Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Only a Decade Ago | Playbill

News Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Only a Decade Ago
It's already quite evident that the 1997-1998 Broadway musical season will be one of the busiest in recent years, with seven new musicals scheduled to be playing by the end of the year, at least two or three more announced for the spring, and several revivals mixed in. And unlike last season, the arrival of new musicals will stretch from September to April; last fall saw the revivals of Chicago and Once Upon A Mattress open, but all the new titles were crammed into the five-week period prior to the deadline for Tony nominations.
The original cast of Into the Woods, including, far left, Bernadette Peters
The original cast of Into the Woods, including, far left, Bernadette Peters

It's already quite evident that the 1997-1998 Broadway musical season will be one of the busiest in recent years, with seven new musicals scheduled to be playing by the end of the year, at least two or three more announced for the spring, and several revivals mixed in. And unlike last season, the arrival of new musicals will stretch from September to April; last fall saw the revivals of Chicago and Once Upon A Mattress open, but all the new titles were crammed into the five-week period prior to the deadline for Tony nominations.

I thought it might be instructive to look back just 10 years, to the Broadway musicals of an even more crammed season, 1987-1988. While the coming season has at least two titles that already look to be strong box-office candidates, '87-'88 produced the biggest hit in box office history. While it is a fact of life that one or more of the season's coming shows will be failures, it is unlikely that it will produce anything that comes close to two of '87-'88's flops in terms of sheer unbelievability. In fact, there may never again be a musical season with the highs and lows of '87-'88.

It started with a revival of Dreamgirls; the original production having closed in 1985 after a run of four years, the revival was really more of a return (as Norma Desmond would put it), actually the show's bus-and-truck touring company, planted on Broadway when an announced London booking failed to happen. It arrived just days after the July 2 death of its director-choreographer, Michael Bennett, an event that would cast a pall not only on the entire season but on the decade to come. (Just two months later, Bob Fosse died while rehearsing the touring company of Sweet Charity.) If it was a bit too soon for Dreamgirls to have found a sizable new audience, the show worked once again, even in its stripped-down, non-high-tech staging. This year's Tony winner Lillias White acted and sang the role of Effie impressively.

The first new musical of the season lasted 12 performances and was a sad flop rather than an embarrassing or horrific one. About some denizens of an immigrant quarter of Paris in the '70s, in particular a retired prostitute who takes care of the children of other prostitutes, Roza was Hal Prince's fourth consecutive New York flop (although that statistic would be wiped away three months later when Prince directed a hit bigger than any he had ever worked on). Roza was something of a doomed show--it had been announced for London's Adelphi Theatre three years earlier with the same director and star (Georgia Brown), but the financing fell through, and Prince, against his better judgment, allowed the show to open on Broadway after regional runs in Baltimore and Los Angeles had made it clear to him that it was unlikely to succeed. It was greeted almost entirely with pans, although Brown's tour-de-force performance was acknowledged here and there. The Gilbert Becaud-Julian More score never lived up to Brown's opening number, "Happiness," and Roza is the only Hal Prince musical to open on Broadway and go unrecorded.

Roza was a flop, but one interesting enough for fans to collect. Two weeks later, a four-performance flop called Late Nite Comic set something of an all-time standard for amateurishness on Broadway, and made Roza look like My Fair Lady and A Chorus Line rolled into one. An utterly inept show about a stand-up comic's romance with a ballerina, Late Nite Comic was the work of Allan Knee and Brian Gari, who have not been back on Broadway since, was the only show produced by one Rory Rosengarten, and was the kind of event that saw a slip in the opening night (October 15) Playbill that read "Philip Rose voluntarily withdrew as director of Late Nite Comic as of October 4, 1987." (This did not satisfy Rose, who insisted that the press agents also wipe his name from the billing page with white-out.) What was amazing was that Late Nite Comic had played a severely panned out-of-town tryout engagement, but came in nonetheless. Songwriter Gari later released an album of the score, sung by himself and Julie Budd among others, and the show's leading lady has become a good trivia question (Teresa Tracy was her name). Two revivals followed, the first of which was one of the highlights of the season: Lincoln Center Theatre's Anything Goes remains a model of how to revive a vintage musical, artfully integrating the original plot with mostly new dialogue, coming up with just the right balance of original songs and interpolations, and supplying superb new orchestrations and a design scheme that made marvelous use of the Vivian Beaumont space. Patti LuPone's Reno Sweeney remains her best Broadway performance, and Howard McGillin was the ideal Billy; so terrific were the original leads that, strong as Jerry Zaks' staging was, this production was not the same in New York and failed on two national tours without them.

