2003 marked by tiffs, turmoil onstage and off

It’s the time of year usually associated with brotherly love and good cheer, even on Broadway, as tourists throng theaters, grosses climb and those fabulously inflated New Year’s Eve ticket prices loom.

But there’s not likely to be a lot of kissing under the mistletoe this season, at least in legit circles.

The fact is, it’s been an unusually acrimonious year on the Great White Way, and players are more likely to be licking their wounds than burying hatchets.

The year more or less began with a threatened strike, and ended with the theater’s most popular playwright locking horns with a beloved TV icon.

In between, there were all sorts of headline-grabbing examples of nasty behavior. Overall, there was a lot more drama offstage than on this year.

Herewith, a recap of the bigger dramas:

  • The name-calling kicked off with the spectacle of the musicians showing the producers how to be showmen.

    Accusing producers of wanting to gut orchestras, musicians pulled out all the stops for a PR campaign that put them in prime position when it came time tonegotiate.

    Shubert topper Gerald Schoenfeld believes the campaign succeeded in smearing the producers.

    Referring to the sticking point in negotiations — the minimum number of musicians to be hired at each theater — Schoenfeld says: “The union was able to characterize Broadway as eliminating live music. It was hardly the case, but it was an effective public relationships campaign.”

  • The industry was rocked when longtime William Morris legit topper George Lane abruptly defected to Creative Artists Agency.

    William Morris hired two uber-agents, Peter Franklin and Jack Tantleff, both with deep connections to the musical theater. The client jockeying between the two tenpercenteries was livelier than most of the dramas on Broadway this fall.

  • Over the summer, “Little Shop of Horrors” canceled its August opening and axed much of its cast as well as its director.

    But things really heated up in the fall, as one Broadway show after another opened to slaughterhouse reviews — or, in one case, didn’t open at all.

  • Grabbing most of the headlines was Rosie O’Donnell.

    While the neophyte Broadway producer’s “Taboo” was in previews, she was in court with her former publishing company.

    As opening night neared, word spread that the director’s job was in jeopardy, and a new choreographer was brought on board. Other reports involved O’Donnell’s run-in with star Raul Esparza. And once the show opened, to dismal reviews, O’Donnell ceremoniously gave critics the finger (no, two fingers).

    Oddly enough, for all her bark, Rosie has so far failed to fire anybody associated with “Taboo.”

    She did, however, mention her admiration for David Merrick.

But according to Merrick’s biographer, today’s producers have a long way to go. “Anybody today could learn a lot from Merrick’s meanness,” says Howard Kissell, author of “The Abominable Showman.”

Well, maybe not Ned Beatty. The industry was aghast when Beatty, who’d received the best reviews for the revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” went on record in the New York Times with his assertion that his co-stars, Ashley Judd and Jason Patric, didn’t have the chops for stage work.

While Judd and Patric had the opportunity to let the public make up their own minds (and, given the show’s strong B.O., plenty are apparently doing so), other name actors in high-profile productions weren’t so lucky.

Jasmine Guy departed “The Violet Hour” in previews, becoming the second actress to exit the production after Laura Benanti. Ellen Burstyn’s “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” closed on opening night. And Farrah Fawcett didn’t even make it that far when her show, “Bobbi Boland,” was shuttered in previews by its producer.

Then, of course, there was Neil Simon’s famous missive to Mary Tyler Moore, which precipitated her exit from “Rose’s Dilemma.”

Why all the bad blood this year?

Some vets say it’s really nothing new.

“Haven’t we all seen ‘All About Eve’?” asks producer Elizabeth I. McCann. “This is the stuff of live theater. People get hurt. In live theater anything can happen.”

“In the film world it disappears into the ether, it is so global,” says agent Peter Hagan, who heads the Gersh legit department. “In the theater, we are stuck in 20 square blocks. We see each other all the time. You have to apologize more publicly.”

The season’s only notable apology came from producer David Richenthal, who said an ad for his show “I Am My Own Wife,” which criticized another, “Caroline, or Change,” was a big mistake.

Some even believe the legit industry has become friendlier in recent years.

“People are staying longer in the business, so overall they are actually more professional and civil than they used to be,” says producer Tom Viertel.

It may be that people haven’t changed, but bad news is disseminated more quickly and more widely these days, thanks to the Internet.

“With the Internet and everyone knowing each other’s business, the theater is less gentlemanly,” says Chris Boneau. As publicist for Manhattan Theater Club, he got handed the “Rose’s Dilemma” fracas. “We used to stay away from some of this,” he recalls.

Now, half a dozen computer gossips can send agents, producers and flacks into paroxysms of desperate worry.

Here’s what Variety learned from cruising the Broadway chatrooms recently:

One actress could not remember her lines (true). One actress missed many perfs due to nodes (false). One actor is very well-endowed (investigation pending).

That latter tidbit, at least, is upbeat news.

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