Ballots Over Broadway

As a dislocated audience, Phoenix's theatre fans have to employ a bit of guesswork when it comes to buying Broadway theatre tickets. Stuck somewhere between believing the hype and becoming abject cynics, Valley theatregoers select their shows gingerly. Hype has it that 1996 is the best season on Broadway in years. This year, you don't have to buy the hype, but I would strongly suggest that you Rent it.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Tony Awards, Sunday's CBS telecast--usually touted as the best awards show on television--was ironically the worst in memory. Nathan Lane showed far more charm as host than he does in his Tony Award-winning role in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. But this year's geriatric parade will do little to reverse the decline of the commercial theatre. Winning as Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Rent), Wilson Jermaine Heredia uttered the only urgent note of reality in a myopic evening of deadly self-congratulation: "Here's to a new era in the theatre!" If the guardians of the art do not heed that prayer, it's a safe bet that there will be no 100th-anniversary show.

The current season will set new records for attendance and box-office receipts at similarly record prices, and features more new plays and musicals than in many a season. But does that signal a healthy future? It is rather a sign of how desperate theatre lovers are to embrace at any price anything short of disaster. To be sure, the current season is a vast improvement over the pathetic gasp of last year, and it is gratifying to be able to complain that several excellent performances and shows were crowded out by the increasingly bizarre choices of the nominating committee.

But the sad truth is that although the musical theatre soared, no straight plays came anywhere near the seering dramatic power of Angels in America, which dominated the Tony Awards for two successive seasons. This year's nominees for Best Play were worthy, but not historic. The best of a weak field was August Wilson's Seven Guitars, a drama with a quiet wisdom and colorful performances (including that of Best Supporting Actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson), but it lost out to Terrence McNally's Master Class.

McNally's tabloid portrait of Maria Callas, with the inevitable Tony Award-grabbing histrionics of Zoe Caldwell, was a major disappointment to me, because it fell so short of depicting Callas, who was the greatest actress I ever saw. In any case, Caldwell helped give theatregoers an extraordinary opportunity to appreciate a modern version of George Bernard Shaw's contrast of the artistry of Eleanor Duse with the theatrics of Sarah Bernhart. The (Tony-ineligible off-Broadway) brilliance of Uta Hagen in Mrs. Klein, whose living of that title role levitated with a simplicity approaching genius, deftly rolled over the pyrotechnical emoting by Caldwell, who coolly but flashily reduced Callas to a shallow joke, revealing as much soul as a Vegematic hawker at the Arizona State Fair.

Saving the dramatic art, however, is a great production of a remarkable play, Tony-winning director Gerald Gutierrez's astonishing staging of the Best Revival, A Delicate Balance with Best Actor George Grizzard, and nominees Rosemary Harris and Elaine Stritch. Edward Albee's play won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize, but the original production (with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy) was so dry and distant, it seemed that the Pulitzer people were only trying to make up for overlooking Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Now Gutierrez's production (on an exquisite set by John Lee Beatty) sounds the grace notes of this chamber piece with such clarity that the text sings with a transcendent beauty.

Best Revival of a Musical deservedly went to the Australian import of The King and I, featuring Best Actress in a Musical Donna Murphy and nominee Lou Diamond Phillips, surrounded by the opulent Best Set and Best Costume winners. Murphy won for the second time (she won for Passion in 1994), beating out the legendary but controversial Julie Andrews, who was nominated for Victor/Victoria and refused the nomination on the grounds that the obtuse nominating committee had ignored the considerable contributions of her co-stars.

The slight to Victor/Victoria was a scandal in the New York theatre community, equaled only by Andrews' refusal of the nomination. It was a particularly perverse omission, given that Andrews had been nominated twice before--but had not won--for My Fair Lady and Camelot. As a five-time Tony nominee myself, I am totally sympathetic with Andrews' battle for her cast and crew: I was not nominated for some of my best work, either, including Burn This.

I can report that for a $75 ticket, Victor/Victoria provides a wildly uneven spectacle with some genuinely fabulous high spots and some dumbfoundingly numbing stretches between. Still, it is so superior to that gigantic bore Big, another musical based on a hit movie, that Andrews did the right and noble thing to stand with her deserving but unnominated colleagues (Tony Roberts, Michael Nouri and Rachel York). Robin Wagner's sets are eye-poppingly spectacular, as are Willa Kim's sequined-and-feathered costumes.

