I can remember only too well the day I stood in Tower Records, a block from Lincoln Center on New York’s Upper West Side, and turned to my friend Barry Kleinbort (a New York director and writer) and said, “I wonder if this place will still be here in three years time?”
It closed in two. (Its now a Raymour and Flanigan furniture store, and a couple of months I found myself back there, buying a bed for the midtown apartment that my partner and I now own here; I come here so often that we decided to invest something so we could buy a little piece of Manhattan for ourselves).
And now there isn’t a single major store selling CDs in New York: the Virgin megastore in Times Square has closed down, too, and so have all the HMV outlets. That only leaves Colony on Broadway (more a sheet music emporium than CD shop) and the downtown J&R Music.
The New York equivalent to Dress Circle, Footlight Records near Union Square, closed seven years ago, with its owner Ron Saja saying at the time, “Right now, the industry sucks… there aren’t a lot of collectors like years ago. You know, it used to be you went to your college dance and someone was spinning 45s. Now there’s a computer with 10,000 songs on it—what’s to get excited about? And anyway, most new collectors want the same thing: 20 different languages of The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miz and Rent.” Footlights lives on only as an online business.
Earlier this week it was announced that Dress Circle is now following suit, closing as a retail outlet on August 15 and migrating exclusively to the web. It has been done in by a combination of high rents, low West End footfall during the Olympics, and most fatally what owner Murray Allan described as “the ever changing way that people are buying music.” As he said in a statement posted on the shop’s website, “With CDs becoming relics and downloads being more popular, Dress Circle, the shop, has struggled to keep up for a long time and we have reached the point that we are no longer able to continue.”
Yes, of course you can buy CDs or access downloads online quicker (and possibly more cheaply) than via visiting a shop like Dress Circle; but you simply can’t browse in the same way. And a major musical theatre community resource has also been lost; a place where record signings often took place, sometimes with mini concerts beforehand. I’m told that people queued all day for the Barry Manilow and Ramin Karimloo signings at the shop.
I can’t quite believe that its distinctive steel grill gate will be shut forever now. It’s a sad loss.
After the brilliant ruse of staging Into the Woods at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park that Timothy Sheader runs so successfully, he has now gone one better and brought it to New York’s Central Park, where the Delacorte Theatre is situated in even more wood-like terrain than Regent’s Park and seems to recede endlessly into the distance behind the stage.
Seeing it under a perfect New York full moon sky on Tuesday night, on a beautifully warm and clear night, made for a welcome homecoming for a show that was born some 36 blocks further south at Broadway’s Martin Beck (now renamed the Al Hirschfeld) 25 years ago. I can’t comment officially on this production till it opens next week; but I remember seeing the original Broadway production back in 1987 very fondly — and it’s particularly wonderful now to see Chip Zien, who played the Baker in it, back at the Delacorte playing the Mysterious Man this time.
In a recent interview with Playbill.com, Zien recalled then and now and said, “One of the interesting things was that songs like ‘No One Is Alone’— one of my songs that I got to sing — and ‘No More’ were not there at the beginning of rehearsal. So I think back to wonderful memories of Sondheim coming in with a manuscript — music manuscript paper — under his arm and folding it out on the piano and banging out and singing for us…. [‘No More’] was, for me, such an exciting moment because it had been written in my key — essentially written for me. And, I looked at Paul Gemignani, a big bear of a guy, and he’s just crying… In fact, today we’re going to rehearse ‘No More,’ and I’m going to sing the other side of it. It’s very emotional, and also because I was so fond of Tom Aldredge, who played that role, and I just hope I do him justice.”
In the dog days of summer, it used to be that big chunks of Broadway would not only go dark as the post-Tony award clear-out claimed its casualties, but new shows wouldn’t typically open, either, till the new season started in September or October. But this year has seen not just a brief summer return for Fela! but also the arrival of the touring musical Bring It On, which opened on Wednesday night.
As Patrick Healy wrote in a New York Times feature in June, “The height of summer and the dead of winter are the worst times to open a Broadway show, since too many theatergoers are distracted by vacations and weather. But the lure of empty New York theaters has led the producers of two multimillion-dollar touring musicals to bring them to town for limited engagements, starting in July, in hopes of earning short-term profits and adding Broadway cachet before sending the shows back on the road.
As the line in Into the Woods puts it, “opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.” I routinely add a riposte, “But opportunists are.” Both Bring It On and Fela! spied an opportunity that also helped plug a useful gap in their touring schedules: as the New York Times put it, Fela! had no other prime booking opportunities for the summer before its international tour heads next to Australia and Japan, a similar situation faced by Bring It On.”
So their producers brought them in. Jordan Roth, who runs the Jujamcyn chain in whose theatres both shows are playing, said, “It was about opportunity: the right show, with the right theater available, at the right time.” While Fela! ends its limited run at the Hirshfeld this weekend, I strongly suspect that the gamble on Bring It On will work: here’s another musical in a direct line from High School Musical to Glee that may not only bring in new, younger audiences to Broadway, but also delivers a series of dazzling acrobatic feats that may rival Cirque du Soleil’s now annual residency at Radio City Music Hall.
It may mark a kind of death for the traditional musical, but what a way to go! Sure the story is corny, but as scored by serious Broadway hands in Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tom Kitt (who respectively wrote In the Heights and Next to Normal), with lyrics by Amanda Green and a book by Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q, it’s got serious credentials. Yet it also calls on skills from its performers that are far from the usual Broadway triple threat ones: here, they need not only to act, sing and dance, they also need to do amazing acrobatic tricks.
As Amanda Green told Playbill magazine, “All of them are out of their comfort zone,” Green says. “Now it’s, ‘Belt that high D, but belt it while you’re standing on two hands!’”
Quotes of the week: Robert Wilson, the New York director, interviewed in The Times this week to coincide with UK showings of his productions of Krapp’s Last Tape in Enniskillen and Walking near Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk:
On the state of British theatre: “The English have never really taken to my work, and I’ve never really taken to the English either. There’s nothing more boring in the world than having to see theatre in London. It’s horribly mannered and so ugly visually. It’s very provincial. Your island is so cut off.”
On the state of Broadway: “The big problem I have with Broadway is that everything is geared to be understood, like television: this constant ‘Are you getting this?’ from the actors. After a while you don’t understand anything. With something like Einstein on the Beach there’s no story. If you try to make sense of it you’ll end up walking out. It’s something you experience.”
Diary Dates: The Edinburgh Fringe officially kicks off today (although some shows have been going on for a few days already), and I return from New York myself today just in time to get off a plane tonight and on a train to Edinburgh tomorrow morning. And as well as seeing a lot of shows, this year I’m also participating in The Stage Events series of career development seminars: on Monday morning (August 6), I’m hosting a session on blogging, and on Wednesday (August 8), another on careers in theatre journalism. Sessions are free, but reserve your place in advance here.