IT'S TODAY: The 1997-98 Season Will Be One for the History Books

Tony Awards   IT'S TODAY: The 1997-98 Season Will Be One for the History Books


Not too long ago, a reference to the Golden Years of Broadway was usually made in the past tense. Seasoned theatregoers would reminisce about the glorious nights (and matinees) they spent enraptured by the Tony Award winning-plays and musicals that have earned Broadway its worldwide reputation for theatrical excellence. Meanwhile, the younger generation would rue the era they'd been born into, yearning for the sort of hustling, bustling Broadway season they'd heard tell about.

Well, the past tense is a thing of the past: Broadway's present is golden once more, gleaming with the energy that has always made the Great White Way great, while overflowing with talent, material and marketing strategies that add up to guaranteed good times on Broadway well into the next century.

There are so many ways to demonstrate the current Broadway renaissance: Nine new plays, nine new musicals, record-breaking audience attendance, "No Vacancy" signs at every Broadway theatre, not to mention throngs of tourists filling the hotels, restaurants and gifts shops around Times Square, lured there by the luster of theatre's newly polished golden years. But the surefire proof that Broadway's heyday is today is a look at the range of this past season's shows.

As Rebecca Luker sings in the current revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, "Let's start at the very beginning"‹June '97. Forget the last minute Tony deadline crunch that's created harried and hectic springtimes for Tony voters, six weeks into the 1997-98 season, a new musical, Forever Tango, opened at the Walter Kerr; one year later, it's still going strong at its new home, the Marquis. No ordinary dance recital, Forever Tango blends theatricality, passion and unsurpassed dance ability to create a fiery, unforgettable evening.

Come fall, the weather cooled, but Broadway was hot with musical fever as five new shows opened within six weeks of each other, ranging from freak attractions to French farce to the wonderful world of Disney. Side Show crossed Gypsy with The Elephant Man, and was an auspicious debut for director/choreographer Robert Longbottom, as well as a welcome return to Broadway for Dreamgirls composer Henry Krieger. Triumph of Love also featured a sibling story: The Tony Award-winning Betty Buckley (Cats) and F. Murray Abraham as sister and brother philosophers whose rigid commitment to reason over romance is hilariously shattered by a passionate young princess. The Lion King told the fablelike tale of another heir-to-the-throne, Simba, a lion cub whose journey to adulthood made mask-maker, costume designer and director Julie Taymor the talk of the town. Her sumptuous production is the perfect way to show off Disney's glorious restoration of the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street to its original 1903 splendor, the New Am (as it's already referred to) officially opened its doors with yet another monarch's story: The concert version of Alan Menken/Tim Rice's King David.

Across the street, Livent made one gorgeous new facility out of two Broadway houses that had fallen on hard times, combining the Lyric and Apollo Theatres to create the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, where Ragtime, the epic musical based on E.L. Doctorow's bestseller, has itself been a bestseller since its January opening. The Ford Center is second in size only to the Gershwin Theatre, and if those two theatres' current occupants are any indication, American history is a favorite of Broadway audiences‹1776 is happily ensconced at the Gershwin after transferring from the Roundabout by popular demand. Winner of the 1969 Tony for Best Musical, 1776 pits the Yanks against the Brits. But that was over 200 years ago, and these days the rallying cry of "The British are coming!" often means good news for Broadway.

Several of this season's most heralded productions come from across the Atlantic, including a revival of Ionesco's The Chairs, which boasts more chairs than Grand Hotel. Art, another French comedy that recently made a splash in London, was just as big a hit here with Americans Alan Alda and Victor Garber joining Englishman Alfred Molina. And the Roundabout's revival of Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea starred Tony-winner Blythe Danner as an unrequited lover who struggles valiantly to keep a stiff upper lip.

Both The Herbal Bed and The Judas Kiss were inspired by the lives of British literary lions, William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. Actually, The Herbal Bed features Shakespeare's daughter, Susanna, who was publicly slandered and accused of infidelity. Though The Herbal Bed is based on the ensuing court battle, The Judas Kiss avoids Wilde's legal woes. Instead, it focusses on a story of love and betrayal between Wilde and Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, leaving the Perry Mason angle to its downtown cousin, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.

Musicals remain an inherently American art form, but the remounting of Sam Mendes's London revival of 1967's Tony winner for Best Musical, Cabaret (co directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall for the U.S. version), was wilkommened by critics and audiences alike. Yet again, an old theatre became new again, as a refurbished‹or rather, defurbished‹Henry Miller Theatre was transformed into the Kit Kat Klub.

