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A CurtainUp End of Year Roundup Feature
Moving Forward by Looking Back on 2006

Elyse Sommer and Simon Saltzman Reflect on Trends On, Off and Off-Off Broadway

This piece began with a " the best and the worst" tag line and a plan to add a 10 best and worst of 2006 list. However, rather than add to the glut of such year-end compilations, we opted for this exchange of thoughts and to conclude with a list of links to CurtainUp reviews of every show mentioned, whether from this or previous years.

The Cash Cows that Represent Every Non-Profit's Dreams.
Simon Sez: Are we surprised that A Chorus Line is back on Broadway? Not really. It all started when this record-breaker moved to Broadway in 1975 and ran for fifteen years. It became a cash cow for the Public Theater, creating an endowment for many years to come for the adventurous non-profit theater. The rock musical Rent is only ten years old and doing much the same for the New York Theater Workshop where it began. In recent seasons, Avenue Q, direct from the Vineyard Theater, and The Twenty-Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, from the Second Stage Theater Company, are likely to produce long-term dividends for their Off-Broadway parents. Is there another cash cow in the making? It looks promising once again for a select few of the non-profit theater companies. More importantly the question is: What would Broadway be today without the new musical that began life Off-Broadway? The answer: Pretty pathetic.

Elyse Sez: Pretty pathetic indeed. Spelling Bee points to the fact that Off-Broadway is often an intermediate step between Off-Off-Broadway or even further afield beginnings. It actually began as a regional workshop and was first seen by me at Barrington Stage, a Berkshire area summer theater in its then Second Stage in an actual school setting. That production's success off and on Broadway helped Barington Stage founder and artistic director Julianne Boyd move out of the company's rented high school home in Sheffield to its own theater in Pittsfield where they can have a much longer season.

Urinetown's 2001 Broadway run began at New York's summer Fringe Festival, then moved uptown for a somewhat longer Off-Broadway run before its final move. And the cash cow milking often continues even after the Broadway run ends with these shows enjoying numerous regional productions.

When Off-Beat Musicals Have the Legs to Leap to Broadway
Simon Sez: Only rarely do Off Broadway shows get the kind of high profile coverage that accompanies a Broadway opening. The year 2006 was particularly notable for the move to the Great White Way of two unusual musicals. Grey Gardens, originally produced by Playwrights Horizon, was inspired by the Maysles Brothers' documentary about the eccentric and reclusive mother and daughter Bouvier-Beales known as big Edie and little Edie. It received Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for Outstanding Off-Broadway musical. Spring Awakening from the Atlantic Theater Company recently opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theater. This sensational rock musical version of German playwright Frank Wedekind's scandalous (at the time) 1891 drama about teenaged sex, suicide and other things that, to quote a lyric, make life "a bitch" in a socially repressive society virtually had all the critics doing cartwheels both off and on Broadway. It has the edge to land this season's Tony for Outstanding New Musical.

Elyse Sez: It's interesting to note there are different muscles flexed to support these transfers. Grey Gardens made the leap propelled by the star power of Christine Ebersole, despite good but not uniformly ecstatic reviews (which was also the case for the Broadway version). Spring Awakening, on the other hand, had a cast of unknown performers. However, its genuine fresh and original approach and strong appeal to young audiences (that's young as in young adults, not junior high school or younger kids) — plus across the board critical raves -- encouraged the producers to move it uptown. The reception for Awakening's astutely tweaked Broadway production was again an unqualified rave. While neither of these shows is an easy ticket to sell, Grey Gardens has been finding its audience and Spring Awakening may well follow suit. But it's still a horse race.

Neither is for the typical family audiences who buy four and five tickets at a clip or tourists more interested in a good time than trendiness or edge. Their appeal is to the type of musical theater fans who become groupies and see a show again and again. It will take continued and creative marketing to keep building interest in these shows.

