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by Michael Portantiere

Year-End Musings and Follow-Ups

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    Year-End Musings and Follow Ups

    It's been an especially dramatic, event-filled year in the theater -- and in real life. So I thought I'd take this opportunity to revisit or address for the first time some of the most interesting people, shows, and occurrences of 2008.


    You Can't Buy Love, But You Can Buy Rent
    Few people realize it, but we are on the verge of a revolution that may shake up the theater industry in a tremendously positive way. The digital "cinecast" of the Broadway production of Rent that was seen in movie theaters all over the country was a stunning artistic achievement, and I believe it also did well at the box office. In one fell swoop, it demonstrated a thrilling, new, relatively low-cost alternative method of preserving and showcasing Broadway musicals (and plays) that, for one reason or another, might not work well in traditional film adaptations. If this isn't enough of a watershed in itself, consider: To date, the number of Broadway productions that have been seen on television and/or made available on home video is extremely small, mostly because it has always been considered a daunting challenge for producers to come to financial terms with the theatrical unions. But the way has been cleared for the Rent cinecast to be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in February, and I predict it will sell well enough to firmly establish a major, heretofore untapped revenue stream for Broadway shows. I'm telling you, guys, this could be the start of something huge.

    I'm Just Wild About Harry Potter
    Some film and/or TV stars come to Broadway and disappoint us because their work is not up to snuff, they never really become part of the theater community, or they just can't hack the eight-performance-a-week schedule. (I guess we can list the name "Jeremy Piven" in that last category.) Then there are people like Daniel Radcliffe. A major movie star for his title role in the Harry Potter series, Radcliffe has been duly praised for his performance as Alan Strang in Equus As far as I know, he hasn't yet missed a single show. (If he had, I think we all would have heard about it.) On top of all this, Radcliffe's tireless efforts during the recent Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fundraising campaign -- particularly his auctioning of several pairs of jeans he wore in the show -- helped the company of Equus raise more than $200,000 for that essential organization. The show is scheduled to run through February 8, and whenever Daniel Radcliffe chooses to return to The Street thereafter, he will be welcomed back with wide open arms.

    Everything's Coming Up Karma
    When the current Broadway revival of Gypsy opened in March, it had the air of a hit -- and indeed, Patti LuPone and her co-stars, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines, all went on to receive Tony Awards for their efforts. But a certain cockiness pervading the production was evidenced by the appearance in the souvenir program of an article that regurgitates derogatory remarks made by the show's book writer, Arthur Laurents, and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, about the star of the original production: the iconic Ethel Merman. Gypsy has recently been playing to one-third-full houses on occasion; the producers have announced that the show will close in January, less than a year after it opened; and the souvenir program, which had been selling for $10, may now be had for $5. "The economy," you say? I'm sure that has a lot to do with it. But maybe it's also the Theater Universe taking revenge on behalf of a wronged Merman.

    Comedy is King!
    It's great to experience a well-written drama, tearjerker, or thriller in a live theatrical situation. But I maintain that nothing is quite so exciting as the amazing sound and sensation of hundreds of people in the same room helplessly laughing their heads off at a great comedy. For those who agree with me, Boeing-Boeing is nirvana. Cheers to Mark Rylance and the rest of the company of this hilarious revival for reminding us that, in terms of feedback between actors and audience, Comedy is King. Cheers also to Shrek, Xanadu, and other laugh-filled shows for the same reason.

    The Ballet Boy and the Vampire
    With a score by Elton John, Billy Elliot opened in London in 2005 to well-deserved critical hosannas. That the show would eventually make it to New York was pretty much a foregone conclusion. In 2006, Lestat -- also with a score by Elton John -- bowed on Broadway to blood-curdling notices and was gone in little more than a month. Given that the show had been roundly panned during its tryout run in San Francisco, and given that the composer of The Lion King knew he most likely had another big Broadway hit in the pipeline with B.E, why do you imagine he allowed Lestat to come into town? Your guess is as good as mine.

    Limits to Loyalty
    Manhattan Theatre Club had a huge hit with John Patrick Shanley's Doubt a few seasons back. This year, the company gave us Romantic Poetry, a musical co-written by Shanley. The show received some of the worst reviews in recent memory, with several critics finding it so insufferable that they wondered openly how it could ever have been produced. Meanwhile, Craig Lucas's Prayer for My Enemy is baffling audiences at Playwrights Horizons, which previously presented Lucas's far superior Three Postcards and Small Tragedy. These are only two recent examples of how an understandable desire to continue a relationship with a talented artist -- and a sense of obligation? -- can sometimes result in the production of a play that does credit to no one. Lesson to be learned by not-for-profit theaters and commercial producers: When your favorite established writers come up with plays that don't deserve to be staged on their merits alone, take a pass and give those slots in your schedule to worthy works by newcomers. I'm pretty sure they're out there.

