Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: The Musical Road To Broadway

News   Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: The Musical Road To Broadway
There was a time when, almost without exception, musicals opened on Broadway following tryout runs in such cities as Boston, Philadelphia, and New Haven; some shows played just one tryout town, while others hit two or three. In the '50s and early '60s, musicals would arrive in New York after these road runs and play just a couple of previews (usually pre-sold to theatre parties and not advertised to the general public) before the opening night, which was the performance attended by all major critics.
Three routes to Broadway: (L-R) Lawrence Hamilton and Tonya Pinkins in Play On!, Titanic set, Robert Cuccioli and Linda Eder in Jekyll & Hyde
Three routes to Broadway: (L-R) Lawrence Hamilton and Tonya Pinkins in Play On!, Titanic set, Robert Cuccioli and Linda Eder in Jekyll & Hyde Photo by Photo credit: (L-R) Ken Howard, set design by Stewart Laing, Carol Rosegg

There was a time when, almost without exception, musicals opened on Broadway following tryout runs in such cities as Boston, Philadelphia, and New Haven; some shows played just one tryout town, while others hit two or three. In the '50s and early '60s, musicals would arrive in New York after these road runs and play just a couple of previews (usually pre-sold to theatre parties and not advertised to the general public) before the opening night, which was the performance attended by all major critics.

In the late '60s, all of this began to change. While many musicals still went out of town, others chose to skip the road and play long preview engagements in New York. In the '70s, thanks to the developmental process that produced A Chorus Line, musicals were more and more frequenly given workshop productions which could extend over months and sometimes culminate in public performances; after its workshops, a show could then be taken out of town or put directly on Broadway. In the '80s, more and more musicals came to Broadway from regional productions or from non-profit or off-Broadway productions in New York. And more and more road tryouts became season-long tours, particularly if a nationally known star was attached.

The out-of town tryout has never completely died, and continues to be a part of every season. But it's no secret that it adds a couple of million dollars to the cost of a production, and shows like Sweeney Todd and City of Angels opened on Broadway to acclaim without benefit of out-of-town runs or even major workshop productions.

At the moment, we have three major musicals--Titanic, Steel Pier, The Life- playing New York previews without having played a previous road or regional engagement, and the question once again arises--would these shows have benefited from such development, or was it not necessary? (It's likely that the complex physical plan of Titanic ruled out a tryout from the start.)

A look at the developmental process of the musicals of this season and next may allow us to see where things stand at this time in terms of the tryout process. Of the '96-'97 batch of musicals, one new show--Whistle Down The Wind--and one revival -Annie--played traditional tryout runs. Whistle had a previous workshop production at Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton estate, but Harold Prince did not direct it there. And it was of course during Annie's road tryout that the young lady playing the title role was dismissed and replaced. Two other shows--Play On! and Dream--received regional productions prior to Broadway; the latter show was announced for Broadway prior to its run last summer at the Tennessee Repertory Theatre, while the former one was not, even if it had already acquired interest from Broadway producers prior to its Old Globe, San Diego engagement. Three other musicals used the workshop route, although one used it in an extended fashion. Prior to the commencement of Steel Pier and Titanic previews, those shows were seen only by those invited to private workshop performances. And in both cases, those workshops took place within a year prior to Broadway. In the case of The Life, the process has been elongated. I saw the show during its semi-private run at the Westbeth Theatre Center in 1990; Joe Layton was then the director, and the physical production was extremely elaborate for a workshop. Since that time, the show has been rewritten, a new director (Michael Blakemore, who guided City of Angels without benefit of tryout) has replaced the late Layton, and more workshops have taken place.

The genesis of the now-previewing Jekyll & Hyde is more extensive than that of any recent show. It includes full-scale productions at the Alley Theatre in Houston; a New York workshop that was to have brought the show to the Gershwin Theatre years ago (Terrence Mann was then taking the title roles); another Houston production co-produced by the Alley and Theatre Under The Stars; and a season-long national tour that was to have landed the show on Broadway at the end of the '95-'96 season. With extensive revision of the material and a new director, choreographer, and physical production, the new Jekyll & Hyde will open on Broadway after a lengthy preview period. The thing that I'm happiest about this spring is that, whatever the fate of the new Jekyll and The Life, they have finally made it to Broadway, and writers like myself who have been announcing them in season previews for the better part of a decade will no longer have to include them.