Transfers to Broadway For Straight Plays
Simon Sez: Plays initially produced by non-profit theater companies have restricted budgets and missions. This rarely allow for extended or open-ended runs and so only some make the daring move to Broadway. In 2006 such moves included The Lieutenant of Inishmore (also from the Atlantic Theater Company), another hilarious chiller from Martin McDonagh. A critical success and sell-out in Chelsea it sadly failed to find a receptive public for an extended Broadway run. Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed, about the making of a Hollywood hunk, was a hit for Second Stage Theater Company, but is currently struggling to stay afloat on Broadway despite raves for its star Julie White.

Although the Public Theater didn't see any of its productions move to Broadway this year, it did offer subscribers and the public many fine plays notably Diana Son's Satellites about mixed race marriage and Neil LaBute's Wrecks starring a brilliant Ed Harris. The latter was proof that while economics play a part in the ever increasing number of one person shows, this genre does produce its standouts.

Elyse Sez: Since McDonagh's plays have opened on Broadway as well as off and the previous transfer of his Beauty Queen of Leenane did pretty well, the hopes for The Lieutenant of Inishmore were not all that unrealistic. But then all plays tend to have a hard time competing with the more popular musical genre. As for The Little Dog Laughed, it appeals to an even more specialized audience than Grey Gardens and what's more, Julie White and her character are not quite in a league with Christine Ebersole's two Edies.

To Simon's list of the Public Theater's standouts at its own home base, I would add Julia Cho's moving play about a Korean father and sons, Durango and another solo show Emergence-SEE!. As satisfying as any transfer is the fact that the Public's artistic director Oskar Eustis has really made the Lafayette Street theaters crackle activity; that includes readings and other multi-cultural, young crowd-drawing events as well as full productions filling all the theaters which in recent seasons have not been fully utilized.

Economics May Be at the Root of Solo Show Glut, But There Are Always Some That Excel.
Simon Sez: Economics may play a part in the number of one person shows, but many seen in 2006 were outstanding and successful. Besides the already mentioned Wrecks which was a sellout at the Public, No Child, about an inner city school teacher coping with incorrigibles, written and performed by Nilaja Sun attracted enough of an audience to extend several time and eventually convert to an open run at the Barrow Street Theater where it's still running.

Bridge and Tunnel a solo play starring Sarah Jones and produced by actress Meryl Streep in association with the non-profit Culture Project did make the move but realistically planned for a limited run. That limited run did catch enough fire to extend again and again, bumping another non-profit originated showcase (the Atlantic, again), ventriloquist Jay Johnson's The Two and Only, to a later slot. Unlike Jones, Johnson didn't catch on with Broadway audiences.

Elyse Sez: While I'll never be a great fan of one-person shows there are invariably exceptions, like Billy Crystal's biographical show a few season's back and the already mentioned Wrecks. More often than not, these solo performances also entail bare bones staging (the Crystal and LaBute plays being exceptions). These factors make Lincoln Center Theater's undertaking a project like Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia such a newsmaking event. Even without Stoppard to insure a stimulating theatrical experience, seeing these elegant stage images and 44 actors (no, that's not a typo!) take their curtain calls is a not to be missed treat and only a large non-profit organization like LC would take on the logistics of mounting this epic. While the audience has rewarded this risk-taking by clamoring for tickets to all three parts which led to an extension of several months, even the extension involves further grappling with the logistics of keeping the cast together.

Real Estate's Role in Expanding the Non-Profits' Reach.
Simon Sez: In recent years, The Manhattan Theater Club and the Roundabout Theater have significantly expanded their vision and producing capabilities by having their own permanent Broadway theaters for their more high profile productions. Rabbit Hole was one of the more notable 2006 productions at MTC's Biltmore Theater. It won Tonys for both Cynthia Nixon and Tyne Daly. At the Roundabout's American Airlines Theater the jump-for-joy award-winning production of The Pajama Game was given a box-office boost by Harry Connick Jr. making his Broadway debut.

The Lincoln Center Theater is also apt to secure a Broadway house in addition to its home base, as with Awake and Sing, the excellent award-winning revival of Clifford Odet's classic Depression-era play presented at the Lyceum Theater. The current big noise at its Broadway-tagged Vivian Beaumont is The Coast of Utopia, already mentioned by Elyse above.