    The Casting's the Thing
    Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate has its nice moments, but in my opinion, the piece is marred by its contrivances, clich├ęs, and repetitions. (In one variation or another, the title phrase is repeated what seems like 50 times during the course of the action.) So, how does one explain the overwhelmingly positive reviews that greeted the current production? I say it's largely due to the stellar work of Elizabeth Ashley, Hallie Foote, Penny Fuller, Devon Abner, Arthur French, Gerald McRaney, and the rest of the cast. Not even the finest actors can completely mask major flaws in a script; but they can make those flaws far less obvious -- and that's exactly what happened here.

    I'm Gonna Buy a Paper Mill That I Can Call My Own
    For decades, the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey has been one of the most impressive regional theaters in the Greater New York area, regularly mounting shows that rival Broadway in terms of star power and production values. The theater has recently fallen prey to financial woes that threatened to close it forever. So, what happened? The powers that be in Millburn, realizing that Paper Mill's presence is of enormous value to the town both culturally and financially, made the bold but wise decision that the township itself should purchase the theater and keep it running. Coming up at Paper Mill: The Importance of Being Earnest (starring Lynn Redgrave, Jeffrey Carlson, and Wayne Wilcox), Master Class, 1776, and The Full Monty. See you in Jersey!

    Unkind Cuts
    I like to think I'm pretty savvy about most aspects of the theater industry, but it wasn't until this year that I learned about "the cut list" from a Broadway musician who was only too happy to fill me in. Here's my understanding of how it works: If a Broadway musical opens with more musicians in its orchestra than the minimum number required to be employed in that particular theater, the producers can submit a list of musicians or "chairs" that it may choose to cut during the production's run. As long as the number of players doesn't go below the minimum, these chairs can be eliminated at the producers' discretion. Of course, such cuts don't receive any publicity except in rare cases like Young Frankenstein, which made the news last summer for reducing its actors' salaries and downsizing its orchestra in order to trim running costs. But do people who are now attending Gypsy realize that they're getting four fewer violins in that show's onstage, sometimes visible orchestra than were there when the show opened? I doubt it -- but the cuts seem especially galling in this case, since much of the justification for the show's minimal sets was the fact that the orchestra was (initially) so large.

    The Winner Takes It All?
    The enormous, inconceivable financial success of the film version of Mamma Mia!, on top of the worldwide phenomenon of the stage version, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the market for schlock masquerading as musical theater is limitless. As I've said before: There's nothing inherently wrong with the concept of jukebox musicals if they're done well, but when they're created with such witlessness as MM!, they denigrate a beloved art form. The saddest thing about the whole affair is that through-the-roof box office receipts for the stage and film versions of this atrocity guarantee more of the same. Thank heaven we have real musicals like In the Heights, Passing Strange, and Spring Awakening to slow if not stop the insanity.

    Screen to Stage
    Several people whom I respect greatly have stated flat out, either verbally or in print, that "Movies Make Bad Stage Musicals." All you have to do is think of Singin' in the Rain, Meet Me In St. Louis, Mary Poppins, and a host of other disappointments and disasters to find strong support for that argument. But the trouble with such blanket statements is that even a few notable exceptions give the lie to the general rule. Certainly, The Producers and Hairspray are among the best musicals of recent years, and they of course were adapted directly from films. If one insists on making a generalization, perhaps it should be that "Movie Musicals Make Bad Stage Musicals." But don't be surprised if a show eventually comes along to break that rule as well. When all is said and done, doesn't it really come down to the quality of the execution?

    What Price Premium Tickets?
    I continue to hold the unpopular opinion that selling premium-priced tickets to hit shows is not a bad idea in theory. After all, if people are willing to pay through the nose to get the best seats to mega-hits on short notice, why shouldn't that money go to producers rather than scalpers? But the practice has been abused in that some shows (1) have set the premium price way too high, and/or (2) have held far too many prime seats in reserve to sell at premium, resulting in an unfortunate situation where good folks who buy tix way in advance end up sitting on the sidelines or in the rear. One silver lining of the current economic black cloud is that the market for premium tickets has been greatly reduced, thereby giving your average, non-millionaire theater lover better access to excellent seats.

    Published on Monday, December 22, 2008

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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