B’way booms with familiar tunes

Hit '05 holdovers, revivals offer upbeat outlook for '06

NEW YORK At first glance, the news along the Rialto is old news. The fall’s instant smash, “The Odd Couple,” is a revival of a well-worn comedy. Even the season’s critical darling, “Sweeney Todd,” is a tuner that’s more than 25 years old. And to top it all off, the big bounce in Broadway B.O. is not from new shows, but from holdovers of past seasons.

And yet, closer inspection reveals the news of 2005 bodes well for Broadway in the coming year.

Pundits have high commercial expectations for big guns like Disney’s “Tarzan” and Julia Roberts starrer “Three Days of Rain,” which arrive in the spring. But there are bigger reasons for optimism. The new season has at least one bona fide hit in “Jersey Boys,” and another potential one in “The Color Purple.” Even better, audiences have begun to embrace more challenging shows (e.g., “Sweeney Todd” and “The Light in the Piazza”).

And, best of all, the booming box office shows the Great White Way has officially gotten past its post-9/11 slump.

Total box office for the May 30-Dec. 25 period — the first 30 weeks of the current season — was a massive $476,110,441. That’s an increase of more than $57 million from the corresponding period of the 2004-05 season.

Even more significant, it marks a jump of nearly $122 million from the same frame in the 2001-02 season, pointing up considerable growth in the sector over the past five years.

2005 proved the Rialto’s strongest calendar year ever, pulling in a record $825 million, according to the League of American Theaters & Producers. Paid attendance hit an all-time high of 11.98 million.

That tally is encouraging enough to inspire hope that the 2005-06 season attendance figure just might reach the unprecedented milestone of 12 million.

So far, the season’s big moneymaker is “Odd Couple,” which reunited “Producers” stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, guided by the sure hand of director Joe Mantello. The show sold out its entire limited run through March, even though the critical reception to the Neil Simon revival was decidedly lukewarm.

It remains to be seen whether producers will recast “The Odd Couple” and extend after the stars’ contracts end. But all eyes will be on the “Barefoot in the Park” revival opening in February to see whether vintage Simon can still cut it with critics on Broadway.

This season’s most rousing critical reception was for another revival, “Sweeney Todd.”

But it’s arguably last season’s leftovers that have been most instrumental in powering ticket sales.

A hit show that segues from Tony triumph in May to strong grosses through the summer and beyond is not uncommon, but last season yielded four musicals — “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “The Light in the Piazza,” all of which scored awards in a spread-the-wealth Tony ceremony — and a play, “Doubt.” All five of those shows continue to play upwards of 80% or, frequently, 90% capacity.

Factor in earlier-season stalwarts led by “Wicked” and “The Lion King,” and you have an unusually robust panorama in which top-tier business is spread across a greater number of shows than in previous frames. Even long-runners like “Rent” and “The Phantom of the Opera” have seen growth in their receipts, awareness of the shows no doubt bolstered by the appearance of screen versions.

In fact, with so many musicals doing brisk long-term biz, producers of Broadway-bound tuners — “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Hot Feet,” for instance — are starting to grapple with a shortage of theaters.

Many on the Broadway scene were surprised by the success of “Jersey Boys,” the Frankie Valli biotuner that inaugurated the newly rechristened August Wilson Theater and has been doing close-to-SRO biz since its early-November opening.

The frosty reception given last season’s Beach Boys musical “Good Vibrations” and the Elvis Presley-inspired “All Shook Up,” as well as the August launch of “Lennon,” indicated jukebox shows were genre non grata in Gotham. But its high-energy, durable pop songs, shrewd marketing and buoyant word of mouth have helped “Jersey Boys” find a sizable audience, driven by its core crowd of home-staters and baby boomers.

In the spring, the Johnny Cash musical “Ring of Fire” will provide a further gauge to see if the tarnish has been removed from the “songbook musical” label.

Critical consensus for any show on Broadway is almost unheard of these days, but British director-designer John Doyle’s pared-down remount of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” achieved that feat. Reimagined as a Brechtian chamber piece in which the 10 actors double as the orchestra, the production transformed a show from 1979 into the most startlingly innovative entertainment on Broadway.

