The legit year in review, from Ferrell to Laurents

The 2009 Tony nominations aren’t announced until May 5. Until then and the June 7 kudos, what’s best remembered about the current Broadway season isn’t who might win but how everybody played the legit game.

MOST EMPLOYED

For at least one actress on Broadway, they write ‘em as fast as they used to. Preceded by “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Little Women,” “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Young Frankenstein,” “Shrek” is Sutton Foster’s fifth original musical in six years. That kind of show/year ratio recalls the Broadway heydays of two legit legends who headlined four originals in a mere six.

From 1930 to 1936, Ethel Merman starred in “Girl Crazy,” “Take a Chance,” “Anything Goes” and “Red, Hot and Blue.” Then there’s Gwen Verdon, who found fame in “Can-Can,” “Damn Yankees,” “New Girl in Town” and “Redhead” from 1953 to 1959. The Merm went on to star in nine other original tuners; Verdon headlined three more.

BEST NONAGENARIAN

Maybe it’s time for the theater to stop beating itself up for not being so youth oriented.

At 91, director-scribe Arthur Laurents proves there’s nothing wrong with old age. He follows his definitive staging of “Gypsy” in 2008 with a new bilingual redux of “West Side Story” this season.

WINNINGEST WOMEN

Back in the Tony telecast days of Alexander Cohen, the awards were often in search of a hook whenever the nommed shows were thought to be lacking. One of Cohen’s more mawkish attempts to give the Tonys needed heft was the rubric “The Year of the Woman,” which resulted in an acceptance-speech leitmotif in which at least one male winner apologized for not being female.

In this year’s Tony derby, the female creatives might be more well represented. Playwright Yasmina Reza (“God of Carnage”), play director Phyllida Lloyd (“Mary Stuart”) and tuner directors Kristin Hangii (“Rock of Ages”) and Diane Paulus (“Hair“) should loom large. Equally notable is the usually male turf of composers. In recent years, female songwriters have shared their credit with the guys on efforts ranging from “Legally Blonde” to “Brooklyn.” With “Shrek,” Jeanine Tesori wrote all the music herself, just as she did back in 2004 when she became the first female composer to have two shows running on Broadway: “Caroline, or Change” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Then there’s Broadway deb Dolly Parton, who wrote the music as well as the lyrics for “9 to 5.” That kind of double duty hasn’t been seen in a hit musical since Carol Hall’s score for “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Go figure: At the 1979 Tonys, Hall wasn’t even nommed.

SHARPEST ZINGER

Jeremy Piven’s sudden exit from “Speed-the-Plow” prompted a lot of chatter along the Rialto (not to mention independent arbitration proceedings, set for June). But the best zinger came from “Speed” playwright David Mamet, who took Piven down with few words:

“I talked to Jeremy on the phone, and he told me that he discovered that he had a very high level of mercury. So my understanding is that he is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer.”

MOST AMAZED CRIX

Musicals spawned in alien territory aren’t supposed to wow them on B’way. And that goes double for heavy-metal tuners from L.A. Chris D’Airenzo’s “Rock of Ages,” however, delivered money reviews from Variety (“brash charms”), the AP (“a lively night in the theater”) and the New York Times (“as guilty as pleasures get”).

QUICKEST TURNAROUND

The reviews for “Next to Normal” at Second Stage were mixed. Most producers and creatives would call it quits — at least for a Broadway transfer. Producer David Stone, however, took his tiny tuner to D.C.’s Arena Stage, and after much tinkering, won raves from the local crix. Now, only one year later, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s “Next to Normal” is back in Gotham, but ensconced this time in a Broadway theater.

HEADIEST BOX OFFICE

When was the last time the Cort Theater had a hit?

Nobody could remember — that is, until Will Ferrell’s presidential satire “You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W Bush” booked the venue.

The three-actor play demolished the theater’s box office record, raking in $6.7 million in eight weeks and swiftly recouping its $2.1 million investment.

Per actor, the show’s $800,000-plus weekly income qualified as the season’s top grosser.

BEST INELIGIBLE TUNER

And the winner is … Marc Shaiman’s “Prop 8: The Musical,” which in its online peek got up to 1.2 million hits a day. The tuner, which stars Jack Black as Jesus Christ, took wing when Shaiman learned that the musical director of the Sacramento Musical Theater had donated $1,000 to the Yes-on-Prop.-8 campaign, which sought to outlaw same-sex marriage in California. An email protest ensued, and Shaiman funneled his ire into a viral video. Because Prop. 8 passed, the project’s credit reads “Written (six weeks too late) by Marc Shaiman.” But not really. Just imagine what a great viral revival there will be for the video come Election Day 2010 in the Golden State.

FINEST FINALE

The rousing curtain call at tuner “Billy Elliot” has the entire cast — from petite girls to burly men — donning tutus to take their bows.

The moral of Billy’s story, after all, is that it’s OK to dance wearing a frilly skirt, no matter who you are. And that’s especially true if you’re Elton John.

When the hit show opened on Broadway Nov. 13, the pop star, who penned the show’s music, joined the cast onstage along with lyricist and book writer Lee Hall. Both men wore formal suits accessorized with big, man-sized tutus.

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