I’ve just returned from a quick trip to New York, and crammed a lot more in three days than even I am usually accustomed to. I feel like I’ve seen pretty much every single show currently playing on Broadway — or due on Broadway in the next eight months — from Spider-man - Turn off the Dark (twice over, in addition to the various incarnations I’d seen three times before) to the upcoming Scandalous and Motown - the Musical; and I did it all in just one day on Sunday!
Let me explain. On Sunday morning, I joined the eager throngs in Times Square — though I was able to watch from the relative comfort (and proximity) of the press bleachers right beside the stage— for the annual free Broadway on Broadway concert.
Here, current and future shows — from such long-runners as Mamma Mia! and Chicago and newer entries like Once, Newsies and Bring It On to yet-to-open ones like the aforementioned Scandalous and Motown — seized a marketing opportunity to put their goods on display in Broadway’s biggest 3D infomercial shop-window this side of the Tony Awards. As @BroadwayGirlNYC perceptively tweeted on the day, “If the Tony Award is Broadway’s Christmas, then Broadway on Broadway is our New Year’s Eve.”
The West End now has its own version of this event West End Live, staged annually in Trafalgar Square. Ironically, given how everything on Broadway is usually bigger (if not better) than the way we do things in London — especially when it comes to (over)hype — West End Live is actually a more impressive event nowadays, running over two days, not two hours, and occupying a far bigger physical space than the Broadway one.
But Broadway on Broadway at least gives audiences a free taster of shows that would cost them over $1000 to see if they saw them all; and it also means they don’t have to sit through the rest of Spider-man - Turn off the Dark, either. As Reeve Carney (the mercifully uninjured — and uncovered — actor playing the title role) was joined by Spider-man suited dancers, the taster here was the best kind of commercial for it, because it actually made you want to see the rest of it.
For the best of it, though, you’d be better off seeing the latest edition of Forbidden Broadway, the priceless and enduring satirical revue that has returned to off-Broadway after a three-year hiatus, for its 21st edition across the last thirty years. A recent New York Times feature observed, “In 2008, when Gerard Alessandrini, the creator of Forbidden Broadway, announced that he was bringing down the curtain on the show after 27 years and some 9,700 performances, it was taken as a sign that Broadway had become so bland that even the sharpest satirical wits could find no blood to draw.”
And, it went on, “Broadway’s growing penchant for self-mockery — as well as the comic hay made of the disaster-prone Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark — may have stolen Mr. Alessandrini’s thunder in recent years. But for some there’s still no substitute for an old-fashioned Forbidden Broadway close-up.”
And this value-for-money mash-up of last season’s hits and misses, as well as earlier still running shows like Rock of Ages, Jersey Boys, Wicked and The Book of Mormon, is an irresistible collage of alternately cynical and affectionate irreverence. Seeing it on Sunday evening, after Broadway on Broadway’s hard-sell in the morning, this was where I was able to see Spider-man again, this time complete with flying puppets standing in for the show’s flying, and its original, now fired, creator Julie Taymor and composer Bono going head-to-head and, in the words of Ben Brantley, “duking it out to the tune of a song from Guys and Dolls (yep, the one that repeats the lyrics ‘sue me’.)”
I don’t want to spoil the jokes by citing any of the other jokes or lyrics re-workings, but suffice to say that last season’s Evita, Nice Work If You can Get It, Newsies, Porgy and Bess, Once and Ghost all get the Forbidden Broadway treatment, as does Tracie Bennett’s Judy Garland impersonation in End of the Rainbow. Since both that and Ghost are now shut, this is the only way to see them now.
I also took in repeat viewings over the weekend for not one but two landmark shows of their eras, Porgy and Bess and Rent. The latter, which began off-Broadway in 1996 at New York Theatre Workshop before quickly transferring to Broadway’s Nederlander, has gone full-circle to return to off-Broadway, where it played at the theatrical hypermarket of New World Stages just off 8th Avenue until finally closing on Sunday. Seeing it there the day before, I was struck first of all by how the subterranean New World Stages is, despite both its escalators being out-of-commission, paradoxically classier than the grungy, pre-refurb Nederlander Theatre where it played on Broadway.
But then Rent now feels like it provides a tourist-eye view of a 90s phenomenon. The grit may have gone, but the great tunes and youthful energy remain. And it’s good to hear the its score in its complex entirety and intensity again, punchily tendered by a young, mostly unknown cast. (Meanwhile, by coincidence, Anthony Rapp — the show’s original Mark — is currently re-visiting Rent in London in a one-man show at the Menier Chocolate Factory called Without You, running to September 15.)
Rent, of course, famously conscripts the story of La Boheme to create a contemporary pop opera set in New York’s East Village. But Porgy and Bess, on the other hand, is the real deal - Broadway’s most authentic original opera, first premiered there in 1935, and since co-opted by opera houses from Glyndebourne to the Met. Seeing it again on Broadway, Diane Paulus’s production — which I first saw in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the summer of 2011 — has a majestic power thanks to the performances of Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald in the title roles.