As for this season's other three musical revivals, Chicago, of course, came to Broadway by way of its Encores! concert at City Center; Once Upon A Mattress previewed on Broadway with no previous regional or road tryout; and Candide will do likewise, although it will, of course, be taking advantage of the fact that director Hal Prince has staged the show numerous times during the last 23 years.

And how is next season shaping up in terms of developmental procedure? Bearing in mind that things can change, here's how I break it down. As it did with its first major stage production, Beauty and the Beast, Disney is choosing to develop its stage version of The Lion King by means of an out-of town tryout; it will play eight weeks beginning in July at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. After a workshop this April, Easter Parade starring Tommy Tune and Sandy Duncan will play a tryout prior to Broadway next spring (one hopes that tryout will not last long enough for Tune to have another road accident, as was the case with Busker Alley). And the new stage version of High Society, directed by Christopher Renshaw, will take a regional route, opening the season in September at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre.

Two major entries, Ragtime and Jane Eyre, will come to Broadway following their Toronto productions. Ragtime was the beneficiary of an extended series of readings and workshops prior to its December, '96 Toronto opening, while Eyre had an earlier regional production, at the Wichita Center for the Performing Arts, in December, 1995.

Because it was specifically commissioned by the Kennedy Center, the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical about the Mizner Brothers, Wise Guys, is scheduled to be seen first at the Kennedy Center in late '97. By Jeeves, the revised version of the 1975 Andrew Lloyd Webber-Alan Ayckbourn London failure Jeeves, has already been seen in the West End and at Goodspeed-at-Chester's Norma Terris Theatre; the latter version is winding up its run at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles then moving on to Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. (By Jeeves is, I hear, unlikely to hazard New York.) Triumph of Love is still scheduled for Broadway this fall, having already had two regional productions, at Center Stage, Baltimore, and Yale Repertory Theatre. Last fall, the new musical Side Show was given a fully-staged workshop production with invited audiences at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The local run of Footloose at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden is to be part of a national tour. The Paul Simon-Derek Walcott Capeman is using workshops, to be followed by an out-of-town run. Unclear at this point are the paths to Broadway of such other forthcoming musicals as the Alfred Uhry-Jason Robert Brown-Hal Prince Parade; the William Finn-Richard Greenberg The Royal Family of Broadway; and The Scarlet Pimpernel.

What a tight Tony category is this year's Best Actor in a Play! There are strong candidates in Michael Gambon (Skylight), Antony Sher (Stanley), Frank Langella (Present Laughter), Christopher Plummer (Barrymore), Rip Torn (The Young Man From Atlanta), Al Pacino (Hughie), Owen Teale (A Doll's House), and Daniel Massey (Taking Sides), with Brian Bedford and Charles Durning not yet seen in their new Broadway vehicles. I suspect the contest will be between Plummer and Torn.

Joe Mantello will direct Neil Simon's new play Proposals, which is scheduled for spring/summer tryouts in Phoenix, Arizona, and Los Angeles.

Davis Gaines, who would right now have been playing the lead in Whistle Down The Wind at the Martin Beck Theatre had the show come in, has several musical productions lined up for the coming months. In May, he will have one of the leads in the "Encores!" production of The Boys From Syracuse, then play Robert in Company for the Huntington Theatre of Boston.

Some changes recently put into the Toronto production of Ragtime: The staging of "The Night That Goldman Spoke in Union Square" has been altered and clarified; Goldman sings more of "He Wanted To Say"; the finale has been changed from a reprise of the title song to one of "Wheels of A Dream" (as on the studio recording), and the closing fireworks have been eliminated. These changes will presumably be maintained in the forthcoming Los Angeles production.

The season at Bay Street Theatre Festival in Long Island begins with Make Someone Happy, Phyllis Newman's new autobiographical show, which she will also direct. The cast will include Melissa Errico, Dee Hoty, Paula Newsome, and Jim Brachitta.

Two weeks ago in this space I discussed the new Broadway cast recording of Mary Rodgers' Once Upon A Mattress. Now we have Varese Sarabande's recording of Hey, Love: The Songs of Mary Rodgers, a three-person revue weaving songs with music by Rodgers around the framework of a woman and the two men who are wooing her. Lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim, Marshall Barer, Martin Charnin, Richard Maltby, Jr., and Mark Waldrop, the latter also the show's director and one of its performers.