Elyse Sez: The benefits of owning one's own theater are manifold to which many a small organization facing increasing rental costs can attest. The worthy Culture Project on Bleeker Street is a case in point and economics have dictated its move to 55 Mercer Street where it presently has only one theater instead of the two spaces in its former Bleeker Street home. Another worthy small company, the Irish Rep, has launched a fund raising drive to own rather rent its space on booming 22nd Street.

It's also worth mentioning that John Gallagher who appeared briefly in Rabbit Hole is one of the leads in Spring Awakening. The play also marked a a departure from the quirky plays on which David Lindsay-Abaire's reputation was built and made him a Pulitzer Prize runnerup. Lindsay-Abaire's adventure with writing the book for the musical High Fidelity didn't work quite as well. The show went to its grave even before all the critics could post their reviews.

As for the Roundabout's Pajama Game revival, this actually was another transfer since the production began as one of the 2005 season's popular Encores! concerts. Perhaps it was the accolades won by Pajama Game that encouraged the organization to more recently transplant the Encores! revival of The Apple Tree to its Studio 54 venue. While the transfer is a big win for Kristin Chenoweth, the show's production is rather modest and underwhelming by Broadway standards and not as comfortable a Broadway transplant as the Pajama Game.

Broadway's Love For Things British and Movie Stars Continues Unabated. . .But Not Without Stumbles
Simon Sez: Broadway has traditionally been receptive to British imports and this year was no exception. Alan Bennett's The History Boys made a big splash as a purely commercial venture on these shores and was adored by almost everyone (including CurtainUp's editor in chief, but excluding me) and won the Tony for Outstanding Play. However, two other imports by way of London, Festen at the Music Box and Losing Louie at the Biltmore fared poorly.

In the film star department, critics were unkind to mega star Julia Roberts, who made her Broadway debut in Richard Greenberg's very fine Three Days of Rain. They were only a bit more receptive to another film star, Julianne Moore, although the major shots were aimed at The Vertical Hour's author David Hare for his disappointing diatribe. Moore is also making her Broadway debut and expectedly providing the play with box-office clout. Hare's bent for political exposition was better served in the incendiary play about the machinations and mechanics behind Bush's war, Stuff Happens, as produced by the Public Theater, following runs in London and Los Angeles. A more successful transfer was the revival of Brian Friel's hypnotic but talky Faith Healer which was a sellout in its limited run due to the triple threat casting of Cherry Jones, Ralph Fiennes, and Ian McDiarmid.

Elyse Sez: London to US transfers most often run into difficlties if the cast is changed and the locale Americanized. History Boys crossed the pond with the entire London gang intact (which is also true for the recently released film). Both Festen and Losing Louis featured good American actors, but something got lost on the way from there to here. This is obviously not an ironclad rule since Stuff Happens did fine with its American cast.

And while neither Moore or Hare's new play has turned out to be quite the Wow! anticipated, much attention and praise was showered on lesser known British co-star Bill Nighy. A revival of another British play, Butley, suffered from the comparison game. With few exceptions, critics were unable to erase the memory of Alan Bates, who created the role on stage and screen even with Nathan Lane, generally a major box office draw, playing the title character.

Each Theatrical Season Brings Surprise and Expected Winners and Losers, Especially Musicals
Simon Sez: The surprise smash musical hit of the year was the Canadian import The Drowsy Chaperone, winner of the Tony for Outstanding New Musical. Producers Disney and Cameron Macintosh spared no expense to make Mary Poppins as spectacular and entertaining as possible and it looks like the new family hit of the season.

Some major new musicals were huge disappointments. Though Disney's marketing department has helped keep the terrible Tarzan open, nothing could help Twyla Tharp's nightmarish ode to Bob Dylan The Times They Are a Changin' or Ring of Fire, another misguided venture this one trading on the Johnny Cash canon.