The other major revival was Cabaret, returning Joel Grey to the role that made him a star, and marking the only time Hal Prince directed a revival of a show he had directed in its first Broadway production. Unlike most '90s revivals, this one had a physical production based on the original's, but probably because the revival was designed to play an extensive pre-Broadway tour, the sets and lighting were not on the level of the original designs. The production, most notable for opera diva Regina Resnik's strong Fraulein Schneider, lasted eight months and was one of the few of its period to transfer from one theatre (the Imperial, the second home of the original Cabaret) to another (the Minskoff).

Although it ran three months, it's hard to find a musical theatre fan who actually saw the next arrival, Don't Get God Started. But that's because the show was not aimed at general theatregoers, but specifically at the black audience that in the '70s had supported a number of similar, loosely plotted shows with the emphasis on powerhouse gospel singing. By the late '80s and '90s, such attractions shifted from Broadway to uptown houses like the Beacon, where they continue to thrive.

Can it really be 10 years since Into The Woods opened? It hardly seems possible, but perhaps that's because I saw the show so many times. I attended the first preview, featuring a full number ("Second Midnight") that was cut after only a couple of performances, and had Bernadette Peters doing a difficult, almost impenetrable eleven o'clock number called "Boom Crunch" which was gradually replaced by "Last Midnight." I saw all of the Witches on Broadway (plus the superb Cleo Laine in the national tour) and quite a few Baker's Wives, but Woods had one of the finest original casts of any musical of its time, so no one could really surpass Joanna Gleason, Robert Westenberg, Kim Crosby, Peters, and the others. While Woods got a somewhat mixed critical reception, it ran two years and remains the most frequently performed musical of that season (but that season's biggest hit is still unavailable for general performance).

Teddy and Alice opened one week after Woods, had a forced run of two months to fairly empty houses, and, in spite of a couple of subsequent regional productions, is little remembered these days (it left no full cast recording). It was one of those shows that had been in development for the better part of a decade, but nonetheless replaced its director (Stone Widney, who had been with the show since its inception) during its tryout. A misguided attempt to tell the story of Teddy Roosevelt's obsession with his daughter Alice by using the music of John Philip Sousa, the title page in the Playbill carried the line "And introducing Nancy Hume as Alice." What's ironic is that while Hume has not done a lot since, her understudy was Karen Ziemba. The same title page also bore the unique credit "Artistic Consultant: Alan Jay Lerner." Lerner and his frequent assistant Widney had researched the life of Teddy Roosevelt for the Lerner-Leonard Bernstein flop 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and Widney felt there was enough material left over for Teddy and Alice, which Lerner did not live to see.

No new musical arrived for the next two months, and that was because everyone's attention was focused on the January arrival of The Phantom of the Opera, the show that would redeem Prince's reputation, make Michael Crawford a household name in the U.S., put the composer's wife Sarah Brightman on Broadway after a dispute that saw Equity attempt to block her from repeating her London role in New York, and become the most successful show in history. It's not often noted just how big a hit Phantom remains; approaching its tenth Broadway anniversary, it still sells out most weeks and is usually Broadway's top grosser, not true of any of the other record-breaking musicals.

The degree of anticipation that built up prior to the opening of Phantom was intense. Never were there so many magazine cover stories and TV features, the advance sale was larger than any since, and preview audiences entered the Majestic almost beside themselves with excitement. In spite of the mixed press reception, Phantom lived up to its build-up as an event show, a show of shows, and that feeling has continued to surround it on Broadway, in London, and around the world.

What is it about Phantom that captured the fancy of the public beyond any other musical? Well, there's the luscious physical production, the lush score, the (to many) tragic figure of the Phantom relinquishing the woman he loves to the man she loves. Above all, it was a perfect vehicle for Andrew Lloyd Webber's style and his interest in moving in the direction of romantic opera. Brightman deserves a lot of the credit, for had Lloyd Webber not fallen in love with her and sought a vehicle that would suit her talents and looks, he might never have chosen the property in the first place.