Hey, Love began life at Eighty-Eights, a cabaret in the West Village; I caught it there when the lady in question was Donna Murphy, in the days when I kept exclaiming, "Why isn't this brilliant talent playing leads in musicals on Broadway?" Hey, Love became 3 of Hearts last fall at Rainbow & Stars; the Varese disc is a cast recording of that production, reverting to the original title because the song "3 of Hearts" was dropped from the show after it opened. The lady in question this time is Faith Prince, who, ironically, has now replaced Murphy in The King and I and is thus singing music by Mary Rodgers' father.

Hey, Love includes six Mattress songs and gives one the chance to hear how Prince might have sounded (i.e. great) had she been given the Broadway revival. There are also numbers from the Judy Holliday flop Hot Spot, The Mad Show, and a few unproduced shows, along with some new material. This is a very enjoyable, recommended disc; the material is unfailingly intelligent and classy, Waldrop and Jason Workman do well, and it's a great showcase for Prince, who shines throughout.

On to two AEI CDs which feature the abridged soundtracks of TV productions of Broadway musicals. From 1954 to 1956, Max Liebman presented on NBC a series of elaborate, 90-minute musical spectaculars, about half devoted entirely to one musical, some old and some written for the series. Included were A Connecticut Yankee, Best Foot Forward, Naughty Marietta, The Desert Song, The Chocolate Soldier, The Merry Widow, and the two now on disc, Lady in the Dark and Dearest Enemy.

Lady in the Dark, the second presentation in the series (following the indescribable Betty Hutton original Satins and Spurs), is an uneven production, with the non-musical portions coming off better than the musical dream sequences. AEI has issued the musical portions, along with some dialogue, but this disc is not a reissue of RCA Victor's long-deleted studio-made LP of the same production. As a bonus, the AEI disc offers Gertrude Lawrence, the original Liza Elliott, in her studio recordings from the score as well as in some tracks from a radio version. Liebman's Liza, Ann Sothern, is well cast and strong as always, and the arrangements for the TV production are very '50s. It's an enjoyable performance; coming out at the same time is a reissue of the far more complete and authentic Columbia studio cast of Lady, but that one has a resistible leading lady in Rise Stevens.

The 1925 Broadway musical Dearest Enemy contained the first gem of a score by Rodgers and Hart. While there was a Goodspeed Opera House revival in 1976, the show's most lavish revival was the '55 telecast, perhaps the best entry in the Liebman series. AEI's CD offers excerpts- all the songs (in original show order, rather than in the telecast order) and some of the dialogue (the book was co-adapted for TV by Neil Simon)- from the TV soundtrack, plus a bonus of two numbers featuring original 1925 leading lady Helen Ford. While there is one other Dearest Enemy recording--a British studio LP with piano accompaniment--this CD is a delight, featuring a charming score and fine performances by Anne Jeffreys, Robert Sterling, Cyril Ritchard, and Cornelia Otis Skinner, and not to be missed. After listening to both of these discs, I have one question: If the soundtracks of these productions can be released commercially, why can't the existing kinescopes, currently in wide circulation among collectors on videotape, also be released?

Who created the female role in Hey, Love when it was first presented at Eighty-Eights?
Answer to last week's quiz: In the early '80s, A Foggy Day, a new musical with Gershwin songs and a book by Neil Simon, got as far as the reading stage.

Steve Heller of Forest Hills, NY asks
I heard of plans for a new musical about vaudeville's Siamese twin sister act, the Hilton Sisters. I recall seeing a musical a few years ago at the WPA Theatre called Twenty Fingers, Twenty Toes about the very same sisters. Is the new show that musical?
KM: You are quite right that the WPA presented a musical about the Siamese twin performers The Hilton Sisters some years back. But the new musical Side Show is a completely different, new show, treating the tale of the Hilton Sisters seriously; Twenty Fingers was a fairly campy treatment.

Kevin C. Mryen asks: What ever happenened to the Broadway career of Vanessa Williams? After receiving rave reviews for Spider Woman, are there any plans for her to return to Broadway in her own show?
KM: I suspect that Williams will eventually return to Broadway. After Spider Woman, it was announced that Garth Drabinsky was developing a musical for her about the mistress of Thomas Jefferson, but nothing has been heard about it since. Williams was also sought as a potential replacement for Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria, but that hasn't happened either. In the meantime, Williams has been quite busy with her recording, film and TV career (including the TV film of another Chita Rivera musical, Bye Bye Birdie).

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