Combs brought African-American auds back to theater

NEW YORK – Flashback to Guastavino restaurant on April 26, around midnight.

Sean Combs had just made his Broadway debut in “A Raisin in the Sun,” and there hadn’t been this much press on hand since Hugh Jackman made his Broadway debut six months earlier.

“I won’t live or die on the reviews,” Combs said that night. “I’ll probably not read them, but someone will make me aware of them. Right now I just want to dig deeper into this role.”

The reviews were mixed, but the results were not. Like “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” the summer before, “Raisin” became that rare play to regularly appear on the Top 10 B.O. chart, setting house record after house record at the Royale Theater. “Raisin” recouped its $2.4 million capitalization in nine weeks; “Journey” took 10. Near the end of their runs, both productions did tuner-like grosses, upwards of $600,000.

Neither show looked like a slam-dunk on paper. Would the politically outre Vanessa Redgrave attract Gotham theatergoers in an oft-revived drama? Would Combs show up for eight perfs a week, much less on time? As a theatergoer, he’d famously held the curtain — for 45 minutes — for the preem nights of “Topdog/Underdog” and “Bridge and Tunnel.” And, of course, could he act?

The naysayers were out in force. Just ask “Raisin” producer David Binder. He’d been working since 1999 to give Lorraine Hansberry’s classic its first Broadway revival.

“First, everybody told me that African-Americans won’t show up at the theater, which is why the play hasn’t been produced on Broadway in 45 years,” Binder says.

He ended up with an unusual producer team. Nearly half of the lucky 13 are new to Broadway. “So many producers turned me down,” Binder recalls. In addition to the play’s supposedly anti-Broadway subject matter, it was a notoriously short run, only 88 perfs, ending July 11. There was also the big question of Combs.

Binder put it diplomatically: “It was perceived as a high-wire act in terms of the discipline it takes in the theater.”

Combs missed only four perfs, due to a stomach ailment. As for his acting chops, no one ever expected an historic turn on the order of Redgrave’s Mary Tyrone, but to these eyes and ears, Combs gave a more creditable performance on opening night than I recall seeing from Madonna (“Speed the Plow”), Elizabeth Taylor (“The Little Foxes”) or Linda Ronstadt (“Pirates of Penzance”) in their superstar debuts.

Liz and Linda were so stiff and awkward they required other actors, like little tugboats, to link up with them arm in arm and pull them across the stage.

Combs’ acting coach, Susan Batson, received much press and took a producer credit on “Raisin.” Combs said he would continue to work with her post-preem, and she was still there in the show’s final week, giving him notes.

I went back to see one of those last perfs of “Raisin,” on July 6. Had Combs been good to his opening-night word and dug much deeper into the role?

The big difference was the connective tissue linking the actor’s big moments. He has learned how to listen onstage or, at least, show us he’s listening.

In the intervening two months, Combs’ Walter Younger lost much of his boyish insecurity, replaced with a singular obsession to get his mother’s money. As an actor, Combs conveyed real, palpable danger in that pursuit. It’s the major difference between his bad-boy performance and Sidney Poitier‘s essentially good-at-heart turn in the movie.

Ossie Davis, who replaced Poitier in the original Broadway production, recently told Variety that white audiences found a champion in the play’s maternal figure. “No matter how explosive her son Walter might be, Americans knew that Momma could be depended on to make things right,” he said. “And that’s not what Lorraine set out to write.”

What’s next for Combs on Broadway? Binder obviously has the inside track to that project. And he’s not talking, except to say there will be a return. “Sean has now laid down roots with the theater community,” says the producer.

Until then, “Raisin” will be remembered as the show that brought African-American auds back to Broadway en masse, where the aud in the Royale orchestra night after night was more than 80% black. Broadway hasn’t seen those kind of numbers since “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide…” and “The River Niger” in the 1970s.

DISAPPEARING ACT

End of an era?

What you haven’t been reading in the New York Times recently:

“The On Stage and Off column will resume with the new theater season in the fall.”

The Times ran that sentence no fewer than 10 times last summer. Ditto summer 2002. No matter that air-conditioning had been invented and “Hairspray” and “Avenue Q” saw fit to open in August, the theater season never really started until the Times said it did, in mid-September, when On Stage and Off made its annual return.

The absence of the “resume” line in either Jason Zinoman‘s June 25 column or John Rockwell‘s analysis (“Reverberations”) of a Boneau/Bryan-Brown press release on July 2 has led to speculation that On Stage and Off has bit the dust, a victim of dot.com scoops.

“Nothing holds until Friday anymore,” says one flack.

Which means legit pitches may have to compete for space in the daily feature “Arts Briefs,” aka “Press Releases From Around the World.”

A Times rep offered the following projection on the future of On Stage and Off:

“Like virtually everything else in the Culture section right now, it’s up for discussion.”

The Times has named Patti Cohen its theater editor, coordinating both daily and weekend coverage. She had been editor of Saturday’s “Arts and Ideas” page.

In an effort to streamline its daily arts coverage, the Times is appointing a top editor for each culture discipline. Cohen and Michael Cieply, the new film editor, are the first appointments, with others to follow for music, architecture, etc.

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