Elyse Sez: Drowsy's earning back its investment in record time is a doubly heartening sign that, given the right quality,cream can still rise to the top. Still deep pockets (like Disney 's for Tarzan) and big advances are needed to keep pleasant but light weight shows like High Fidelity afloat. I agree with Simon that it's good riddance to the Dylan and Johnny Cash shows.

Drowsy's earning back its investment in record time is a doubly heartening sign that Musical Revivals With That Je Ne Sais Quois to Make them New Again
Simon Sez: Musical revivals were in super abundance this year. Joining the exuberant The Pajama Game was a re-envisioned Sweeney Todd, in which the cast played their own musical instruments and a sterling Company, in which the cast also played their own instruments. It shouldn't surprise you to know that both shows were directed by John Doyle.

A carbon copy reproduction of A Chorus Line and a return after only three and one half years of a slightly scaled-down Les Miserables may fall short of je ne sais quois but they are making new friends and the producers of Les Miz have already announced that its announced six-months run will continue through next summer. While you can say that the Roundabout revival of the Brecht-Weill classic, The Three Penny Opera, had plenty of new ideas, these ideas (and the new translation) managed to gross out as many people as it pleased.

Elyse Sez: John Doyle's multi-tasking approach to casting shows with actor-musicians has certainly worked well for Stephen Sondheim's demon barber and relationship-shy Bobby, but if overused and in the hands of a less skillful director, this can make accusations of gimmickry all too true. Unfortunately, It's fine to have Marc Kudisch, a gifted actor and musician strum a guitar in The Apple Tree but unfortunately I can already point to an example of the Doyle approach misfiring utterly: The Murder Mystery Blues, an adaptation of Woody Allen's New Yorker stories which featured musicians lacking acting skills.

The Off and Off-Off Broadway Edge: More Adventurous, Less Expensive
Simon Sez: As expected, plays produced Off and Off-Off-Broadway were edgier and geared toward a more adventurous audience. Some of the best that come to mind (*indicates off-off): * Heddatron, as staged by the adventurous theater group Les Freres Corbusier, used actors and robots in Elizabeth Merwether's refreshingly original consideration of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. . .*Adam Rapp's channel ing of the dark side of human relationships in the gripping play-noir Red Light Winter . . . Tryst was a tantalizing Victorian thriller by Britisher Karoline Leach. . . Bruce Norris' The Pain and the Itch was a provocative play about misguided progressive values in one weird family.

The Signature Theater's showcasing of notable American playwrights reached many new theater goers thanks to Time-Warner's sponsorship of $15 tickets for the announced schedule. This year's focus on three plays by the late August Wilson has brought stronger business than ever.

Elyse Sez: While there are still plenty of bargains to be had, especially Off-Off Broadway ($15 and $18 tickets not being unusual), there's been a steady upward price creep with Off-Broadway tickets likely to set theatergoers back $60 or $65. If a show extends, ticket buyers should expect the initial price to jump to cover the higher costs. Whatever the price, the Off and Off-Broadway theaters are hardly failure proof. New World Stages has brought on some very second-rate musicals, even the Putnam County Spelling Bee's Tony winning Dan Fogler couldn't make much of the Voyage of Carcass and the only edge you're likely to see in some productions, like the recently opened My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish and I'm in Therapy is that it teeters on the edge of being a vanity production.

Links to Reviews of Shows Mentioned
The Apple Tree
Avenue Q
Awake and Sing!
Bridge and Tunnel

Chorus Line
The Coast of Utopia
The Drowsy Chaperone
Emergence-See Festen
Grey Gardens
High Fidelity
History Boys
Jay Johnson: The Two and Only
Les Miserables
The Lieutenant of Inishmore
The Little Dog Laughed
Losing LouisMary Poppins
The Murder Mystery Blues
My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish & I'm in Therapy
Pajama Game
Rabbit Hole
Red Light Winter
Ring of Fire
Spring Awakening
Stuff Happens
Sweeney Todd
The Three Penny Opera
The Times They Are a Changin'
TheTwenty-Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Two Trains Running
Urinetown The Vertical Hour
The Voyage of the Carcass
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