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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

BROADWAY WITH MAURICE (article first published : 2007-08-26)

Earlier this year, in June, I spent a further eight days in New York and managed to see eleven live shows. As there are not many shows on Broadway on Mondays, the theatres being mostly dark since New York has shows on Sundays, and not being one to waste an opportunity to see a show, preferably one I had not seen before, I saw The Fantasticks on Off-Broadway. This is in no way lowering one’s standards. The main difference between Broadway and Off-Broadway, and indeed Off-Off-Broadway as well, is merely the size of the theatres. One can therefore understand how a show will move from Off-Broadway to Broadway; it would be because of the size of the audience and the show’s popularity, and not because of any lesser standard. The Fantasticks originally ran from 1960 until 2002. This production is a recent revival in August last year. I had seen it in Durban in the, now sadly defunct, St John’s Theatre in 1975 and at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre in 1983. I was surprised at how well I remembered the storyline, albeit a rather simple one, and the staging. The book and lyrics are by Tom Jones with music by Harvey Schmidt and the show contains that evergreen number Try to Remember. An interesting aspect of this production was that it was directed by Tom Jones himself and he also performed in it as the Old Actor (Henry). This was his first acting appearance on the New York stage since December 1960 and he resumed his theatrical nom de plume, Thomas Bruce, which he originally used then.

Very recently opened, Legally Blonde, based on the novel which had been made into a very popular film, is now playing to packed houses as a very well adapted musical. The wealthy socialite blonde, Ellie Woods, is all set to marry her great catch, Warner Huntington III but he drops her as not being suitable for the illustrious political career he is mapping out for himself and he goes off to Harvard Law School. Not to give up easily, Ellie follows him. The story line is very good and the sets, costumes, musical score and singing do it full justice. It is a most enjoyable light-hearted show. Curtains is another new musical on Broadway, starring Debra Monk, a great Broadway star, and David Hyde Pierce, well known as the younger brother Niles Crane in the very popular TV series Frasier. Not only is this an excellent musical, it is a murder thriller with bodies turning up giving many twists to the story. David Hyde Pierce, as Lieutenant Frank Cioffi of the Boston Police Department, a wannabe performer and dedicated lover of musicals, is assigned to solve the case. The music and lyrics are by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, respectively. They are, of course, known for their mega hits Cabaret and Chicago, both having been produced several times in South Africa. The score and libretto of this show are just as good as their previous shows.

I expected a great deal from the new musical The Pirate Queen by Alain Boubill and Claude-Michel Schonberg after seeing their magnificent Les Misèrables and Miss Saigon, and wasn’t entirely disappointed although the show was marred by very bad sound, especially in the first half. Many of the words, particularly of the Pirate Queen herself, were almost inaudible. However, the show had not been doing well, despite the full house on the night I went, and the run of the show had been publicised to end on June 17, ten days after I saw it, at a loss of nearly $18 million. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the cast. The storyline improved in the second half. It is based on the real life Irish woman Grace O’Malley (1530–1603), who defended her country and her culture against occupation by England, as well as her confrontation with Queen Elizabeth I. There was superb Irish dancing, worthy of Riverdance.

I had missed Frost/Nixon when I was in London last year, as the run had finished. Luckily it had transferred to Broadway, with the same two actors, Frank Langella as Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen (remember him as Prime Minister Tony Blair in the film The Queen?) as David Frost. The play is based on the ground breaking TV interviews where David Frost obtained Richard Nixon’s confession of his involvement in the Watergate affair. Great theatre! Equally riveting was the fictional play Inherit the Wind based on the “monkey trial” in which the school teacher John Scopes was put on trial for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. It starred those two giants of stage and screen, Brian Dennehy as the prosecution lawyer Matthew Harrison Brady (based on Williams Jennings Bryan) and Christopher Plummer as Henry Drummer, the defence lawyer, based on Clarence Darrow who had defended John Scopes. The name of the teacher in the play is changed to Bert Cates.

