Mark Shenton’s week: Bette Midler, Amy Schumer and Uma Thurman show that stars still shine on Broadway
Broadway has always been a place where the name on the marquee is a prime seller. It’s what is propelling Bette Midler’s current return to the Broadway boards, for the first time in a musical role rather than as herself in nearly 50 years, to record box office takings in Hello, Dolly!. It opened to the largest pre-performance advance sale in Broadway history, and week after week it has been breaking the Shubert Theatre’s house record for its weekly take. The week ending November 26 brought takings of $2,468,174.59, breaking its own record for the 10th time.
Last week it was also announced that her final performance in the role on January 14 will be a benefit for the Actors Fund – with tickets priced from $250-$10,000. So that will be another record broken in terms of prices charged.
But although Midler is unquestionably the biggest star on Broadway right now, star power is also what meant that Meteor Shower, which opened there last week and I reviewed here, had a $7.5 million box office advance before it did so, thanks in part to the fact that it stars comedian Amy Schumer.
Schumer was warmly received (even if the play didn’t get universally acclaimed). On the other hand, there’s always a risk for a well-known screen actor to take on Broadway. Last week, Uma Thurman also made her debut there in The Parisian Woman, and the play and star received this stinging appraisal from Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard: “The dialogue is stilted and delivered haltingly even by the pros in the cast, and they move about the stage as if in fear that Steve Bannon will show up any minute looking for a dance partner. This is especially true of the star, who has been weirdly, unflatteringly dressed by the great Jane Greenwood (that’s the problem with flops: pretty much all involved come out looking their worst). Thurman strikes one pose, then swans to the next pose, embellishing each move with a limpid gesture that would be catnip to the Forbidden Broadway crowd. The amateurism defeats both the director, Pam MacKinnon and the more experienced actors onstage.”
Theatres inviting audiences to go bare
Nudity in the theatre is nothing new. Just last week La Soiree pitched camp in a West End theatre for the first time, instead of the usual Spiegeltents, Roundhouse or Hippodrome in which it has previously played – and of course there were bursts of full-frontal nudity. That’s no longer a frontier to be breached. But I wonder if or when it will invite the audience to go starkers, too.
After the current London production of Hair did a “clothing optional” performance last month, an Off-Broadway play I saw yesterday also offered an all-nude performance on the same day. (Full disclosure about my own lack of exposure: I went to the 2pm dressed matinee; the nude performance followed at 6pm). As Time Out New York wrote in a preview of the event: “In the ever-escalating battle for immersive theatre authenticity, gay menage-a-trois drama, Afterglow is looking to step up its game by stripping off its clothes. The show features three gay men involved in a tempestuous relationship – one that involves a lot of stripping, showering and crying with the occasional presence of clothing.”
Theatre often invites us to leave our inhibitions at the door – now it is inviting us to leave our clothes there, too. The Time Out preview also stated, “Hosted by Go Naked, an events and travel network for male-identifying adventurers looking to undress in social environments, the event features a free clothes check and a nude Q&A with the cast after the show.”
One of my favourite quotes of all musical theatre is in Sondheim’s Move On (from Sunday in the Park with George) about what an artist should strive to achieve: “Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new. Give us more to see…” It’s about the authenticity of artistic expression. And of course, it isn’t just groundbreaking new art that can give us more to see, but groundbreaking ways of looking at established things. It’s why I never frown at the prospect of another revival. One of the greatest musical productions of anything I’ve ever seen in my life was Nicholas Hytner’s 1993 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1947 masterpiece Carousel at the National Theatre. But even that isn’t a now-and-forever production: I’m now looking forward to seeing the next Broadway incarnation of the show, which opens at the Imperial Theatre in April with a cast that will include Jessie Mueller as Carrie Pipperidge, Joshua Henry as Billy Bigelow and Metropolitan Opera diva Renee Fleming as Nettie Fowler.
I’m also looking forward to the revival of My Fair Lady, opening at Lincoln Center’s Beaumont Theater in April, which will be directed by Bartlett Sher who previously did such revelatory work on the same stage with South Pacific and The King and I (the former was subsequently seen at London’s Barbican and the latter will transfer to the London Palladium next summer).
But the revivals season has already begun on Broadway with last night’s opening of Once on This Island, a show originally premiered at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons in 1990 before transferring to Broadway later that year. I saw it in both incarnations originally (and also its subsequent London premiere at what was then the Royalty in 1994), and have always loved this effervescent score by Ahrens and Flaherty, whose first Broadway outing it was and who have become Broadway regulars since. Michael Arden’s vivacious new production at Circle in the Square turns it into an immersive theatre event, with the audience seated all the way around the sandpit beach it is staged on. It gives us a lot more to see.