Broadway has often been described as a fabulous invalid, a moniker taken from a 1938 Kaufman/Hart play that ran for less than two months in 1938 — and as a sign of another era of theatre entirely, had a cast that featured no less than 73 actors!
But the term nowadays is appropriated to refer to an industry that seems to lurch from crisis to crisis, but keeps rising again from the ashes. There’s certainly no shortage of shows always lining up to take the theatres vacated by shows that have flopped. And for an invalid, it does pretty well in boosting the New York economy.
According to a report just published by the Broadway League, Broadway helped generate $11.2billion in spending by New York tourists. Some of that, of course, was partly spent on creating and maintaining both the shows and theatres that those visits were in aid of, with some $2.2billion in expenses filed against mounting and running the shows, and $22.3m to renovate or restore the theatres in which they are playing.
But it’s a win-win situation for the city, too: according to the New York Times, “based on those figures Broadway helped generate $550 million in taxes to New York City during the 2010-11 season and support 86,000 jobs.”
Against that good news, there’s also the slightly more worrying news that producers, as ever, are capitalising on their hits by forcing a bigger hit on the eager audiences’ wallets to see their goods: the sell-out revival of Death of a Salesman closed last weekend in New York, but not before setting a record for the highest price ever charged at the box office by a production, with premium ticket prices topping out at $499 each.
It was part of an attempt to draw revenues to the box office itself instead of seeing the demand for tickets resulting in windfalls to scalpers; but if the box office was charging $499, it simply pushed up the scalper price in the process, with lead producer Scott Rudin telling the New York Times that tickets were selling on StubHub for up to $1,600 for the final performance.
But the $499 he was charging was, he said, “also a way to make sure people involved with our production were being paid instead of the brokers.” Perhaps it would have been more accurate to say that the people involved were being paid as well as the brokers, instead of instead of them.
Who doesn’t love a flop musical? The creators of them, that’s who! Peter Michael Marino wrote the book for one in London in 2007: a film-to-stage version of Desperately Seeking Susan that conscripted the songs of Blondie to tell its story, and after a successful workshop, arrived dead on arrival onstage at the Novello, recieving the sort of notices that were encapsulated by Charlie Spencer’s headline in the Telegraph: “Desperately Seeking the Exit”. Now Marino has conscripted that headline as the title to a virtuoso one-man show that he himself performs, with stunning energy and irresistible panache, that he’s bringing to the Edinburgh Fringe in August, but has been trying out at a comedy club on East 24th Street and Park, near the Flatiron building, where I saw it on Sunday.
He brilliantly and bitterly distilled his experiences on the show, channelling this thrilling, hilarious & anxiety-inducing ride on the coat-tails of a flop’s creation into something that is paradoxically a sure-fire hit. No one sets out to create a flop, of course; but for anyone who’s ever wondered how those wrong turns are made that result in them, here’s a show that itemises them in great and revealing detail.
Nor does he play the victim himself (or adopt the classic default position of blaming the critics for its failure): instead he gives a simultaneously objective yet also deeply personal account of the creative problems that the show encountered that proved why it inevitably failed — but also the personal cost to himself (in every sense) that made it so bruising, as everyone pulled in different directions at the same time on it and there was no one at the helm — either director or producer — who could keep all the participants working to the same end.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a ‘repeater’: if I like a show, I love to go back (and have even been known to go back to shows I don’t like, to find out why I didn’t! One of the latter was Desperately Seeking Susan, in fact, which I went back to the final matinee of, as I wrote about here at the time).
But there’s nothing but pleasure sometimes in returning to a show you love, where the experience only deepens and expands with repeat viewings. Of course we do it already regularly with the classics — this year I’ve already seen two Uncle Vanya’s and am looking forward to a third when Cate Blanchett stars in the Sydney Theatre Company production in New York in July as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. But those were each in different productions: sometimes I like to see the same production again and again.
Thus it is that I returned again to Once this week, which I’d already seen twice (first off-Broadway in its original outing at New York Theatre Workshop, then again after it moved to Broadway), but now wanted to see for a third time. Each time has been slightly different: first between the venues, off-Broadway and on; and then between the two Broadway visits, because the first time I saw it there the lead actress was out of the show. So this week I saw it with its complete cast on Broadway for the first time, and was utterly floored, overwhelmed by its delicacy and simplicity.
The show — sorrowful, soulful, sad and sincere — is truly transfixing, mining deep reservoirs of unspoken emotion and raw feeling from the simplest, aching combination of music, movement and mood. But it also got me wondering why, given that it’s creative team is entirely British/Irish, the show couldn’t have been created at home, but they had to go to New York to create it.
Once proves, once again, the importance of theatres like New York Theatre Workshop that allow such creative endeavour to flourish, without specifically commercial pressures which then allowed it to find its audience. The same thing happened with Peter and the Starcatcher which, after a prior run in San Diego, also began its New York life at New York Theatre Workshop — the same place where Rent was born. But wherever it was made, Once is one of a kind; a musical based on a film that’s full of heart and art and grace. I can’t wait for it to be brought to London.
With the Tony Awards on Sunday, everyone in the New York theatrical media is offering their own predictions of the winners, so in that spirit, here are mine in the major categories:
* Best Musical: I want Once to win, but I think Newsies will. I hope I’m wrong.
* Best Musical Revival: Porgy and Bess NEEDS the award; Follies will win it.
* Leading Actor in a Musical: I want Steve Kazee to win for Once or Norm Lewis for Porgy and Bess, but Jeremy Jordan is likely to win for Newsies.
* Leading Actress in a Musical: Audra McDonald already has four Tony’s for featured performances (two in plays, two in musicals); this time she finally gets a Tony for a lead performance as Bess in Porgy and Bess.
* Best Direction of a Musical: It should be John Tiffany for Once, but it might be Jeff Calhoun for Newsies.
* Best Play: Clybourne Park will add a Tony to the Olivier and Pulitzer it already has.
* Best Play Revival: No contest: Death of a Salesman has the award in the bag.
* Best Direction of a Play: Ditto for revival: Mike Nichols gets the award for Death of a Salesman.
* Best Leading Actor in a Play: It would be nice if James Corden won it for One Man Two Guvnors, but Philip Seymour Hoffman likely to take it for Death of a Salesman.
* Best Leading Actress in a Play: It would be nice if Tracie Bennett won it for End of the Rainbow, but the star-making turn from Nina Ariadna is likely to take it for Venus in Furs.
Review quotes of the week:
From Daniel M Gold’s review for the New York Times of the import of Potted Potter from London to off-Broadway’s Little Shubert Theatre: “Billed as ‘the unauthorized Harry experience,’ this parody makes the perfect claim for the Twitter age: all seven books — roughly 4,000 pages — in 70 minutes.”
From David Cote’s review for Time Out New York of Empire, a circus show being staged at Spiegelworld, set up in a parking lot next door to the Imperial Theatre on W45th Street: “If I may don the critic-curmudgeon hat: People don’t see life anymore; they record it. Behold the hordes of mouth breathers shuffling through Times Square, digital cameras and smartphones extended like a buffer against reality as they suck up gigabytes of banal data later to be vomited on social-media platforms for the mild amusement of strangers and the enrichment of billionaires. Normally I don’t care about a person’s mediated, zomboid existence, but when some ass-monkey at Spiegelworld: Empire blocks my view to shoot a home movie of the sexy acrobats, I object.” Sounds like there are Bianca Jagger’s everywhere…..