In The Rush To The Tonys, A Late Glut For Theatergoers
By Jeff Lunden
This spring, more than in any recent year, the 2012-2013 Broadway season accelerated toward its conclusion: Nineteen productions opened between the beginning of March and April 25, the cut-off date for Tony eligibility. And many of those shows raised their curtains in the final two weeks of the season.
The Tony Awards are ostensibly given for excellence over the course of an entire year, but all the late openings make me wonder whether producers haven't taken to scheduling their shows strategically to garner Tony nominations and Tony votes for marketing purposes. Is the tail wagging the dog these days?
The glut of spring openings isn't just exhausting for theater critics and reporters — though I certainly heard some grumbles in the lobbies this year. It can also create confusion and overload for theatergoers. Every year, shows that might otherwise have had a chance to run end up folding early because they get lost in the shuffle; the downside of relying on Tony nominations as a primary marketing tool is that if a show doesn't get a few nods, it's time to pull the plug. But shows need time to develop an audience, and that comes — sorry, critics — primarily from good word of mouth.
Sure enough, this season's The Testament of Mary, starring Fiona Shaw, and Orphans, starring Alec Baldwin, announced closings within days of the Tony nominations, only a couple of short weeks after they opened. (Orphans did get a best supporting actor nod for Tom Sturridge's feral, almost acrobatic performance as a disturbed young man, but supporting-actor nominations don't keep a show open.)
Both shows had gotten mixed to positive reviews, and both had received some free, if negative, publicity. In Orphans' case, it was the very public firing of Hollywood actor Shia LeBeouf; in The Testament of Mary's it was the vocal picketing by a Catholic nonprofit, claiming the play's less-than-traditional telling of the Gospels was blasphemy. Could either play have built an audience? I don't know. Neither was really given a chance.
Another late opener, a revival of Frank Wildhorn's once-popular musical Jekyll & Hyde, received wretched reviews and no nominations — and announced its closing almost immediately as well. And, of course, once the Tony winners are declared on June 9, more shows that get shut out will post closing notices.
The rule of thumb has always been three flops for one hit on Broadway, but opening so late in the season somehow makes the flops seem ... floppier. In London, which admittedly has a less high-stakes economic climate for theater, shows open all the time, over the course of 12 months. Maybe more Broadway producers could open shows in the summer and winter, when there's far less competition for crowds and press; if a show excites theatergoers and generates a buzz, it'll find an audience. I honestly think Matilda, Pippin and Kinky Boots would've been hits even if they'd opened in January.
Another trend I've been thinking about is whether Broadway is the correct destination for every show. Orphans, for one, had an impressive yearlong run off-Broadway in the 1980s, where the implied violence among the three characters may have had a more visceral impact in a smaller theater. In the case of The Testament of Mary, a two- or three-week run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music or the Lincoln Center Festival, where more adventurous fare is standard, could have led to sellout crowds and the impression of success. But when you run for a few weeks on Broadway and close, you're a flop.
Alan Cumming's (almost) one-man Macbeth, for instance, was a hit at the Lincoln Center Festival last year; on Broadway, it's doing decent but not great business, and Cumming was ignored by the Tony nominators. If it had been brought back to Lincoln Center for a week or two, I've no doubt it would've sold out again.
And whether you liked or disliked Hands on a Hardbody, a musical based on a documentary about Texans willing to keep their hands on a pickup truck for days in order to win it, it's a small musical that might've seemed larger in a regional theater — it started at the La Jolla Playhouse in California — or a more intimate off-Broadway house.
Sometimes, off-Broadway can do something that's difficult to achieve on Broadway. Two new off-Broadway musical hits, for instance, have created interactive environments for their audiences. At the Public Theater, Here Lies Love, a show about Imelda Marcos with a score by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, turns its theater space into a disco, where the audience moves around to follow the action and is invited to dance. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, meanwhile, is an electro-pop opera adaptation of a section of War and Peace, set in a downtown tent that's been tricked out to look like a Russian nightclub. Audiences eat and drink while the show happens all around them; occasionally, some patrons are asked to deliver a letter or play little percussion instruments.