As interesting as this controversy was to the New York theatre establishment, it could hardly have been a topic at barbershops or hair salons throughout the country. I was amazed by the Tony telecast's meanspirited attacks on Andrews, and I suspect the nationwide audience must have been puzzled by the in-joke references. It was another indication just how out of touch the Broadway theatre is with its potential audience of tourists/suckers.

Fortunately for all of us, the commercial theatre has been rescued from its scorpionesque tendency to self-destruct by two works of superior artistry in the most American of all art forms, the Broadway musical.

First, there is the buoyant, energetic and joyous celebration of dance Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, which earned Tony Awards for Best Director (George C. Wolfe), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Ann Duquesnay), Best Lighting (Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer) and, especially, the revolutionary Best Choreography of Savion Glover. Glover is so much fun to watch that he could have won an award for Best of Show. He is supported by outstanding dancers, including Baakari Wilder (also incredibly overlooked) and the rhythmic genius of drummers Jared Crawford and Raymond King, who beat out the syncopations on the bottoms of plastic industrial cans.

There isn't much of a book, or even much of a score, in Noise/Funk. The premise is that the play's depicting a history of African Americans through tap dancing, stretching the art to explore the passions, anger and humiliation of the black race in America. That profound task lies beyond the scope of the dance, given tap's traditional associations with more lighthearted fare, but it is always entertaining, and often thrilling, and kids love it.

The triumph of the season is the Tony winner for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book and Lyrics, and Best Supporting Actor in a Musical, Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer-winning Rent. A contemporary revisit of Puccini's lyrical opera La Boheme, Larson's masterpiece is set on Manhattan's Lower East Side, among the disenfranchised young artists whose desperate lives are engulfed by drugs, sex and death.

Anthony Rapp gives another overlooked performance of brilliance as Mark, whose girlfriend (nominee Idina Menzel) has left him for a black lesbian lover. Mark's roommate is the classically handsome composer/guitarist Roger (played with great poetic sensitivity by nominee Adam Pascal), whom we meet as he takes his daily dosage of AZT. Early in the show, Pascal sits on a steel table and picks out on his acoustic guitar a haunting melody that intones: "Glory! I want to write just one song, before I . . ." The unfinished thought brings a lump to the throat, no doubt intensified by the knowledge that the composer, Jonathan Larson, died at the opening preview of Rent ten days before his 36th birthday of an aortic aneurysm. "Rent" is his one glorious song.

Of course, Roger (like Rudolpho) will soon meet Mimi (played to aching perfection by nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega), who also has AIDS, and the "best ass south of 14th Street." The Musetta story of Boheme becomes a poignant romance between Tony-winner Heredia, a caramel-colored drag queen named Angel, and Tom Collins. At their first meeting, Collins (played with endearing humanity by Jesse L. Martin) remarks: "You look like an Angel."

Assembled across the front of the stage, the cast gave the Tony audience a taste of its simplicity and eloquence with the stirring "Seasons of Love," reminding us that "Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes" make up a year. This generation, so aware of the clock ticking away at its mortality, reducing expectations for a span of life we once took for granted, has been given an anthem that will clutch at your heart.

Rent has received so much attention that it is important to report that the accomplishment of this signal work of art far exceeds the hype. It has been called the Hair for the '90s, but that demeans its depth and stature. It is a much better musical than Hair, or indeed any other popular musical within the past decade.

The director, Michael Greif, although nominated, did not win his Tony because, as wonderful as it is now at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway, presumably it lost something in the transfer from its original staging at the small New York Theatre Workshop. My only complaint is that the sound design is somewhat overamplified, robbing us of the opportunity to savor each rippling rhyme of the lyrics. I can hardly wait for the CD!

Don't let the dreary telecast keep you from the joys of A Delicate Balance, the grandeur of The King and I, the brassy fun of Victor/Victoria, or the ebullient Noise/Funk. This is a great time to go to New York and see a show--especially the deeply relevant Rent. This is a glimpse of the theatre for the 21st century.

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Marshall W. Mason