Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: The '96-97 Kennys

News   Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: The '96-97 Kennys

Clockwise from top left: Pamela Isaacs and Lillias White in The Life; Antony Sher in Stanley; Chicago's murderous women; Larry Keith and Alma Cuervo in Titanic; Whistle Down the Wind set; Ragtime logo

Photo credits - The Life: Carol Rosegg; Stanley: Joan Marcus; Chicago: Max Vadukul; Titanic: Joan Marcus/Carol Rosegg; Whistle Down the Wind set design: Andrew Jackness

On May 5 the Tony Award nominations are announced, and if things run true to form, I won't be off the telephone for a day or two. Okay, so it won't be anything like what happened last year, when the Tony nominations made the front pages of New York newspapers for a week owing to Julie Andrews' renunciation of her nomination and the lack of Best Musical nominations for Victor/Victoria and Big. In fact, it is unlikely that there will ever be such a brouhaha over the nominations again. But that doesn't mean that we all won't have a lot to say about them this week, debating what should and should not have been included. In the meantime, here are a few of my own personal, totally at random, awards for the season, the Kennys, if you will. Happiest trend: The overdue New York debuts of some of England's finest stage performers. The season just past saw the first local appearances of Michael Gambon, Antony Sher, Elaine Paige, Fiona Shaw, and Janet McTeer, and one hopes they will all be back soon, bringing their friends with them.

The most advertising during the '96-'97 season for a show not opening until the '97-'98 seaason: No contest here--the winner is Ragtime. In fact, in a lifetime of following Broadway, I have never seen so much advertising--print, TV, radio--devoted to a production for the better part of a year prior to its Broadway debut. Ragtime producer Garth Drabinsky has long been acknowledged as a heavy advertiser--the ads for Show Boat in Toronto and New York were unusual in their size and frequency of appearance--but there has never been anything quite like the Ragtime promotion, with the show featured in the New York Times' ABC section on a daily basis, weekly display ads, and frequent TV spots running months before the theatre in which Ragtime will have its New York debut is even built. Whether or not such lavish promotional expenditures will prove to be cost effective remains to be seen, but there can be no question that Drabinsky has already succeeded in making Ragtime into an event show.

And a related award: Kindest producer of the season. This one goes to Garth Drabinsky for waiting until the Ford Centre, his new 42nd Street playhouse, is ready, thus not bringing Ragtime to Broadway last month and allowing it to perhaps take every Tony Award in the musical categories.

The most New York Times coverage of a show: Again, no contest- Chicago is the winner. The ball started rolling when Ben Brantley reviewed the production at City Center last May. When it came time for the season preview in September, Chicago got the big spot (a lengthy feature by A.R. Gurney), even though the production had already been seen and reviewed in New York and thus didn't really qualify for a "preview" piece. Brantley waxed even more ecstatic when the production opened on Broadway, and the show wound up on the front page of the Times. Ever since, the production has been the focus of countless pieces in the Times, not to mention a Frank Rich op-ed column in which Rich referred to the original Chicago as an "unloved" production, and felt Ann Reinking's choreography for the revival was superior to Fosse's original.

The cast of Titanic for valiance and courage: You may recall that during a preview performance of Sweeney Todd in 1979, an overhead bridge became detached, just missing star Angela Lansbury (without whom the production, not to mention life itself, would never have been the same). Philip Casnoff wasn't quite as lucky, for he was actually struck by a piece of falling scenery during a press preview of Shogun in 1990.

I wasn't there when either of these events occurred, nor was I at the preview performance of On The Waterfront when a cast member suffered a heart attack and died shortly thereafter. But watching the second preview performance of Titanic, I actually thought that this could be the night where I witness an actor get killed by a misfunctioning set. While the proceedings were only halted once at that second preview (they had been halted repeatedly at the first preview), the production was, mechanically speaking, still in a state of extreme tentativeness, and one never knew when a blackout occurred what (if anything) would greet the eye when the lights came back up. Throughout several scenes, banging and crashing were heard from behind drops as the actors played out scenes in front, carrying on as if they were appearing in the second year of a well-oiled Broadway smash rather than in a show that was not really ready for public consumption. Rarely have I seen a company perform so valiantly in the face of such adversity.