Another play starring two great names of stage and screen was Deuce, with Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes as a legendary doubles tennis pair who had ruled the women’s tennis circuit in the 1960s and 1970s before retiring in their late 30s to lead separate lives. They are now reunited, after not seeing each other in over ten years, as celebrity guests of the Women’s Tennis Association at the United States Open in Forest Hills. They reminisce centre stage and hold the audience spellbound for the duration of the play which is performed without an interval. They are supported by an admirer, who steps from the wings at times with his comments, and a male and a female announcer in their commentary box narrating the match and singing the praises of the two retired tennis pros. Magnificent use was made of large projections on huge screens of the spectators in the stands watching the tennis match that Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes are watching. These projections are blurred so as not to detract from the actresses and rise to their feet, etc. at appropriate moments of the tennis match, supporting the dialogue of the main actresses and the commentators.

110 in the Shade is a musical adaptation of N Richard Nash’s play The Rain Maker, which tells the story of the plain Lizzie Curry, destined to be a spinster, keeping house for her father and two brothers. Her life is turned upside down by the arrival of Starbuck, a con man who promises rain. The beautiful Audra McDonald, a four times Tony Award winner for Carousel, Master Class, Ragtime and A Raisin in the Sun, is magnificent as the dowdy Lizzie Curry. On a far lighter note was the fluffy Xanadu, based on the cult movie which starred Olivia Newton-John as the Greek muse Clio with whom a Californian beach bum falls in love. Kerry Butler even performs the role of Clio with an Australian accent. The ten member cast have great fun in the multiple human and Greek myth roles, which include Sirens, Cyclops, Eros, Hera, Medusa, Zeus, Centaur and many, many others. They skate about the stage on occasion and there is even a featured skater. The show is enjoyable as the cast, although completely professional, do not take themselves too seriously. It is not the most cerebral show on Broadway but it is fun.

The absolute highlight of my trip was the Tony Awards Ceremony on June 10. I was in the audience at Radio City Music Hall and saw it live. It really was fantastic and I had to keep on pinching myself all night as I couldn't believe I was actually there. There are schedules of what is on at the Broadway Theatres (like in the West End) and tourist booklets which detail what shows are on there and Off-Broadway, but what is on at Radio City Music Hall isn't always that well publicised. So when I have gone to New York I have walked to the theatre to check if there has been anything on during my visits. (As a result I have seen two Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectaculars.) There were no shows on during my stay except the Tony Awards ceremony on Sunday June 10 which had been very widely advertised. So I went to the Box Office at Radio City and confirmed that there was nothing on during my stay in New York. I then said "I know it is a stupid question, but can the public get tickets to see the Tony Awards?" The assistant replied that we could, but only through TicketMaster and using a Visa credit card. Fortunately I had established that local phone calls from the hotel room were free, so, back at the hotel I phoned TicketMaster. There were tickets, at US$204.50 + $16.85 charge + $2.50 for the use of a foreign credit card, total $223.85. (To put this in context, the theatre tickets, best available, are $111.50 for musicals and $96.25 for plays). The ticket could be posted to me or e-mailed (I saw many e-tickets at the various theatres). As I had no computer and, being South African, I don't trust the postal system, I could collect the ticket from the Theatre from 18h00. We had to be seated by 19h00 for the live broadcast at 20h00. I was very concerned as the Music Hall holds 6,000 people and there are always HUGE queues so I expected the same at the Box Office.

Anyway, I arrived at the Music Hall just after 17h00 (after seeing Xanadu at a matinee) and was able to get my ticket immediately, not at tables in the foyer as intimated but at the Box Office (with my credit card and ID, which weren’t actually asked for - I had a reservation number). I was the only one there and obtained my ticket exceptionally easily. Printed on it was “Black tie only, please”. I asked the chap at the Box Office if this was essential and he said “They won’t kick you out”. I replied that I wasn’t in the main downstairs section. I could have walked back to the hotel for a tie (I was wearing a jacket) but I was a bit lazy. Of course, I saw just about everyone in dress suits when I joined the line to get into the theatre (past security like at an airport) at 17h45. The line started moving at 18h05 and I was in the foyer at 18h23!

