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Mark Shenton’s week: In Jake Gyllenhaal, a new musical star is born

Jake Gyllenhaal in Sunday in the Park With George. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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I spent last week in New York, where the city has just begun what is undoubtedly the eight business weeks of the year, theatrically speaking. I’ll be returning twice before the end of April to catch some more of the season’s big openers, including the already-blockbuster revival of Hello, Dolly! (with Bette Midler in the title role), which I truly can’t wait to see.

There are also transfers for the West End-originated revival of Miss Saigon (which began previews last week at its original Broadway home, the Broadway Theatre), Groundhog Day and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and another bunch of new musicals (Come from Away, War Paint, Amelie, Anastasia and Bandstand).

Read our feature on Come from Away’s journey to Broadway

And that’s without the plays, which include a Broadway transfer for the London hit The Play That Goes Wrong; star-driven revivals of the contemporary classics The Glass Menagerie, Six Degrees of Separation, The Little Foxes and Present Laughter (respectively Sally Field, Allison Janney, Laura Linney/Cynthia Nixon and Kevin Kline); and a set of new plays – Sweat (transferring from the Public Theater), Oslo (transferring from Lincoln Centre’s downstairs Mitzi E Newhouse Theater to the main house Vivian Beaumont) and A Doll’s House, Part 2. As that list demonstrates, there’s a lot of indigenous product – I was talking to a pair of New York theatre writers the other day, and they suggested that this was the busiest season for new musicals since 1981/2.

I’ve looked it up and Broadway had 50 new shows open that season, but in fact there were only 10 new musicals among them, and six of those played for runs of less than a month: three (Little Johnny Jones; Oh, Brother! and Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?) played nine performances between them, while another (The Little Prince and the Aviator) gave 20 previews only before closing without even opening.

It goes without saying that not all of this year’s prolific output will last the course, either, but in fact none of this year’s openings have fallen over yet, and there’s considerable buzz for some of them. Dear Evan Hansen has already turned into a sell-out hit, and hopes are running high for Come from Away and War Paint. I already love Groundhog Day, of course, and hope it that can join the list of shows that make it.

One theory is that the sudden surfeit of new musicals is a reaction to Hamilton: not that investors are suddenly emboldened by its success to chance their arm on new shows, but rather that producers were intimidated by the prospect of the juggernaut that turned out to be Hamilton and so delayed bringing their shows to Broadway until this season. As ever, though, it has created an unhealthy dog-eats-dog atmosphere on Broadway, where there’s going to be an almighty Darwinian fight for survival.

Brits on and off Broadway

The above selection includes quite a few performers reprising London roles, including Jon Jon Briones, Eva Noblezada and Alistair Brammer in Miss Saigon, while Glenn Close reprises the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard that she originated on Broadway over 20 years ago in the transfer of last year’s English National Opera revival, alongside Michael Xavier, Siobhan Dillon and Fred Johanson, who also did it at ENO.

For last week’s Off-Broadway opening of Sweeney Todd, which has transferred there all the way from Tooting, half of the cast of eight have come from London, including Jeremy Secomb in the title role and Siobhan McCarthy as Mrs Lovett; they are in the show to April 9, then are replaced by Broadway performers Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello respectively.

And last week’s American premiere of the Royal Court-originated Linda in a new production saw Janie Dee stepping into a role originated in London by Noma Dumezweni, bringing Dee back to Manhattan Theatre Club, where she previously reprised her London performance in Alan Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential.

I also revisited Kinky Boots on Broadway last week, mainly to see Killian Donnelly reprise his London performance as Charlie in its original New York incarnation; I’ve long regarded Donnelly as the leading man we currently have in London, and on Broadway he proved it. There’s something so effortless yet everyday about him; he looks so normal – then he opens his lungs and unleashes one of the best musical theatre rock voices around.

The next two actors named on my top 10 West End musical theatre actors list were Michael Xavier and Ramin Karimloo – and both are also coincidentally on Broadway right now, Xavier in the aforementioned Sunset Boulevard, while Karimloo is about to star in Anastasia.

Broadway’s best leading men

There’s no shortage, of course, of leading men on Broadway, either. Two new candidates have arrived this season to join their ranks. Ben Platt, the young star of Dear Evan Hansen (who is the son of film and theatre producer Marc Platt), is astonishing in the title role; but the even more stunning breakthrough is Jake Gyllenhaal, already a global movie star, who proved that he’s a startlingly brilliant singer as he reprises the demanding title role of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre. He first did it for a handful of performances last autumn at City Center, one of which I saw and was knocked out by; but now he’s got an even bigger job on his hands, singing it eight times a week on Broadway.

The performance is just thrilling. Who knew he could sing with such intensity, focus and pitch? Sunday in the Park With George was the first Sondheim musical I saw in its original New York production back in 1985, and I thought nothing could ever match the spellbinding memory of that show or its two vibrant, radiant stars, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. But Gyllenhaal, joined here by the lovely Broadway actor Annaleigh Ashford, definitely competes. It is running for a limited season to April 23 only; and a result, the producers have decided not to enter it for consideration for this year’s Tony Awards (for which they’d have to make around 1,600 tickets available to Tony voters if they did so). That leaves the performance and revival fields generously open to other shows; but I can’t help feeling that the award could well have been Gyllenhaal’s if they’d entered it.

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