The next show was a surprise success, the South African musical Sarafina! presented by Lincoln Center and lasting a year and a half on Broadway. Bursting with youthful energy but with a serious and moving story at its heart, Sarafina! was marketed well and found its audience; in a less competitive season, it might have won several top Tony prizes. Another black musical, The Gospel at Colonus, arrived next; while it qualified as a new musical for the Tony Awards, the show had been seen previously at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and on television, and its Broadway run was brief.

There was one of those "what-is-it" novelty shows that just about every Broadway season now sees--Oba Oba, from Brazil, where the nuts come from. That was followed by another quick flop, Mail, imported from California, and a bizarre attempt at a concept show built around the idea of a man returning home to read a stack of unopened mail, the letters coming to life and bursting into song. Michael Rupert had the enormous leading role and also composed the music; making his Broadway debut as Rupert's friend was Brian Mitchell, who is just about guaranteed to win the 1998 Best Musical Actor Tony for his performance in Ragtime (he's now called Brian Stokes Mitchell).

The season's most unfortunate show was also its most fondly remembered failure, Chess. While the London production of Chess had a three-year run, its director, Trevor Nunn, who had taken over from the ailing Michael Bennett, was not happy with it, and decided to rethink it for New York. Richard Nelson was brought in to write a book for what had been an almost entirely sung show in London, Robin Wagner designed new, drab scenery that was expensive to operate, and the material was extensively revised. Leads Judy Kuhn, David Carroll, Philip Casnoff, and Marcia Mitzman were excellent, and the score found many admirers, but the reviews were far worse than they should have been, the show failed to get a Best Musical Tony nomination, and the Broadway Chess closed when its advance sale was used up after eight weeks.

Chess has continued to be staged ever since, never in exactly the same version. The original London production featured the most interesting of all the high-tech stagings of the period, and remains my favorite version of the piece. An attempt was made to tour the show in the U.S. with a revised script, Des McAnuff taking over the direction, a completely different physical production, and a strong cast headed by Stephen Bogardus, Carolee Carmello, John Herrera, Greg Jbara, and Barbara Walsh, but it too expired quickly. Since then, there have been any number of US and international stagings (this year's Australian revival was a very fast flop), and Chess continues to be one of those heartbreakers with a score many adore attached to a show that never quite works (even the three-year London run was ultimately a financial failure). Eight months after the Broadway production closed, the original cast was reassembled by David Carroll to present a concert version at Carnegie Hall; the result was electrifying, and demonstrated how strong a following the score had, and how unfortunate it was that that score had failed to find satisfying stage form on Broadway.

Three days after the Chess opening, Romance/Romance opened on Broadway, having been seen off-Broadway the previous fall. While the show had two top-notch performances from its stars Alison Fraser and Scott Bakula and a score with many nice things, it proved too frail to survive on Broadway (and proved likewise when it attempted the West End this season). It was also a lucky show, as the same third-string New York Times critic who had praised its off-Broadway opening was assigned to cover it again when it opened on Broadway. When Frank Rich, who had panned Roza, Cabaret, Teddy and Alice, and Chess and was not sold on either Woods or Phantom, got around to reviewing Romance on the radio, he panned it, indicating that the show might not have lasted nine months on Broadway had Rich covered it in print.

Tehnically speaking, the '87-'88 musical season ends there, but let's cheat and include the show that opened 11 days after Romance (but too late for Tony consideration), that flop of flops, Carrie. Is there any other recent flop that continues to inspire such fascination and discussion? Is there any other score so well known yet likewise unrecorded (at least commercially)? Is there any other show so many lie about having seen? From its highs (those exquisite Betty Buckley-Linzi Hateley duets) to its lows (the pig ballet, those thug-like average American teens), Carrie was like nothing else. I continue to get inquiries from those interested in producing it, and while there has been no staging since Broadway, I suspect that one will eventually have to happen, if only to satisfy the desire of so many to actually witness a production of this legend.

All in all, it was quite a season, with 14 musical productions, and highs and lows beyond those of most. Stay tuned to find out what kind of chapter will be written by the musicals now poised and ready to happen.

ANSWER TO LAST WEEK'S QUIZ: When Julie Covington withdrew from the 1989 Australian revival of Evita, she was replaced by Stephanie Lawrence, who had played the role in London. Lawrence's alternate was Delia Hannah, who will be Lucy in the Australian Jekyll & Hyde this fall, and has played leads in the Australian productions of Aspects of Love, Blood Brothers, and Chess.

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