It’s an interesting fact that Andrew Lloyd Webber got a Broadway production before he ever got a West End one for one of his earliest shows Jesus Christ Superstar, and he does now also hold the record for the longest running Broadway show of all time in the still-ongoing Phantom of the Opera, thus eclipsing such homegrown Broadway greats as Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, or Stephen Sondheim.
And as I pointed out just yesterday, he once again has three shows running simultaneously here.
As well as Phantom, there’s also the revival of Jesus Christ Superstar that was first staged at last year’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, and Michael Grandage’s 2006 West End production of Evita that has now also been re-staged for Broadway, where it opened officially last night at the Marriott Marquis.
The Marquis is truly one of the most soulless of all modern theatres, buried inside an anonymous corporate/conference hotel on Times Square; but it’s actually a surprisingly appropriate venue for this unsparing musical portrait of a grasping, opportunistic woman who put her own vanity and ambition above all else as she fought her way to the top of Argentinian society from considerably humbler beginnings.
This theatre has achieved a similar feat — its inside the tallest hotel building in the theatre district, which replaced four more venerable Broadway theatres that were once located on this stretch that spans 45th and 46th Street on the corner of Broadway itself, and from the theatre lobby area you can actually take an express lift to the View bar and restaurant to find yourself at the top of midtown Manhattan, too.
And this production is also a significant triumph for several more creative people who’ve undergone a similarly big journey to find themselves at the top of the talent pool in international theatre. Director Michael Grandage was once a humble actor, who turned director in regional theatre (via Colchester and Sheffield) to run the Donmar for nearly ten years. Choreographer Rob Ashford was once a dancer who danced on this very stage in the stage version of Victor/Victoria, before earning his choreographic spurs (and his first Tony Award) on Thoroughly Modern Millie that also played at the same address.
But there are even bigger journeys being made elsewhere: Elena Roger, an Argentinian-born singer/dancer, came from nowhere to win the role in the West End, and is now reprising her astonishing performance on Broadway; Ricky Martin, once a Broadway replacement for Marius in the original production of Les Mis, has returned to Broadway for the first time since he became an international pop star to play Che.
Seeing Evita again at a press performance the other night, I was reminded just how great this production is in the tango-inflected choreographic sweep of its constant movement and operatic scale, and how it has, at last, banished the spectre of Hal Prince’s iconic original production that began its life in the West End before going to Broadway. But I also paused for a moment to regret that, though I did see Prince’s production at London’s Prince Edward, it had come and gone from Broadway before I made my first-ever trip to New York at the end of my first undergraduate year in 1983.
While the West End original had made a star of Elaine Paige, the Broadway one did the same for both Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin (as Che), and their quirky, idiosyncratic vocals still make that Broadway cast album the definitive one in my point of view. I also thought while watching the pint-sized dynamo that is Elena Roger as Evita how much she has in common with LuPone: there’s a similar utter immersion in the role, and like LuPone, her voice isn’t exactly a pretty instrument, but its a big, powerful and hugely characterful one.
The current Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar is also much travelled: it opened as part of the season at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada where I saw it last summer, and has now come to Broadway via a West Coast stint in San Diego. Seeing that last weekend made me also think that the show most certainly does not need a reality TV casting show like the one being proposed for the next UK production; it has been cast so perfectly from professional actors here that it gives the lie to the fact that they can’t be found by a more conventional casting process. But then, of course, it’s all about PR value, and what a primetime TV show can achieve in raising public consciousness for the show.
Great shows, though, need no casting gimmicks. But great plays sometimes respond to different casting approaches in different ways. Long Day’s Journey into Night and Death of a Salesman are two of the greatest American plays of the 20th century, and endlessly worth revisiting for the actors who want to face the Lear-like challenges they contain of performing them. Just next week, of course, London is getting a revival of Long Day’s Journey with David Suchet, which opens officially on Tuesday; the last Broadway one starred Brian Dennehy as the patriarch James Tyrone in a cast that also included Philip Seymour Hoffman as his oldest son James Tyrone Jr.
Meanwhile, Death of a Salesman is currently being revived on Broadway; the previous one to this also starred Dennehy as Willy Loman, a role now being played by Hoffman, so it can only be a matter of time before he steps up to play James Tyrone Senior in Long Day’s Journey at some point. And, if his casting in Salesman is anything to go by, that may be sooner rather than later. At the age of 44, he is nearly twenty years too young to play a man of 63 in Salesman; yet he brings an expansive but crumpled resignation to the role that makes you feel like he’s lived that life in all its disappointments already.
As his older son Biff, Andrew Garfield, who is 28, British and leanly muscled, has to play a 34 year old American beefy jock, which makes him unusual casting, too. But as they square off against each other as father and son, locked in damaging cycles of misplaced pride and wounded expectations in each other, they bring such fierce commitment to it that the inconsistencies fall away.