While Cabaret captured the seamy underside of pre-World War II Berlin, on the other side of the Alps, The Sound of Music was adding a spoonful of sugar to a similar era in its first revival since the original Tony Award-winning production in 1960 (and the phenomenally successful 1965 film version). Another beloved play turned beloved movie about the Holocaust was revived this year: The Diary of Anne Frank. This 1956 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winner by husband/wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett was newly adapted by Wendy Kesselman, incorporating passages of Anne's diary that have been published only since her father's death, revealing her to be a far more complex young woman than the originally published version let on. Together, Anne Frank at the Music Box, Maria Von Trapp at the Martin Beck and Sally Bowles across Broadway demonstrate the variety of ways in which theatre can illuminate the same era.

Thomas Wolfe wrote, "You can't go home again," but in the new play, The Old Neighborhood, David Mamet captured the same sentiment in his own inimitable, unsentimental style, with pauses, aborted sentences and seemingly non sequiturs adding up to a moving depiction of a middle-aged man's trip to his hometown of Chicago. Meanwhile, three-time Tony winner Neil Simon left the city roots of his Brighton Beach Memoirs and Lost in Yonkers past for the pastoral setting of Proposals. Not that Neil Simon fans craving an urban fix were without options: The revival of The Sunshine Boys paired TV's "Odd Couple"‹Jack Klugman and Tony Randall‹as bickering ex-vaudeville partners who are reunited, and the theatre bearing Neil Simon's name is currently housing the smash hit revival of three-time Tony-winner Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, which depicted 1950's Brooklyn through the filter of Greek tragedy for an electrifying evening of theatre.

Michael Mayer, A View from the Bridge's director, was one of the many exciting new artists working on Broadway this season. Others include Sam Trammell, star of Lincoln Center's revival of Ah, Wilderness!, the Tony Award winning tragedian Eugene O'Neill's sweetest play, and John Leguizamo, whose newest solo show, Freak, fulfilled the promise of his earlier Off-Broadway efforts. And in the tradition of the greatest Irish playwrights, Martin McDonagh, not yet 30, took Broadway by storm with his gorgeous play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, after a completely sold-out run downtown.

Audiences this season had ample opportunity to sample different types of theatrical entertainment. For instance, it's been a long time since a thriller came to Broadway, but with an all-star cast that included movie superstars Marisa Tomei and Quentin Tarantino, this story about a blind woman's harrowing encounter with menacing crooks, the revival of Frederick Knott's Wait Until Dark was indeed thrilling. For those in the mood for highly theatrical entertainment, Tony-winner David Henry Hwang's (M. Butterfly) newest play, Golden Child, jumped time and place between contemporary Manhattan and early-20th century China. Even satire this year closed long after Saturday night, with Jackie. All you need to hear is the title to know whom it was satirizing, though Margaret Colin's downright polite portrayal of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis managed to blend respect with some very funny bits.

Jackie Kennedy played no part in High Society, but she easily could have. Adapted from the 1956 MGM movie of the same name, this sparkling musical version of Philip Barry's classic 1939 comedy, The Philadelphia Story, featured a score by Tony-winner Cole Porter (with additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead) that affectionately captured the Tracy Lords and Jackie Kennedys of the world.

Chekov had a good year: two-time Tony winner Kevin Kline's star turn as Ivanov at Lincoln Center Theater and Moscow Theatre SOVREMENNIK's limited run of The Cherry Orchard, part of the Moscow Arts Festival on Broadway, which also presented the Novaya Opera's staging of Eugene Onegin at the Martin Beck Theatre.

Not that Broadway lacked for pop music this season. Besides Elton John's contributions to The Lion King, crowd-pleasing strains of mid-sixties pop favorites could be heard emanating nightly from the Brooks Atkinson Theatre when Street Corner Symphony was playing. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a swashbuckling, costume musical set during the French Revolution, but the Frank Wildhorn/Nan Knighton score is the kind of up-to-minute sound that can‹and continues to‹sell scores of CDs. Paul Simon released his recording of songs from The Capeman before the show even opened, and if the production was faulted by many critics, Simon's score was widely praised and will undoubtedly enjoy a much longer life than the show it was written for. In addition, the combined star power of its three leading players, Marc Antony, Ednita Nazario and Ruben Blades, made national news, especially amongst the Latino community, attracting new audiences to Broadway.

Another stirring sign of the vitality on Broadway was the return of one its favorite actresses and champions, Tony-winner Jane Alexander, direct from her four-year stint as Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), in Honour, a new play by Joanna Murray-Smith. As the NEA has come under increasing attack from budget-slashers on Capitol Hill, Alexander has emerged as a great defender of the arts, arguing passionately for the important role that culture plays in our society. That her first major outing as an artist after her four years' crusade is on Broadway speaks volumes. Inside the Beltway, it might remain fashionable to downplay this country's hunger for the arts, but the ten million plus audience members who attended a Broadway show last year tell another story. It may be a small strip of real estate, but the impact Broadway continues to have on our cultural landscape is enormous. Tonight's awards honor the outstanding achievements of this outstanding season, but every theatre artist who participated in every category can claim a piece of the exciting new pulse that's racing through old Broadway.

-- By Dick Scanlan

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