Show most improved during previews: Once again, the winner is Titanic. Whatever one thinks of the show now playing at the Lunt-Fontanne (this writer likes it a lot), I can state that having seen that second preview and subsequently seen the final version, an extraordinary amount of fine work was done on the show in just two weeks, with several major songs and plot strands dropped, and the second act restructured, with a lengthy choral sequence added that centers it nicely.

Titanic might have been perfected if it had had another week or two to make changes, which leads me to state once again that having so many musicals begin previews in late March or early April so as to open just before the Tony nomination cut-off is not necessarily a good thing. It's entirely possible that a couple of the new shows would have come off better had they begun performances in February or early March, taken their time, then opened at the end of March. The rush to the finish line this year might just give producers next season pause about ganging up at the end of April.

Most divine fluff: Mary Louise Wilson in Full Gallop. Yes, this show was first seen in New York at the Manhattan Theatre Club during the '95-'96 season, but it came back in a commercial off-Broadway production last fall, and was as delicious as ever. Wilson was always terrific in supporting roles in musicals (Flora, The Red Menace, Hot Spot, Promises, Promises, Gypsy), but she was never able to flower as fully as she does playing Diana Vreeland in this hilariously extravagant solo show. I hear that Elaine Stritch may eventually take it on, but Wilson is not to be missed.

Most unexpected ongoing run: Once Upon A Mattress. When the reviews for this revival appeared a week before Christmas, many including myself assumed that the production would not run beyond the first week in January. But it's still here, and while it has not done particularly well at the box office, its very survival is the season's biggest surprise. One also must credit star Sarah Jessica Parker; while many of the reviews stated that, for all her charms, she was not ideal casting for the part of raucous Princess Winnifred, Parker kept going, and her presence has been the production's chief attraction. Without her, it's unlikely that this Mattress would still be running, and she has also maintained a far better attendance record than several of Broadway's other leading ladies.

Most frequently absent performer: For the second consecutive season, Julie Andrews was the hands-down winner. Runners-up: Ann Reinking and Elaine Paige.

And let's give credit where it's due by calling Nell Carter the trouper of the season; her recent hernia operation only prevented her from appearing in the Annie revival for a few performances, and she ran right back to be where she belonged. (By the way, is it common knowledge that about 10 minutes were recently shaved from the Annie revival, including the "We'd Like To Thank You" number, to make the show even more suitable for the family crowds it is getting?)

Best thing to happen to New York theatre: Of course, one could go for the reopening of a couple of 42nd Street theatres, but I'll opt instead for Rosie O'Donnell. Her constant plugging of Broadway on her triumphant and nationally viewed TV show can't help but have long-term benefits, and no other program has featured as many musical performances from Broadway. It was only natural that O'Donnell be chosen to host this year's Tony Awards, and she will be featuring numbers from Broadway musical productions throughout the weeks prior to the Tonys. I love Rosie for many reasons, but what she's done for the theatre has to be one of the top ones. There she was, the day after the Titanic opening, singing the first lines of "Ship of Dreams" from the show's dazzling opening sequence -God love her!

Likely American classic: The Young Man From Atlanta. I'm aware that some people don't take to this play, discouraged by the fact that you never really find out the truth about most of the play's chief narrative strands. But that's the beauty of the piece, which is about repression and the inability to talk about painful issues, and it left me and my companion discussing at length what the truth about the title character and everything else in the story might be. I believe Atlanta to be one of the finer plays of our time, bound to become a regional staple, anthologized and studied by drama students in decades to come. But Rip Torn and Shirley Knight are not likely to be bettered in any subsequent production.

Quirkiest play of the season: Pam Gems' Stanley. No, Stanley was not a great play, but what I liked about seeing it at Circle in the Square was that it was exactly the kind of thing that almost never gets imported from England anymore. In the '60s and '70s, many imperfect but worthy plays were brought over from London, but in the last two decades, the steady stream has become a trickle, and a number of highly acclaimed West End dramas have never even made it here. Because Circle in the Square needed an opening production and didn't have time to put together one of its own from scratch, they picked up Stanley, importing its four leads along with John Caird's wonderful staging, and I was grateful to have the chance to see it.

