominees, the audience at Radio City Music Hall along with the millions of viewers watching courtesy of PBS and CBS will have all the more reason to celebrate when their favorites win, knowing that the competition in the 1996-97 season was stiffer than it's been in a long time.

Take, for instance, the category of Best Play. Not one, not two, but three Pulitzer-Prize winning playwrights have new plays running simultaneously: Wendy Wasserstein's An American Daughter , a timely version of a Zoe Baird-like controversy; The Young Man from Atlanta, the first of Horton Foote's many plays to win the Pulitzer Prize, and the first appearance in New York by legendary actors Rip Torn and Shirley Knight in far too long; and The Last Night of Ballyhoo by Alfred Uhry, whose Pulitzer Prize winning Driving Miss Daisy became the 1989 Academy Award winner for Best Picture.

Other work on the list of this season's nine new plays includes God Said "HA!", Julia Sweeney's heartbreaking and hilarious solo show about her and her brother's bouts with cancer; and Christopher Durang's Sex and Longing, an outrageous look at freedom of speech starring Hollywood heavyweight Sigourney Weaver. And that's just the American plays. Three British imports made quite an impression: Stanley by Pam Gems, marking Antony Sher's one of England's finest actors U.S. debut and bringing big business to New York's oldest resident theatre, Circle in the Square, now under the leadership of Gregory Mosher; Skylight, in which Michael Gambon and Lia Williams repeated their London triumph in David Hare's play; and Taking Sides by Ronald Harwood, which starred the towering Daniel Massey (from the other side of the Atlantic) and movie star Ed Harris (from this side).

Old plays were made new again with bold productions. Take Ibsen and Chekov. Hardly new kids on the Broadway block, though unfamiliar to much of the MTV generation. But Lili Taylor is a name they know, as are Jeanne Tripplehorn and Amy Irving. Suddenly, Three Sisters at the Roundabout was something young people wanted to see; A Doll's House, another English import, didn't go for star appeal, but opted for a feminist interpretation that resulted in Janet McTeer's redefinition of Nora in a way that relates to life at the end of the 20th century.

In the capable hands of director Scott Elliott and actor Frank Langella, Noel Coward's Present Laughter took on new life, imbuing the 50-year-old play with a kind of sexuality that would have been considered scandalous when the play was first produced, but now seems hip; National Actor's Theatre production of The Gin Game by D.L. Coburn is the return of a favorite play starring favorite players, Charles Durning and Julie Harris; and Hughie brought one of the world's greatest movie stars back to his Broadway roots: Al Pacino. Through star power, Pacino turned a rarely performed, rather obscure Eugene O'Neill play into a Broadway event, his sold-out, limited run extended by popular demand.

Like many of this season's play revivals, Hughie was produced by a resident company, Circle in the Square, which also gave us Tartuffe Born Again, in which John Glover played Tartuffe as a fundamentalist evangelist. Lincoln Center Theatre's final offering for the season was a revival of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, starring Tony winner Stockard Channing. The Roundabout was responsible for five productions, including Summer and Smoke, The Rehearsal, A Thousand Clowns, and London Assurance, which cut Tony eligibility close with an April 30 opening the day of the Tony deadline.

There's been much talk this season about the demise of the mega-musical, prompted by the smash success of the revival of Chicago. Originally mounted as a big, Bob Fosse production in 1975, the revival is a transfer from City Center's Encores! series, director Walter Bobbie's whittled-down version of Kander and Ebb's cynical and sexy story. Without all that flash, the focus becomes the genius of Bob Fosse, in whose style Ann Reinking choreographed Chicago, and also starred opposite Bebe Neuwirth.

Two blocks away is Kander and Ebb's newest, Steel Pier. With sunny Karen Ziemba as its leading lady, it appears at first to be an old-fashioned book musical, though the leading man's (Daniel McDonald) secret soon links Steel Pier to a new age fascination for life after death. Kander and Ebb aren't the only Broadway veterans to come up with something new: In The Life, Cy Coleman a major Broadway tunesmith turns his attention to subject matter that Rodgers & Hammerstein wouldn't have dreamed of: the ladies of the chorus are ladies of the evening in this gritty and colorful look at life in the pre-Disney Times Square.

More unlikely grist for the musical theatre mill is Titanic. Though the world's ongoing fascination with the legendary cruise liner has only intensified since it was discovered at the bottom of the ocean a decade ago, the "disaster musical" is a brand new concept. As is just about everything in Juan Darien, which re-opened the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center after an extensive renovation. To call Julie Taymor and Elliot Goldenthal's imaginative piece about a jaguar cub who becomes a boy a puppet show in no way does justice to the masks, effects and magic Taymor created.

Other musicals ran the gamut from new twists on old music, to old stories with new music. Consider Dream and Play On!: Dream is a revue which pays tribute to Johnny Mercer, the great lyricist who gave us "Blues in the Night" and many other classic tunes. Play On! uses the music of the legendary Duke Ellington to transplant Shakespeare's Twelfth Night to Harlem. Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse chose not to move Jekyll & Hyde out of 19th century London. Instead, they brought their show into the 21st century with a pop score which thousands of theatregoers are already humming, thanks to the two CDs of Jekyll which were released prior to the Broadway run, generating enthusiasm for the score long before the first preview.

Chicago may have been utterly reconceived for its current revival, but other revivals this season chose instead to recast, going in different directions entirely than the leading ladies who starred in the original productions: Once Upon a Mattress and Annie. Nell Carter scored a multi-cultural triumph as the evil Miss Hannigan (a role that won Dorothy Loudon the 1977 Tony), and Sarah Jessica Parker attracted throngs of Generation X-ers to the Broadhurst to see her claim the role that made Carol Burnett a star.

Candide deserves a special mention; it is a revival of a revival. In 1974, director Hal Prince hit big with his buoyant, carnival-like production of Candide. Prince restaged Candide for the New York City Opera in 1982, but this time around Prince has reconceived the show, making his 1997 version all new except for Leonard Bernstein's score, which remains gloriously intact.

There was no shortage of specialty acts in this action-packed season, and though they're not Tony eligible, no round-up of the season would be complete without them. David Copperfield broke box office records with Dreams and Nightmares at the Martin Beck; John Gray's lecture, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, based on his bestselling self-help book of the same name, filled the Gershwin Theatre, Broadway's largest; Lincoln Center Theatre presented Spaulding Grey's newest, It's a Slippery Slope, in which the master of the monologue learned how to ski; and the Moscow Theatre SOVREMENNIK turned the Lunt-Fontanne into a repertory theatre, performing a limited run of Three Sisters and Into the Whirlwind.

Judging from the size and quality of this season, the Broadway audience is big and getting bigger, smart and ready to laugh, and as interested in cutting edge work as they are in the classics. No wonder Frank Rich is in a good mood.

-- By Dick Scanlan

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