Picks the Top Theatre Stories of 2005

Special Features Picks the Top Theatre Stories of 2005
Two major playwrights were lost. One major new producer was gained. And four new musicals beat the odds by thriving simultaneously.
Left to Right, From Top: Arthur Miller; August Wilson; Spamalot; The Light in the Piazza; Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; Spelling Bee; Sweey Charity; The Color Purple;
Left to Right, From Top: Arthur Miller; August Wilson; Spamalot; The Light in the Piazza; Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; Spelling Bee; Sweey Charity; The Color Purple; "The Producers"; "Rent". Photo by Aubrey Reuben; Joan Marcus; Carol Rosegg; Paul Kolnick

These, among others, were newsmakers in The Year in Theatre 2005. The editors and writers of put their heads together this month and looked back at the events of 2005 to choose significant news stories that made headlines and touched the industry uniquely. They follow, in no particular order of importance.

A LOSS FOR WORDS: Playwright Arthur Miller died Feb. 11. August Wilson died on Oct. 2. The loss of one would have been cause for grief. The passing of both was close to benumbing. The American theatre doesn't possess so many dramatists it can call masters that it can afford to lose two of them within such a short space of time. Wilson's death was perhaps more difficult to accept. Miller, after all, lived to the age of 89 and, though still actively writing, had long ago bequeathed the stage a literary legacy matched by few other playwrights during the past century. Wilson, however, had only just completed his ten-play cycle examining the African-American experience during the 20th century. At a young 60, and invested with a steady work ethic, he was expected to produce many more works. Some of those dramas would have conceivably continued the ethical explorations Miller began in the late '30s, for both writers rarely veered from the great moral questions of modern times. What was a man's worth? How was it rewarded or corrupted by the American political and social system? Miller tackled these issues from a point a view heavily informed by the Great Depression and World War II. Wilson's prism was framed by the lasting effects of slavery and discrimination. But if characters from both men's plays ever happened to wander onto the same stage, you can bet they'd have something to talk about.

MUSIC TO THEIR EARS: Four new, original musicals were nominated for the 2005 Best Musical Tony Award: Spamalot, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, A Light in the Piazza and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. One show, Spamalot, won. Yet, nearly seven months later, all four are still thriving on Broadway. This is almost unheard of in the theatre. The Tony Awards are often accompanied by death knells, as the laureled survive and the unvictorious post closing notices. But each of these shows were largely praised by critics, and all four found their audiences. Spamalot and Bee have recouped their investments, and the other two are expected to do the same. Years from now, the 2004-05 season will doubtless be regarded as a high point in the history of musical theatre.

CHRISTINA'S WORLD: "OK, here's the pitch. There's this Hollywood actress, plucky, but never headlined a Broadway musical. Bucking the odds, she lands the job in a big new splashy revival, but get this: she's breaks her foot out of town! End of story, right? But, no—her standby goes on, this unsung, veteran hoofer who's finally getting her big chance. The press is all over it. But sales and notices aren't great, so the producer pulls the plug before the thing even reaches Broadway! So, that's the end, you're thinking? Not yet! Miss Starlet's not having it, and campaigns until the producer relents. The show's back on. The star heals up and opens on Broadway!!" Any studio chief would throw a writer with such an outlandish storyline out the door. But the Rialto can be stranger than fiction, and—thanks to Christina Applegate, Charlotte D'Amboise and Barry Weissler (the starlet, standby and producer of Sweet Charity)—the annals of theatre lore this year added a backstage story for the ages.

BROADWAY, THE MOVIE: The rebirth of the movie musical begun by Moulin Rouge and thrown into high gear by Chicago, continued this year with the holiday releases of the celluloid versions of Rent, directed by Chris Columbus, and The Producers, directed by Susan Stroman. The financial verdicts are not yet in, but, critically, the duo can't be said to have done much good for the cause. There were positive appraisals for both, but more than a few reviewers thought Rent dated and The Producers stage-bound. LONDON ASSURANCE: London was shaken July 7 when five morning explosions stunned the city and its people. Terrorists who claimed to be associated with Al Qaeda struck four underground trains and one double decker bus at various locations in the metropolis. At least 50 people were killed and hundreds were wounded. As a result, the entire West End shut down, as well as the Royal National Theatre, which went dark for the first time in its history. But this is the town that went through the Blitz. So, by July 8 most shows had resolved to resume business. Many British producers cited the example of Broadway's quick recovery in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

OPRAH'S SHOW CLUB: A musical by a creative team largely made up of unknowns became a viable property when the ads and marquee threw up a new name above the title: Oprah Winfrey. The talk show queen had a long history with Alice Walker's book The Color Purple. She starred at Sofia in the Stephen Spielberg film version of it. And with $1 million, she joined the producing team of the musical. But her mere association with the show is probably worth millions more. A performance on her show spiked sales at the box office, and a flashy opening night party at the New York Public Library earned yards of ink. Now there's talk of her appearing personally in television ads for the show. The Color Purple and the color green should become complementary colors fairly soon.

SUBWAYS ARE FOR SLEEPING: And the final big theatre story of 2005? Well, as of press time (midnight Dec. 21), New York City was still living through it. On Dec. 20, the transit workers union walked away from the contact bargaining table and called the first citywide strike in 25 years. (The union sent its workers back to their duties mid-afternoon Dec. 22.) Did Broadway panic? Anyone who witnessed the theatre's stoical responses to the 2003 blackout and blizzard would know better than to ask. Performers and crew found their way to theatres, as did many ticketholders. Why, even theatre websites found a way to make good on the old showfolk motto which, over the past few, trying years, seems to have become the mantra of New York City itself: The Show Must Go On.

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