The intimacy of both spaces and the nontraditional stagings would make these shows a tough transfer to Broadway. That said, it's not a hard-and-fast rule; hit shows like Avenue Q and Once have made the leap, and worked quite well in larger theaters.
But back to Broadway. What kind of Broadway season was it? Well, with some notable exceptions, the consensus is that it was a fairly mediocre one. According to the Broadway League, box office totals stayed pretty much the same as last season — at $1.14 billion for the year — but attendance slid 6.2 percent. The reason for the drop in attendance? Fewer playing weeks, partially because of the April openings crush and partially because of Superstorm Sandy.
The reason ticket sales remained on par from last season? Mainly a result of the premium ticket prices that producers charge for the most desirable seats in the house. Lucky Guy, the Nora Ephron play with Tom Hanks in the lead, has premium ticket prices from $225 to $350; it recouped its investment in a scant two months.
More on that show later. Elsewhere, nine new musicals opened, as did 14 new plays, five musical revivals and 12 play revivals. The fall was something of a washout, though; it was the spring that brought most of the hits Broadway craves. How will the Tonys assess the season? Here are my thoughts and predictions about some of the major categories — with my best guess at the winners in bold.
Bring It On: The Musical
A Christmas Story, The Musical
Matilda the Musical
Broadway lives and dies on the box-office appeal of big musicals, and this April three new hits opened: Matilda, a fresh adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's book about a spunky 5-year-old from England's Royal Shakespeare Company; Kinky Boots, a more conventional adaptation of an indie film about how a failing English shoe factory saves itself by making sturdy footwear for drag queens, with a score by Cyndi Lauper; and Motown: The Musical, Berry Gordy's personal memoir about his years making hits for the likes of The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and Michael Jackson, featuring more than 50 songs.
The last was almost completely shut out of the Tony nominations — and frankly, when it stops singing, it's almost amateur hour — but on the basis of the Motown catalog and the sometimes uncanny impersonations of the artists, it's been a huge hit. Don't underestimate the tourist trade — they're what keeps Broadway alive, and I suspect Motown will be running after the vastly superior Matilda and Kinky Boots are gone.
But for the big prize, the race between Matilda and Kinky Boots is neck and neck. The production values of Matilda, which features a wild set of Scrabble tiles that burst across the proscenium, are superb, as are the actors, child and adult, in this wildly imaginative show. I think Dennis Kelly will win best book over Harvey Fierstein (for Kinky Boots), but one of the most constant criticisms of Matilda is that it's hard to understand a lot of the lyrics in the chorus numbers. Poor diction? Overzealous sound design? (Matilda is, to quote one of the songs, LOUD.)
While Australian comedian Tim Minchin's score for Matilda is very clever, I suspect the Tony in that category will go to Cyndi Lauper for Kinky Boots. She's written songs that acknowledge her pop roots and are infectious to boot (pun intended). The winner of best actor in a musical will undoubtedly go to a man in drag this year: Bertie Carvel in Matilda gives a bizarre and singular performance as Miss Trunchbull, the gorgon principal of Crunchem Hall, and Kinky Boots star Billy Porter gives a fierce but warm performance as the drag queen Lola, who teaches some lessons in dignity and manhood to the blue-collar shoe-factory workers (and, by extension, to the audience). Who will win? I can't predict. They're both pretty terrific in very showy roles.
Aside from Matilda and Kinky Boots, the rest of the new-musicals slate this season was pretty mediocre, with the notable exception of A Christmas Story; that seasonal show was pleasing in an old-fashioned way, and marked the Broadway debut of two very talented young songwriters, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. They got nominated for a Tony, and I suspect we'll be hearing more from them.
The Assembled Parties
The Testament of Mary
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Unlike last season, which most critics felt was an excellent one for new plays, this year was fairly disappointing on Broadway. None of the plays that opened in the fall were nominated, and all of them are already gone — among them David Mamet's The Anarchist, which starred Patti LuPone and Debra Winger; Theresa Rebeck's Dead Accounts, which starred Katie Holmes; and Craig Wright's Grace, which showcased Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon and Ed Asner. None of those high-profile actors earned nominations, either.