One gets the Playbill programmes at all the Broadway and Off-Broadway shows free and they are plentiful. This time our tickets were clipped as we were handed the Playbill (which was really thick and with a wealth of information, obviously a collector's item.) The preliminary awards started at 19h15 and the live CBS TV broadcast at 20h00. You'll probably know that the actual broadcasts in the past have had an insert of "the following awards were made earlier" with edited video clips. This is from where they come. My seat was in the back row of the Mezzanine - I think there are four levels - but there are large TV screens so one can see everything well. During the scheduled CBS commercial breaks they show video clips on a big central screen. These were really, really good and interesting. At the end of the show I walked around the theatre - on my level and the ground floor level looking for a discarded Playbill but there was none. However, I did find, and pocketed, a running schedule of the programme used by the TV camera operators, showing absolute split second timing of each of the acts, talks and where the nominees were seated, absolutely fantastic!

The musical Spring Awakening won many awards, viz. Best Musical, Best Featured Actor in a Musical (John Gallagher Jr), Best Score, Best Choreographer and Best Book. There was a number from the show on the Tony Awards. I had not yet seen this show but had booked for it for the following night, the Monday night, and my last night in New York. It really was an amazing night to see the show, i.e. the night after it had received all those Tony Awards. The musical is staged with audience members seated on either side of the stage (as had occurred in the extract on the Tony Awards). Several shows do this, e.g. Xanadu and Inherit the Wind, mentioned above.

In Spring Awakening the audience members are seated - not all the seats are filled - and when the show starts the cast walk on stage and take their places in the seats on the aisles next to the audience members. When the cast walked on, they received applause which must have lasted about three to four minutes. When the featured actor stood on the chair in the show to deliver his song (part of the show) the audience again must have given a three to four minute applause. At the end of the show they, of course, received a stranding ovation (all the shows on Broadway do) but this must have lasted for three to five minutes and Steven Slater (Book & Lyrics), Duncan Sheik (Music), Bill T Jones (Choreographer) and Michael Mayer (Director) who had been sitting in the audience came on stage and joined the cast. It really was a magical evening to have seen the show.

Another Tony Award winner, Best Actor in a Musical, i.e. David Hyde Pierce in Curtains, I think was a bit of a surprise as he was up against stiff competition. I really cheered as I was thrilled. In addition to the performance of a number from Spring Awakening, the Tony Awards show included live musical numbers from Curtains, A Chorus Line, 110 in the Shade, Mary Poppins, Company, Grey Gardens and Fantasia. I had seen several of the award winners, on this or on the previous trip to New York in November last year - Actor in a Play (Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon), Actress in a Musical (Christine Ebersole, Grey Gardens), Featured Actress in a Musical (Mary Louise Wilson, Grey Gardens), Musical Revival (Company) - and one of the shows in London Journey's End which won Best Play Revival last year. Winners I hadn't seen were Best Play The Coast of Utopia; Best Featured Actor in a Play (Billy Crudup); Best Featured Actress in a Play (Jennifer Ehle); Actress in a Play (Julie White in The Little Dog Laughed), and Special Tony (Jay Johson: The Two and Only). I had, of course, seen several of the other nominations in the various categories.

The rock musical Spring Awakening is adapted from the play written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind and which was banned by the German authorities because of its sexual nature. It dwells on the sexual awakening of adolescents in the repressive environment and times of a provincial German town in 1890, with tragic consequences. The teenagers are left to learn of their blossoming sexuality with no adult advice or the worst possible, if any. The period costumes lend credence to the Victorian views on sex. However, I found the neon lights on the side and references to the modern vernacular jarring. For example an actor mentioned his music system at one time. I cannot remember the term but this predates its invention by several decades. The anachronisms are no doubt intentional as this is meant to be a modern rock musical with contemporary musical vernacular and hand-held microphones.




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