Six reasons why nothing’s sure in theater

2007-08 Broadway season defied most expectations

By all rights, the fabulous invalid should have been long dead. But against all odds, the theater lives, only to be reborn the next night. Herewith are six stunning examples of how the 2007-08 Broadway season defied any sane theatergoer’s expectations.

1. Legit miracle

Who writes a 13-actor play anymore? Who then gets it produced on Broadway in a commercial production, and sees that original play recoup its $2.56 million capitalization despite a 19-day strike and a transfer from one theater to another? Tracy Letts has done just that with “August: Osage County,” and won a Pulitzer Prize, too.

The December strike dealt a significant blow during the play’s previews. “Our momentum was slowed,” says lead producer Jeffrey Richards. “Our word of mouth stopped.”

Rave reviews for the belated preem jumpstarted the buzz. Recoupment, however, was never a given. “It’s not necessarily the size of the cast. It’s how elaborate the production is going to be,” Richards says of repaying investors. ” ‘August’ is a one-set stationary production with no moving parts.”

But what a set! The three-story Weston house cost $650,000 to move next door into the Music Box from the Imperial Theater, where “Billy Elliott” soon takes up residence.

2. Quick return

This season, three shows nommed for musical revival played very different waiting games: “Sunday in the Park With George” returned after 24 years, while “South Pacific” took a whopping 59-year rest before its first grand revival.

Which brings us to “Gypsy,” a classic that has averaged 15-year intervals between its first three returns to Broadway (in 1974, 1989, 2003). So how does this backstage biotuner dare yet another visit (this time with Patti LuPone as Mama Rose) after a mere five-year absence from the Gotham boards?

Despite the two-decades rule that most revivals observe, “Gypsy” director (and book writer) Arthur Laurents minces no words why he thought it was time to bring his tuner back to Broadway.

“I wanted to erase the memory of what I thought was a very bad production,” he says of the 2003 revival. “I thought (director) Sam Mendes did a disservice to the musical and Bernadette Peters. That wasn’t ‘Gypsy.’ I didn’t want New York to remember that. The gay dot-coms said there wasn’t a queen in town who couldn’t have staged it better than Sam Mendes. I don’t know if that’s true.”

3. All forgiven

Patrick Stewart once again trods the boards of a Shubert house, the Lyceum, with a tour de force “Macbeth.”

Back in April 2000, it looked as though the esteemed Brit had committed Broadway suicide when he took to the stage of the Shuberts’ Ambassador Theater and criticized the producers of “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan” for not sufficiently promoting the play by Arthur Miller. Led by the Shubert Org, those producers in turn filed a formal complaint with Actors’ Equity, demanding a public apology from Stewart.

It’s nice to report that good reviews at BAM for this “Macbeth,” not to mention good box office at the Lyceum, have healed all wounds.

4. Hetero camp

The last original comedy to recoup on Broadway was Charles Busch’s “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” in 2000. David Mamet’s political farce “November” looks to be the next, with the Alfred Hitchcock sendup “The 39 Steps” another potential winner. But the against-all-odds candidate in the laffer category has to be the current redux of “Boeing-Boeing,” a play that can best be described as heterosexual camp. The original London production ran for more than 2,000 perfs, but the 1965 staging on Broadway tanked after only 23. Cut to 2008: Would modern auds really care how many airline stewardesses one swinging bachelor could bang in a day?

The big gambler here is the revival’s lead producer. “You couldn’t have done this play five, 10 years ago,” Sonia Friedman says. “We were in the middle of all that political correctness, but we’ve come through it.”

In addition to partnering with Friedman on “Boeing-Boeing,” Bob Boyett has produced two other comedies on Broadway this season: “Is He Dead?” and “39 Steps.” Yet laffers remain a tougher sell than dramas, in Boyett’s opinion.

“There is a little bit of a snob factor,” he says of dramas. “If a (dramatic) play opens to great reviews and there’s some classy casting, it is easier (for audiences) to make the choice.”

“Is He Dead?” didn’t recoup, but auds may smile more favorably on “Boeing-Boeing,” “November” and “The 39 Steps.”

5. Color-blind casting

In the 1990s, the dream cast included not only James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad but also Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett. The play: Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” That Stephen C. Byrd-produced staging, unfortunately, never materialized, and Jones instead made his Broadway return in an all-black production of “On Golden Pond” in 2005.

When the legendary actor finally got around to essaying his Big Daddy (with Rashad, Anika Noni Rose and Terrence Howard), it could not be predicted that the Broadway season would be replete with other examples of color-blind casting in 1950s plays, including Morgan Freeman in “The Country Girl” and the Tony-nommed S. Epatha Merkerson in “Come Back, Little Sheba.”

Byrd, who lead-produces the 2008 “Cat,” has no complaints about the competition. “There’s an African-American audience between Tyler Perry and August Wilson,” he opines.

Taking a cue from the Met Opera, Byrd plans to beam a live perf of his “Cat,” which recently recouped its

$2.1 million capitalization, to 600 movie theaters.

6. Sophomore effort

Mel Brooks followed “The Producers” with “Young Frankenstein,” a production that offered grossly inflated ticket prices, failed to report its weekly grosses and quickly came to define the term “sophomore effort.” Who’d a thunk that Brooks, after sweeping the Tonys seven years ago, would be scotched this time around as producer, composer and book writer? Suddenly, Broadway can wait for “The New Mel Brooks Musical Blazing Saddles.”

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