Things picked up in January, with Sharr White's The Other Place, featuring Laurie Metcalf in a virtuosic performance as a woman fighting the onset of dementia. But the plays that would eventually be nominated for Tonys all opened in the April crunch, and all had their positives and negatives.
Perhaps the most anticipated was Lucky Guy, Nora Ephron's final play, about Pulitzer Prize-winning tabloid journalist Mike McAlary. It stars Tom Hanks in an impressive Broadway debut, and has a top-notch ensemble cast directed by George C. Wolfe in his typically muscular, theatrical style. There was something poignant about a play written by a woman dying of cancer portraying a writer who died of cancer, but many critics felt the play itself was rather thin; instead of delving into scenes and characters, Lucky Guy directs the vast majority of its dialogue directly to the audience. Still, I think Hanks, Wolfe and supporting actor Courtney B. Vance have very good odds of winning Tony Awards for their work.
Richard Greenberg's The Assembled Parties, meanwhile, was a rambling look at dreams dashed on Manhattan's Upper West Side, featuring two strong performances from Jessica Hecht (not nominated) and Judith Light (a Tony winner last year and a contender again this time despite strong competition in the featured-actress category). The Testament of Mary was a fascinating monologue, notwithstanding what many thought was an overly busy staging and an overwrought performance from Fiona Shaw (not nominated).
That leaves Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang's funny if dramaturgically messy riff on Chekhov, set in contemporary Bucks County. It featured some brilliantly comic turns by Kristine Nielsen, David Hyde Pierce, Shalita Grant and Billy Magnussen (all nominated). I think it will win the Tony for best play — which doesn't often happen for a comedy — because Christopher Durang has been part of the New York theater scene for more than 30 years, and because audiences come out of this show feeling good.
Special mention must be made of The Nance, Douglas Carter Beane's play about gay life and burlesque in the 1930s, starring Nathan Lane, who gives one of his finest performances to date; he could give Hanks a run for the money as best actor in a play.
Best Revival of a Musical
Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
This one is no contest: Diane Paulus' circus-inspired reimagining of the 1972 Stephen Schwartz-Bob Fosse musical Pippin, which is ostensibly about Charlemagne's son but really about showbiz razzmatazz. It's a huge, audience-pleasing hit.
Also no contest is Andrea Martin for best featured actress in a musical; her turn as Berthe, the randy grandmother in Pippin, is jaw-dropping, death-defying and utterly charming. I think Paulus herself has a good shot to win best direction of a musical. And one of the biggest heroines of the production is Gypsy Snider, who created the circus acts for both veteran circus performers and Broadway song-and-dance vets; unfortunately there's no possibility of an award for her unique contribution, since she's neither a director nor a choreographer per se.
Chet Walker, who re-creates and reimagines Fosse's original dances for Pippin, could take best choreography. Honorable mention goes to several of Cinderella's charming performers: Laura Osnes, Victoria Clark and Santino Fontana all give strong performances, and all are nominated for awards. I think the best actress Tony is a tossup between Patina Miller, who's the Leading Player in Pippin, and Osnes, the title character in Cinderella. Both are impressive in very different roles.
Best Revival of a Play
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Trip to Bountiful
This was a bountiful season for play revivals — and my own favorite was The Trip to Bountiful. But I think the Tony will go to the most lauded of this season's revivals, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
An import from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, it featured devastating turns by Tracy Letts (better known as the playwright of the Tony-winning August: Osage County) and Amy Morton, as Albee's bitterly combative, profoundly interdependent spouses George and Martha.
But don't count out Golden Boy, a lovingly re-created revival of a creaky Clifford Odets play with some terrific performances — both Danny Burstein and Tony Shalhoub are deservedly up for Tonys as best featured actor — and sensitive direction by Bartlett Sher, also up for a Tony.
Trip to Bountiful, which opened shortly before the qualifying deadline, is a charming production featuring some beautiful acting. The seemingly ageless Cicely Tyson takes on the lead role of Carrie Watts, and carries the show; I think she has a very good shot at winning the best actress Tony.
And Condola Rashad is lovely as the young bride whom Carrie befriends on the titular journey; she's got a shot at winning best featured actress.