Best score that didn't make it to New York: Walter Edgar Kennon's for Time and Again, the show that was to have opened last fall at the Martin Beck Theatre but instead expired at the Old Globe in San Diego last June. Based on a celebrated time-travel novel by Jack Finney, this musical's book problems were extensive, perhaps even insurmountable, so it's entirely possible that it may never resurface. But Kennon's music was quite lovely, the kind too rarely heard in musicals these days.

Best design that didn't make it to New York: That of Andrew Jackness (scenery) and Howell Binkley (lighting) for Whistle Down The Wind, the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Hal Prince musical that shut down in Washington, D.C., in February rather than hazarding the Martin Beck. While this was not an elaborate Lloyd Webber spectacle, the designers provided a beautiful evocation of a small town in Louisiana in the late '50s, and drops, scrims, and projections (Wendall K. Harrington) were deployed to haunting effect.

Not an award, but a related question: How would Whistle Down The Wind have measured up against the six end-of-season musicals that actually opened on Broadway? Was it really any worse than a couple of them?

Most utterly forgotten musical adaptation of a current Broadway play: In 1986, Goodspeed at Chester/Norma Terris Theatre offered Jokers, a misguided attempt to musicalize The Gin Game, directed by the unstoppable Martin Charnin, and written by the team that created Maggie Flynn. Ronny Graham and Kim Hunter were suitable for Weller and Fonsia, but what sunk the show was the concept of surrounding them with a singing and dancing ensemble made up of life-size playing cards. Jokers has not, to my knowledge, been heard from since.

Award for sheer determination: A tie between Jekyll & Hyde and The Life. While it's not uncommon these days for musicals to have gestation periods of many years, few musicals have had as lengthy a pre-Broadway history as this pair. Jekyll has been around for almost a decade, and had four separate productions prior to New York. The Life, while never seen by paying audiences until its Broadway incarnation, was conceived in the '70s, and had an elaborate New York workshop production in 1990. While it may be too soon to tell, it would appear that determination has paid off in both cases.

Finally, a prize to '96-'97 as the year of the scandal, allowing Broadway to make it to the front pages (at least in the tabloids) quite a few times. It all began with the Victor/Victoria Tony Award scandal. Much later, there was the ugly Liza Minnelli/Tony Roberts fracas near the end of her run in Victor/Victoria. There was the heartbreaking dismissal of one Annie in favor of another. There were the multiple Sunset closings and the supposed twilight of the Lloyd Webber empire (I personally wouldn't be on the lookout for Lord Andrew behind the counter at a McDonalds any time soon, even if, as of June 7 when the Sunset tour folds, the only production of Sunset in the world will be in Australia). So here's to more scandals in '97-'98.

Who played the title role(s) in the 1990 world premiere run of Jekyll & Hyde at the Alley Theatre in Houston?

Answer to last week's quiz: Susan Watson took over from Jacqueline Mayro during the road tryout of Ben Franklin in Paris. Watson was succeeded in the Broadway production by Rita Gardner.

Jane Eyre received a good deal of attention on its Toronto world premiere last December, much of it due to the fact that it took place simultaneously with the Toronto premiere of Ragtime; at a time when New York had not a single new musical, Toronto had two major new ones at once.

Ragtime, of course, had an expensive, splashy pre-opening recording of highlights. The new Jane Eyre disc, from Mirvish Enterprises, is the Toronto cast recording, released after the conclusion of the Toronto run, and featuring 62 minutes of excerpts from a mostly sung show. At this writing, Jane Eyre has been announced for Broadway this fall.

Paul Gordon's score is something of a cross between the recent pop opera successes and The Secret Garden. I did not see the show in Toronto, and the fact that co-author John Caird (Les Miz, Nicholas Nickleby, Stanley) is its director and that there's a John Napier set indicates that it might be more exciting to see than to listen to. On disc, I found Jane Eyre mostly heavy going, in spite of the fact that it's been lushly recorded and that leads Marla Schaffel and Anthony Crivello are dandy.

I always feel like I'm in good hands when I put on a new Barbara Cook disc, and her latest, Oscar Winners: The Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II (DRG), does not betray my faith. This is absolutely perfect material for Cook, and she delivers everything flawlessly. Approaching 70, she remains the master singer of the moment, still far more special and interesting than most cabaret divas decades her junior. Oscar Winners is total pleasure, no reservations.

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