Broadway & the test of time

1975-76: 'Greatness' is conferred in hindsight

Critics have been enthused over Broadway’s recent offerings, but no theater season is ever fully appreciated until it’s long gone. Take Gotham’s great 2008-09 season.

Legit journalists tend to reserve the word “great” for years that predate their own theatergoing days (1956-57’s “Candide,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “My Fair Lady”) or, better yet, their birth (1944-45’s “Carousel,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “On the Town”).

In my nearly 40 years of intense theatergoing, 2008-09 is one of the best. In fact, it might even beat a season that many observers now look back on as being truly spectacular, 1975-76, which gave us “A Chorus Line,” “Chicago,” “The Norman Conquests,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Travesties” and Off Broadway’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” and “Streamers.”

The 1983-84 season was also pretty hot, with “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “The Real Thing” and “Sunday in the Park With George,” among others. But 1975-76 offers a great example of how much reviews, box office, Tonys and gossip diminish or enhance appreciation of a season as it unfolds.

That season’s musical Tony winner, “A Chorus Line,” would appear to dwarf any 2008-09 tuner, even though the show received 12 Tony noms compared to “Billy Elliot’s” 15. Despite great reviews for Elton John’s tuner, critics have complained that his score isn’t up to the rocker’s standard. “Chorus Line” composer Marvin Hamlisch can identify. As he said in a recent interview: “People forget. With the original reviews of ‘A Chorus Line,’ the music got killed to smithereens. But I remember.”

Today, Stephen Sondheim is the Zeus of musical theater. Forgotten is that Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times that “Pacific Overtures” sounds like Leonard Bernstein “trysting” with Madama Butterfly.

From “Company” through “Sweeney Todd,” the New York Times reviewer (first Barnes, then Richard Eder) could be counted on to dismiss Sondheim’s talent, an opinion that would be seconded by Walter Kerr in the Sunday paper. Oh, and “Pacific Overtures” lost its entire capitalization in 1976. So how could such a loser show be any good?

That same economic fate seems unlikely for “Next to Normal,” and it will be intriguing to watch its new songwriting team, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, in shows to come. Even at this early date, it’s safe to say that Yorkey’s story graces one of the best original books ever written for a Broadway musical, and its unconventional subject matter — a bipolar woman who undergoes shock treatment — owes much to Sondheim’s trailblazing.

The comparison of “Shrek” to “Chicago” is tougher.

Jeanine Tesori’s score (with David Lindsay-Abaire) isn’t considered up to her “Caroline, or Change” work (with Tony Kushner). Of course, that score wasn’t fully appreciated until the show folded after a few perfs in 2003 and then traveled to California, where it got raves, and then London, where it won the Olivier and the Evening Standard Award for best musical.

A similar thing happened to John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Chicago” score, which Kerr and others said wasn’t up to the standard of their previous “Cabaret” score. That one, in turn, wasn’t appreciated in its time, as evidenced by the Variety critique in 1966: “generally loud, obvious, tasteless and lacking in impact or appeal … unmemorable.” The consensus today is that the original “Chicago” suffered not because of its score but due to the upbeat, uncynical mindset of the mid-1970s. Hello? Anyone ever hear of Watergate?

No, “Chicago” had other problems right from the get-go. Opening to mixed reviews, the show didn’t sell out, and then Gwen Verdon came down with a throat infection, and so “Chicago” became known as the tuner that only her replacement, Liza Minnelli, could sell out in a limited six-week run, which got truncated by a musicians strike. But there was an even greater problem with “Chicago,” and this is where it links with “Shrek.” Although ailed as a genius, director Bob Fosse remained stuck in his “Cabaret” (the movie) phase with “Chicago,” and he subbed 1930s Berlin decadence for 1920s Chi gangster style.

A similar misguided direction infects “Shrek.” Where Fosse gave us way too much ambisexuality in “Chicago,” the people from DreamWorks have delivered a too literal “Shrek” that encases its leading man in enough plastic form to ship a La-Z-Boy across the country. Sometime in the future, a radically pared-down staging could do for this tuner what the minimal Encores! staging has done for the current, long-running Kander & Ebb revival.

Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” would seem to have it all over the 2008-09 original plays, but not according to the Variety‘s Crix Tally, which reveals many thumbs-up for this season’s “Dividing the Estate,” “God of Carnage” and “Reasons to Be Pretty.” Back in 1975, Variety reported that “Travesties” received mixed notices, and its review uncovers this intriguing tidbit about the first-night aud: “Attention waned after a while. A few people left at the intermission, and others were seen nodding at times.” At the box office, the show limped through its limited run, and not until after the play’s closing did Stoppard bag the Tony.

Alan Ayckbourn’s rep has grown considerably since “The Norman Conquests” first appeared on Broadway, where crix conflated his plays with the fluffier comedies of Neil Simon and faulted Ayckbourn for his lack of brevity. Today, he’s hailed as a genius. Off Broadway, David Rabe’s “Streamers,” his 1976 drama about racial and sexual identity in the Army, seemed as ripped from the front pages as Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,” about enslaved prostitutes in the Congo, does now. And David Mamet’s early Off Broadway play “Sexual Perversity” is echoed in Gina Gionfriddo’s success with “Becky Shaw.”

There is one big difference between then and now. Today, I probably couldn’t (and certainly wouldn’t) pay to see all these new shows mentioned here. In 1975-76, I willingly paid for everything and never felt a pinch in my pocket book.