Fully staged productions are all well and good, but these days it must sometimes seem to New York producers that the way to really generate a buzz around a musical is to stage a one-night-only concert.
More and more, concert renditions of famous musicals provoke the interest of die-hard theatregoers and journalists. The phenomenon may have begun with the legendary 1985 concert of Follies, and the trend was certainly encouraged by the success of the Encores! series and its many imitators. Whatever the progenitors, such "once in a lifetime" happenings are now commonplace. Two recent events in particular—one this past week and one coming up next Monday—have soaked up buckets of media ink: The Actors' Fund benefit reading of Funny Girl and the reunion concert of Merrily We Roll Along.
The Actors' Fund learned much from its Sept. 24, 2001, airing of Dreamgirls, staged at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. The casting of Broadway powerhouses Audra McDonald, Heather Headley and Lillias White proved irresistible and the event was a smash success, resulting in a cast recording.
This year, the fund aimed to top that performance with a look at the Barbra Streisand vehicle, Funny Girl. It was not the show, but the casting gimmick which kept people fascinated. Drafted to play the central role of Fanny Brice were not one, not two, but a couple dozen theatre talents (each filling the role for five minutes or so). In the weeks leading up to the evening, it seemed a new name was announced every 24 hours. The final Sept. 27 line-up featured Carolee Carmello, Kristin Chenoweth, Sutton Foster, Ana Gasteyer, Whoopi Goldberg, Spencer Kayden, Jane Krakowski, Judy Kuhn, La Chanze, Ricki Lake, Andrea Martin, Julia Murney, Bebe Neuwirth and the ever game Lillias White.
Merrily We Roll Along, which will bow Sept. 30, is also possessed of a tantalizing gimmick. The concert will feature nearly everybody involved in the 1981 Stephen Sondheim flop, including once peach-fuzzed leads Jim Walton, Lonny Price, Jason Alexander and Ann Morrison. All (except the elusive TV superstar Alexander) have been extensively interviewed about their experiences 20 years ago. A benefit concert for Musical Theatre Works at the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the show will likely sell out. This week saw more of the star trouble detailed in this space last week. Danny DeVito exited the Broadway revival of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. The departure follows the loss of the show's other star, Ben Stiller, last month. Producers have given themselves a week to find someone new, before postponing the production.
Despite such setbacks, theatre moneymen continue to chase after Hollywood gods and goddesses—Denzel Washington is reportedly being sought for the new August Wilson play, Gem of the Ocean. One can hardly blame them for taking such risks. When stars do stay put, the payoff can be rapid. Witness Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which, with a lot of help from Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci, has recouped in under two months; and Burn This, which is selling out thanks to Ed Norton and Catherine Keener.
Speaking of stars, the upcoming revival of The Miracle Worker — with Hilary Swank as Annie Sullivan — will have an out-of-town tryout at the Charlotte Repertory Theatre in North Carolina from March 1-30, 2003, before coming to Broadway. A young film actress by the unlikely name of Skye Bartusiak (a lot harder to say than "water") has also been mentioned for the role of Helen Keller.
Sticking with solid theatre actors is Alfred Uhry's new play, Edgardo Mine, set to debut at Hartford Stage Oct. 17-Nov. 17. Still, it's an impressive line up which bespeaks of an expected New York transfer. In addition to the already-announced Brian Murray and Spencer Kayden, the play will feature Randy Graff, Robert LuPone and Michael Countryman.
Finally, The Variety Arts Theatre will be home this fall to Adult Entertainment, a new work by satirist Elaine May which should look at home next to The Vagina Monologues, Puppetry of the Penis and Debbie Does Dallas in the New York Times ABC listings
—By Robert Simonson