Season shaped by high-profile shows, dropouts

The 2008-09 Broadway season is one of extremes — of financial fears but lavish spending, of adventurous moves but safe choices.

Even before the season gears up, five shows have been canceled due to vanishing investors. That unforgiving investment climate coupled with a crowded lineup and stiff competition for available theaters means this is likely to be a stretch marked as much by swift disappearing acts as breakout successes.

But while the dismal economy might have Broadway insiders fretting about diminished entertainment spending, there’s no shortage of contenders for big-ticket supremacy: The current lineup offers four mega-musicals that look like front-runners for box office glory — double the numbers of last season.

A few years ago, the non-musical seemed like an endangered species on Broadway, but this year the roster is plentiful and intriguing. Revivals clearly dominate, with star power — everyone from Daniel Radcliffe to Jeremy Piven to Cedric the Entertainer — as the lure for audiences.

While every year has seen its share of tony, star-driven play revivals, the upcoming list of marquee names hitched to established titles is multiplying fast, meaning prestige drama is likely to be the season’s most competitive arena.

There are fewer new plays, but even those are relying on familiar names: Neil LaBute will make his Broadway debut, while a 19-year-old Horton Foote play that had its belated New York premiere last year Off Broadway also will transfer.

And though there are the usual number of musical revivals, there are plenty of new works, but these too offer familiar names, among them Charles Dickens, Dolly Parton, Irving Berlin and Shrek.

On the tuner front, “Billy Elliot” is the fall’s obvious heavyweight, pirouetting in on a wave of rave reviews and stellar business in London and a solid reception in its first offshore outing in Australia.

While concerns have been voiced that its political backdrop and late-’80s miners-strike setting might confuse American auds, most insiders are predicting that the emotional pull of its talent-over-adversity story will be strong enough to connect. Show opens Nov. 13 at the Imperial.

Advance buzz makes “Billy” this year’s equivalent to past-season entries like “The Producers,” “Hairspray” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” all of which set the box office on fire in their opening months. But while those shows largely led their respective fields solo, “Billy” has some competition.

That includes DreamWorks Animation’s first legit foray with “Shrek the Musical,” bowing Dec. 14 at the Broadway following a Seattle tryout. If the big-budget comic fairy tale works, it could open doors to another stream of toon adaptations, in competition with legit behemoth Disney.

The secretarial-pool revenge caper “9 to 5″ has a number of marketing hooks on its side: a popular hit movie; a triumphant girl-power scenario; hitmaker director Joe Mantello; and one of America’s most iconic singer-songwriters, Parton, making her debut as a musical composer. The show opens April 23 at the Marquis after trying out in Los Angeles.

Indefatigable nonagenarian Arthur Laurents will attempt to follow his revelatory revival of “Gypsy” with another makeover: this time of “West Side Story,” corralling a cast of 37 and a 30-piece orchestra to revisit a musical classic absent from Broadway since 1980. A D.C. tryout is scheduled for December, with New York opening set for March at a Nederlander theater to be announced.

Other new musicals aiming to carve a piece of the pie include the large-scale Dickens adaptation, “A Tale of Two Cities,” opening Sept. 18 at the Hirschfeld; the intimate exploration of adolescent experience, “13,” bowing Oct. 5 at the Jacobs; and “Vanities,” which chronicles the lives of three Texas women, looking for a fall slot.Also on the slate is “White Christmas,” with a cast numbering more than 30 and a 24-member orchestra. Quick recoupment is imperative on the two-month run (bowing Nov. 23 at the Marquis), but Berlin’s songs and the warm reception for the production in other cities represent strong selling points.”South Pacific,” “Gypsy” and “Sunday in the Park With George” last season and “Hair” over the summer set the bar uncommonly high for musical revivals. Along with “West Side Story,” this season will offer new stagings from the Roundabout Theater Company of Rodgers & Hart’s “Pal Joey,” starring Stockard Channing, Christian Hoff (a Tony winner for “Jersey Boys”) and Martha Plimpton; and Bob Fosse’s terp tribute, “Dancin’. ” Both productions will play Studio 54, the former opening Dec. 11, the latter May 5, just under the wire for Tony consideration. Also on the radar for spring is a “Guys and Dolls” revival.

But it’s play revivals that saturate the calendar.

Top of the list is the London transfer of “Equus,” Peter Shaffer’s 1973 psychological drama about a boy who blinds a stable full of horses, opening Sept. 25 at the Broadhurst. Major crowd control is expected to be required for “Harry Potter” star Radcliffe, sharing the stage with Richard Griffiths as the psychiatrist.

Arthur Miller’s post-WWII drama “All My Sons” stars John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest and Patrick Wilson, though TV-movie recruit Katie Holmes, in a supporting role, has garnered most of the media attention. Opening night is Oct. 16 at the Schoenfeld.

Kristin Scott Thomas and Peter Sarsgaard share top billing in Christopher Hampton’s new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” transferring from London’s Royal Court to bow Oct. 1 at the Walter Kerr. Also coming via a critically acclaimed Brit production is the Donmar Warehouse’s revival of Friedrich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart,” starring Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter, which opens in spring at a Shubert theater.

Broadway gets a double dose of David Mamet in the fall with “Speed-the-Plow,” bowing at the Barrymore Oct. 23, starring Piven, Raul Esparza and Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men”); and “American Buffalo,” opening Nov. 17 at the Belasco, toplining John Leguizamo and Cedric the Entertainer.

Roundabout has Frank Langella returning after his Tony win for “Frost/Nixon” to star in Robert Bolt’s historical drama “A Man for All Seasons”(Oct. 7 at the American Airlines), and Mary-Louise Parker on a “Weeds” breather as the suffocated wife in Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” (Jan. 25, also at the American Airlines). Manhattan Theater Club will revive Richard Greenberg’s 1960s-set drama “The American Plan”(Jan. 22 at the Biltmore); the org also has David Hyde Pierce, now becoming a Broadway regular, in Samuel Raphaelson’s 1934 comedy “Accent on Youth” (April at the Biltmore).

While they are outnumbered by retreads, new plays do figure on the lineup, including Lincoln Center Theater’s transfer of Foote’s “Dividing the Estate,” opening Nov. 20 at the Booth. It premiered regionally in 1989, but the comedy-drama about a Texas family squabbling over their inheritance will figure as a new play for awards consideration.

LaBute breaks into the Rialto club with “Reasons to Be Pretty,” (February at a theater to be announced), which reflects on the national obsession with physical beauty through the prism of two broken blue-collar relationships.

Movies being retooled as musicals are a regular Broadway staple, but screen titles morphing into plays have been more of a U.K. trend. This season, however, has two film classics being overhauled for the stage: MTC’s “To Be or Not to Be,” about a theater troupe in late-’30s Poland under the German invasion, opening Oct. 2 at the Biltmore; and in the fall at an undetermined theater, a reworking of 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” about a seemingly liberal-minded couple confronted with race issues when their daughter brings home her black fiance.

Adding more star names to the mix, Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen team in Michael Jacobs’ romantic drama about two jaded souls coming together, “Impressionism,” set for spring, when while Carrie Fisher also is skedded to bring her autobiographical solo show “Wishful Drinking” to Broadway.

The season slate is suffic
iently crowded to suggest a healthy outlook, but the economic downturn nonetheless is already stacking up casualties.

In some cases due to creative or technical glitches but mostly because of retreating backers, previously announced Broadway-bound productions of new musicals “Angels” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” plus revivals of “Godspell,” “Brigadoon” and Ntozake Shange’s 1976 play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” all have been postponed or withdrawn.

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