Sondheim shows generally play to an upscale coterie of theater aficionados rather than to a mass audience — recent revivals of “Assassins” and “Pacific Overtures” were short-lived — and a show about a murderous, revenge-obsessed barber and an accomplice who bakes his victims in pies is perhaps never going to lure the “Beauty and the Beast” crowd. But this dynamic production headlined by Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris looks certain to stick around until Tony time. It sets a high benchmark for the season’s fellow revivals — “The Pajama Game” and “The Threepenny Opera,” due in the spring — to beat.

The season’s other major arrival on Broadway was in name alone. But that name brought the kind of marketing clout most producers only dream of: Oprah Winfrey.

When the talkshow titan signed on as a presenting producer of “The Color Purple,” the musical saw a stratospheric boost in its profile. And while the show — based on Alice Walker’s feminist saga of love, survival and community — failed to set critical pulses racing, its rich characters and emotional uplift clearly are connecting with the Oprah demographic, pushing grosses to $5 million in only three weeks. If word of mouth continues to lift grosses in the current pattern, the show may overcome its tepid reviews to become a popular phenomenon.

The fall also marked the return to Broadway of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who ruled the Rialto through the 1980s with megahits like “Phantom” and “Cats” but has struggled to find a lasting niche with more recent efforts. His last new show as composer on the Great White Way was “Sunset Boulevard” 11 years ago.

Lloyd Webber’s musical version of Wilkie Collins’ Victorian thriller, “The Woman in White,” was greeted with predictably mixed reviews but landed one or two unexpected raves. It also drew attention for the show-must-go-on spirit of star Maria Friedman, a West End fixture making her Broadway debut, who rallied for opening night after only the briefest absence for emergency cancer surgery. Grosses for the show have been steady, if not stellar.

The return of beloved gypsy Chita Rivera to Broadway is always an event, but while embracing the star, musical theater fans were forced to endure a decidedly subpar vehicle for her reminiscences in the poorly constructed autobiographical show, “The Dancer’s Life.” Inevitable comparison with fellow diva Elaine Stritch’s far more personally revealing “At Liberty” from a few seasons back proved especially unflattering for the Rivera showcase.

Worthy new plays continue to be an endangered species on Broadway. Despite providing a welcome mainstage return for Jill Clayburgh after a long absence, Richard Greenberg’s comedy “A Naked Girl on the Appian Way” was a critical miss, while “Souvenir,” about tone-deaf soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, drew high praise for Judy Kaye’s inspired comic turn but failed to find an audience. That show closes Jan. 8.

Major muscle in the new-play department is expected in the spring, with the arrival of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole,” Conor McPherson’s “Shining City,” Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys,” David Eldridge’s London success “Festen” and the transfer of Lisa Kron’s Off Broadway hit “Well.”

Play revivals brought minor works by major names back to Broadway. Roundabout’s sturdy staging of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet” was highlighted more by Gabriel Byrne’s brooding star turn than by the quality of the writing. However, Edward Albee’s evolution comedy “Seascape” proved a surprisingly satisfying jewel in the Lincoln Center Theater production, with resonant work from leads George Grizzard and Frances Sternhagen and fine backup from Frederick Weller and Elizabeth Marvel.

Finally, the new season has delivered not one but two howlers that gave critics a chance to sharpen their most pitiless knives.

With little more than a leotard and a BarcaLounger by way of production values, ThighMaster mistress Suzanne Somers checked in with her “one-woman musical joyride” “The Blonde in the Thunderbird” and then checked out abruptly less than a week later.

(“Primo,” Anthony Sher’s masterful portrayal of the Holocaust experience of Italian chemist Primo Levi, opened a week earlier than Somers’ show, proving a solo show can be a profoundly illuminating theatrical experience.)

An even more jaw-dropping vanity piece was “In My Life,” the treacly musical about Tourette’s and tumors from “You Light Up My Life” composer Joseph Brooks. That show drew meager auds and garnered get-outta-town reviews no less savage than Somers’. But it made history when it hung on for more than a month by pumping $2 million into a marketing campaign designed to sell the show as the people’s choice. However, the people chose otherwise.

(Gordon Cox contributed to this report.)

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