Dueling Oz tuners, new 'Town' on tap

The sleepy summer on Broadway — with just two openings in nearly four months — soon will morph into a bustling fall, beginning with a chockfull October. Heading into the thick of the 2003-04 season, virtually all of Broadway’s theaters are spoken for. (Practically the only theater without a booking so far this season, curiously, is the Ethel Barrymore, a prime playhouse.)

Although the fall season bears some of the usual hallmarks — movie stars jetting in to add some legit luster to their resumes, a Brit-originated revival of an American classic — it’s also distinctive in some notable respects. Of the six major musicals opening before the Christmas break — in itself a pretty healthy number — four are brand-new (if one counts “Never Gonna Dance,” with a Jerome Kern score, as freshly minted).

And the Great White Way’s ever-lamented lack of plays is quickly being redressed. “Take Me Out” will spend a good month as the only play on Broadway in September, but by the end of October it will be joined by seven others. Here, too, the Broadway mix unusually favors new properties: five newcomers to just two old standards.

  • MUSICALS

    As usual, it’s the big new tuners that are garnering the most pre-season buzz. At the top of the buzz-worthy list is “The Boy From Oz,” the Peter Allen bio-tuner that marks the Broadway debut — as everyone within earshot of the Street surely knows — of movie name Hugh Jackman.

    The $9 million musical, a smash in Allen’s native Australia several seasons back, has been re-tooled for the U.S. by playwright Martin Sherman. Bowing Oct. 16 at the Imperial, it is directed by a Broadway unknown, Philip Wm. McKinley. But Jackman’s name — and perhaps a hitherto long-hibernating legion of Peter Allen enthusiasts — have helped to power strong advance ticket sales. A spokesman put the number at $6 million as of last week, with sales moving at a brisk $100,000-a-week clip.

    Two weeks later, the season’s next big-ticket musical, “Wicked,” opens Oct. 30 at the Gershwin. The show’s summer tryout in San Francisco was a mixed bag: It played to big houses but opened to notices that tended toward the downbeat, save for the usual raves for star Kristin Chenoweth, who toplines the musical alongside Idina Menzel as the morally divergent witches of Oz (the fantastical Oz, that is, not to be confused with the actual antipodean one, whence came Mr. Allen).

    Producer David Stone says the $14 million production is being retooled, rejiggered or merely tweaked “in virtually every department.” The show has replaced one song in Stephen Schwartz’s score (“Which Way’s the Party?” — described by Variety‘s critic as “abysmal”). Joel Grey takes over from Robert Morse as the Wiz himself. And Stone says there have been “lots of little — or not so little — structural and character changes, not massive in themselves but together very important,” that address the problems noted in the reviews, one of which was an overbearing earnestness.

    Nov. 13 is opening night at the Plymouth for the first of the season’s two big Brit-musical imports (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Bombay Dreams” follows in the spring). “Taboo” marks the Broadway producing debut of longtime legit booster Rosie O’Donnell. The musical about club kids in London in the 1980s features Boy George, who also penned the score. (He’s not playing himself, but rather Leigh Bowery, the still more outrageous club figure who may be best known among art-savvy New Yorkers as a frequent subject of British painter Lucian Freud.)

    Here, as with “Boy From Oz,” a playwright has been tapped to reconfigure the possibly alien material for Broadway audiences. In this case, Charles Busch is re-working the original book by Mark Davies. The show’s early teaser ad campaign — with the title scrawled across a grimy toilet — is a head-scratcher, but it suggests the producers are seeking to position the show to capture new Broadway audiences looking for something edgy after the summer’s “Avenue Q.”

    The last new musical of the season exhibits Broadway’s continuing fondness for movie material. In this case the movie is 1936’s “Swing Time,” the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers frolic that is being retooled for the stage as “Never Gonna Dance.”

    Prolific playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has adapted the screenplay; Michael Greif directs; and Broadway’s hottest choreographer, Jerry Mitchell, is creating the dances. Karen Ziemba and “Chicago’s” current Velma Kelly, Deidre Goodwin, are the major names in the cast. The show opens Dec. 4 at the Broadhurst.

    Meanwhile, the first of two musical revivals, “Little Shop of Horrors,” kicks off the festivities with an Oct. 2 opening at the Virginia. The show’s summer opening was famously scrapped, and its original director canned, after a tryout in Florida that garnered respectable reviews but not, apparently, the affection of its backers. “Urinetown’s” Hunter Foster remains aboard, joined by “Hairspray’s” delicious Kerry Butler, now under the helm of Broadway vet Jerry Zaks, whose last Broadway musical was the 1996 revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

    Details are still coming together about “Wonderful Town,” but the Weisslers have booked the Al Hirschfeld Theater and Donna Murphy, star of the acclaimed 2001 Encores! staging. The show will begin previews in November for a December opening. Other casting and creative team have yet to be announced.

  • PLAYS

    Topping the list of newsworthy playwrights on Broadway this fall is last season’s Tony winner, Richard Greenberg. When his “The Violet Hour” inaugurates the Manhattan Theater Club’s Broadway base at the newly renovated Biltmore, Greenberg will join the rare club of playwrights — living ones, that is — to have two new plays on Broadway concurrently. (When was the last time that happened?)

    Preceding “Violet Hour” is William Nicholson’s family-in-tatters drama “The Retreat From Moscow,” opening Oct. 23 at the Booth, featuring a heady cast of John Lithgow, Eileen Atkins and Ben Chaplin. The following week, Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill take the floor at the Belasco in Richard Alfieri’s “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” which has seen numerous cast shuffles since it debuted in Los Angeles two seasons ago with Uta Hagen and David Hyde Pierce.

    The fall’s other new plays are all solo items previously seen elsewhere, although their subjects could scarcely be more divergent. “Golda’s Balcony,” opening Oct. 15 at the Helen Hayes after a long Off Broadway run, stars Tovah Feldshuh as the Israeli leader at a political crossroads. “I Am My Own Wife,” transferring to the Lyceum for a Nov. 24 bow following a sellout summer run at Playwrights Horizons, is Doug Wright’s meditation on the curious life of German transvestite Charlotte Von Mahsldorf. The third show, Ellen Burstyn in the stage adaptation of Allan Gurganus’ popular novel “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” bows Nov. 4 at the Longacre.

    A trio of major play revivals round out the fall lineup. Opening Nov. 2 at the Music Box is the first Broadway revival of a Tennessee Williams play in more than five years. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” brings one star, Ned Beatty, and the director, Anthony Page, of the recent London revival. But Beatty has two new name-above-the-title co-stars, Ashley Judd and Jason Patric.

    At the American Airlines, the Roundabout Theater Co. revives Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker” with Patrick Stewart and Kyle MacLachlan under the direction of David Jones (opening Nov. 9), while Lincoln Center Theater conflates Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” plays into a single entity, in a production directed by Jack O’Brien and starring Kevin Kline as Falstaff alongside Richard Easton, Billy Crudup and Ethan Hawke. “Henry IV” opens Nov. 20.

      All this, and Jackie Mason, too, at the Brooks Atkinson, beginning in October.

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