Short shorts 67: Broadway’s creative crisis, some notes from New York and a Marvin Hamlisch New year’s Eve celebration

Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
by -

Broadway has never been doing better financially – but can it have ever been worse artistically? The theatres have been mostly booked this Christmas – some of them with seasonal fillers like a new regional stage musical version of A Christmas Story that was imported to the Lunt-Fontanne and turned into a surprisingly profitable hit, or the returning Elf to the Hirschfeld.

Some other theatres have the marquees for future attractions, not current ones, like the Shubert and Broadhurst side-by-side on W45th Street, that are respectively awaiting the transfer of Matilda (beginning March 4) and Tom Hanks in a new play by the late Nora Ephron called Lucky Guy (from March 1). Other shows have seen shows come and go very fast – the Katie Lee Gifford co-authored musical Scandalous bowed out at the Neil Simon on December 9, David Mamet's latest The Anarchist, starring Patti LuPone and Debra Winger, closed after an even shorter run at the Golden on December 16 and Dead Accounts, with Katie Holmes and Leo Norbert Butz, closes this weekend at the Music Box – but none of those theatres are likely to stay dark for long; there seems to be an endless queue of shows looking for a Broadway home.

In its annual report of the 2011/12 season, the Broadway League reported its most financially successful year, with takings at box offices almost hitting $1.14billion.  (And one interesting observation in the report is how, in the words of Executive director Charlotte St Martin, "Word of mouth continues to be the greatest influence for show selection, with a notable uptick in the power of social networking posts.")

But if attendance and income are both growing, the choice of what there's to see is becoming paradoxically poor. I've previously blogged about Howard Sherman's brilliant analysis of how, out of the 72 productions that played on Broadway across the period that those record figures represent, it was actually just five shows that yielded 33% of the year's gross income, and 25% of its audience. That has left the other 67 shows scrambling for the rest of the income and audience return.

And producers are taking fewer and fewer chances as a result, relying on star power instead to prop up inferior new plays (which hasn't worked for the already shuttered The Performers and The Anarchist or Dead Accounts) or revivals of the already tried and well trusted. So tried and trusted, in fact, that the gap is now closing between when revivals seem to come around: the other David Mamet play on Broadway Glengarry Glen Ross (which is a hit because it stars Al Pacino) was last seen on Broadway in 2005, as was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that is also back on the boards now as well.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, now previewing in a new production starring Scarlett Johannson, is coming back at five yearly intervals at the moment, having been previously seen on Broadway in both 2003 and 2008. And according to a story in last week's New York Post, Denzel Washington is eying a return to Broadway next year in a revival of A Raisin in the Sun – last seen on Broadway in 2004.

No wonder that when New York Post theatre critic Elisabeth Vincentelli offered her top ten of 2012, only two entries came from Broadway and she pointed out, "Broadway didn't fare well at all. I think it's safe to say the Great White Way is undergoing a creative crisis."

On New Year's Eve Times Square goes on lockdown: to avoid overcrowding, they now 'pen' spectators there, filling them block by block, to celebrate the traditional festivities. (In England, we do this with public protesters; it's called kettling. But at least the Times Square sort is voluntary!). It has meant that New Year's Eve, which used to be a popular theatre night, is now dark instead. But there's still plenty happening elsewhere in the city, and on Monday night I tried for – and secured – returns for the New York Philharmonic's tribute to composer Marvin Hamlisch, which turned out to be a stunning way to see off the old year in which he left us.

But as the evening proved, he'll never leave us for good: while theatrical lightning never really struck again for him after his legendary success with A Chorus Line onstage, he also had an Oscar winning song for the film The Way We Were, and a body of songs from flops like Sweet Smell of Success (recently seen at London's Arcola) and Smile, as well as the yet-to-reach Broadway stage version of The Nutty Professor, that will endure.

This was one of those quintessential New York musical nights where the stars were not only aligned but also turned out en masse to celebrate a great talent: the great and glorious Audra McDonald, joined by the vibrant Broadway singers Megan Hilty and Kelli O'Hara, plus Josh Groban (the only performer to curiously perform his songs to the accompaniment of an autocue), Raul Esparza, Brian D'Arcy James, Michael Feinstein and child singer Lilla Crawford (currently starring in the title role of Annie).  All that, and truly earning her place in such exalted company, our very own Maria Friedman. She performed a very English version of "Nothing" from A Chorus Line", and when she came to the line "They don't have bobsleds in San Juan", that became "They don't have bobsleds in Hackney"!)

Some Broadway show notes

• In the immediate wake of the Newtown school shootings, quite a few shows take on disturbing new connotations – none more so than the film-to-stage version of A Christmas Story that finished its Christmas run on December 30. This is is a musical that even the NRA could love: it's all about a young boy who dreams of owning a gun. And gets one. For Christmas! Meanwhile, in Craig Wright's Grace ends with a domestic shoot-out; if you've not seen it yet, that's not a spoiler, since the play opens with it, too, then recaps to the point that it happened. And in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, George, exasperated by his wife Martha, produces a gun at one point – and fires it at her (This is a spoiler; it turns out to be a toy gun).

• I went to see A Christmas Story mainly because the cast included Caroline O'Connor, the Australian-born, London and Leicester regular who is now becoming an international traveller as she heads into her fifties. In fact, she should have been appearing in Leicester right now in Hello, Dolly! (in which she was admirably replaced by the brilliant Janie Dee), but pulled out when this Broadway opportunity presented itself. They always say adults shouldn't work with kids and/or animals; I now say kids and animals (of which there are both here) shouldn't work with her,  either. She steals the show! And she shows what we've known in London (and Leicester!) for years: she's the funniest lady this side of Andrea Martin and Jackie Hoffman.

• The most heartening thing about Dead Accounts was that it is the only play I saw this trip that didn't get a standing ovation! Of course, that may partly have been because half the audience were asleep; there was a very loud pre-interval snorer. Perhaps they should add to the usual pre-show reminder to turn off cellphones to make sure you rouse any sleeping audience members as well. Though the play was not quite dead-on-arrival, but the pulse of a real play is only distantly detectable. It is one of those formulaic family dramas with opportunities for big acting; Norbert Leo Butz is tireless but tiring to watch. Katie Holmes, by contrast, acts small but responsively; she's a tiny presence. Jayne Houdyshell dominates instead. It closes this weekend.

• Times Square has long been dominated by fluorescent light displays that make it feel like one giant advertising hoarding. But over the last few years, those static hoardings have become kinetic so that you now feel like you've walked into a giant video game – except for the boards advertising shows, which have remained sweetly retro, just as the front-of-house displays to Broadway houses have long been made up of the show's logo, quotes from reviews and cast photographs. However, for Dead Accounts the above canopy lightbox is also a constantly dissolving array of different title treatments. Pity that it's been on offer for such a short time.

• Another new play on Broadway, Craig Wright's Grace revolves around an evangelical couple who relocate to Florida to set up a chain of gospel hotels, and deals with the quest (and questions) of religious belief. For me, the play both proved and disproved the existence of God. On the one hand, if He existed, he wouldn't allow such bad plays to open on Broadway. On the other hand, the sight of Paul Rudd's bare furry chest suggests there is a God after all! It almost saved the day if not the play!

More New York notes will follow on Monday!