"Can Broadway be saved?" was the question on the cover of New York magazine last week. Inside, Michael Goldstein prescribed a 12-step program to restore the flagship of the American theatre to its former glory. First, he says, Broadway must admit it's got a problem.
If you were one of the masochistic few who watched the CBS telecast of the 49th Antoinette Perry Awards Sunday night, you know how difficult it is for that pathetic, self-delusionary, bloated old dream-abuser to do that, even in this joke of a season. Watch out for that first steee-e-e-e-e-e-p!
The League of American Theaters and Producers released the figures indicating that Broadway took in a record high $406 million in ticket sales, playing to an audience of nine million suckers. But only 28 new shows opened, which also set a record--for the lowest. The buzz in New York this spring was about how the Tony nominators had to scramble to pretend there's enough product to have the annual charade of an awards show. Only two new American plays were produced all season long, Love! Valour! Compassion! and Having Our Say, the latter an adaptation, more documentary than drama.
Even more shocking, only two new musicals surfaced--Sunset Boulevard and Smoky Joe's Cafe--and one of them was just a revue of old songs. Still more scandalous, only two musical revivals competed for the award in that category, Show Boat and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. This was the slimmest of seasons by any standard in memory, despite the record box office, which could be attributed to a $75 top ticket price.
What nobody was admitting was that the season was not much better off-Broadway, where such Broadway veterans as Neil Simon, Woody Allen and David Mamet had fled with offerings that were so inferior they dared not risk the Great White Way. Best off-Broadway play of the season was Camping With Henry and Tom, a slight historical comedy about an imagined conversation among Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Warren G. Harding on a camping trip.
The Pulitzer Prize committee had to dig all the way down to off-off-Broadway's tiny Signature Theater and Horton Foote's Young Man From Atlanta to find a script worthy of citation.
Okay, so the season was sparse. Was there anything worth seeing? The good news is that in artistic terms, there were some outstanding examples of the American theatre at its finest. Unfortunately, much of the best work was not even nominated for recognition by the increasingly bizarre choices of the Tony nominating committee.
Best Play deservedly went to Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! over Tom Stoppard's intellectually arcane Arcadia, which intrigued like a Sunday crossword puzzle, but never evoked an emotion. John Glover deserved his recognition for Best Supporting Actor for his dual duty as the twin brothers in the McNally play. Director Joe Mantello lost a close race to Gerald Gutierrez's The Heiress.
Best Musical was easily Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, and it would probably have won even in a more competitive season, because it captures the grandeur and glory of Lloyd Webber at his cheesy best. Glenn Close certainly earned her Tony as Best Actress in a Musical for a grandiose, kabuki-like performance, and John Napier's spectacular levitating mansion was no surprise for Best Set, although I preferred John Lee Beatty's elegant, turn-of-the century parlor in The Heiress. Likewise, lighting designer Andrew Bridge edged out the superior work of Beverly Emmons in the same revival.
Gerald Gutierrez's transcendent production of The Heiress was the inevitable winner for both Best Revival of a Play and Best Director, riding on the Best Performance by an Actress in many a season, Cherry Jones. This revival put a new spin on the old movie with Olivia de Havilland, Ralph Richardson and Montgomery Clift. In William Wyler's 1949 film, when Catherine locks out her unfaithful suitor, we believe that she is retreating into the dark confines of spinsterhood. As Jones plays it, once she has realized how her father despises her, she finds the strength to reject the false protestations of her would-be lover, and she climbs the stairs in triumph with the discovery she must become her own woman, free from the limiting definitions of the men who have dominated her life. It is a breathtaking reinterpretation that elevates the play from mere melodrama to the higher level of, say, A Doll's House.
De Havilland's Oscar-winning performance is eclipsed by Jones' Tony-winning portrayal. Also well-deserved was the award for Frances Sternhagen for Best Supporting Actress, and it is a shame that Jane Greenwood was denied the award for The Heiress' costume design, because they were the best costumes I have ever seen anywhere in any production.
It was probably inevitable that Ralph Fiennes should receive the Tony for Best Actor, but his Hamlet was a curious reading of the text, so rushed that the rapid-fire delivery allowed no pause for interpretation, meaning or experience. The production strangely took intermission after the fifth soliloquy, leaving a second act devoid of Hamlet, except for the gravedigger scene and the duel. The best performance of the year was probably Nathan Lane in Love! Valour! Compassion!, but he was overlooked by the nominating committee, and, barring him, Brian Bedford's usual artistry illuminated The Moliäre Comedies with bravura brilliance.
Matthew Broderick deserved his Best Actor in a Musical trophy, because he single-handedly carried the slick revival of How to Succeed, endowing this graceless reincarnation with what little charm it had. Comparisons to the charismatic performance by Robert Morse in the original would be unkind to Broderick.
Gretha Boston was an easy winner for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical and Susan Stroman as Best Choreographer for Show Boat. George Hearn waltzed home with the Tony for Best Supporting Actor in Sunset Boulevard.
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Most disappointing were the inevitable awards given to Show Boat as Best Musical Revival and to Hal Prince for Best Director. I am a huge fan of Prince, but this ludicrous rewrite of the greatest musical ever to grace the American stage is nothing short of a travesty. In an effort to make Show Boat epic (as if it were not), Prince stretched the end of the play to cover from 1900 to 1927, in order to put Elaine Stritch in a flapper's dress to show off her remarkable legs. Gay Ravenal returns to his family after 27 years (!) to seek forgiveness. Worst of all, Prince had to contort the story to accommodate Stritch as a star, moving two minor characters, Captain Andy and Parthy, to the center of the drama, pushing aside Magnolia and Ravenal. In the process, he stole one of their best love songs ("Why Do I Love You?") for Stritch to sing to her unwanted newborn granddaughter.
Still, Love! Valour! Compassion!, The Heiress and Sunset Boulevard would have been welcome in the best of seasons. It is a pity that they will be remembered as premiäring in history's worst.
Marshall W. Mason has directed 12 plays on Broadway, winning four Tony Awards and 24 Tony nominations, including five for best director. As the past president of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, he is a lifelong Tony voter.