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When the Pulitzer Was Up For Rent
Off-Broadway program cover for Rent.
By the late 1990s, almost every show that made it to Broadway was a
corporate product. With the average musical budget running over $8,000,000, it took a lot
of people to finance a show, and they all wanted some say in the production. This left no
room for amateurs or rebels.
Even the much ballyhooed Rent
(1996 - 5,123 perfs) was nurtured for a year by a company that booked and
produced national tours. I was an assistant in their office during the two years leading
up to Rent's off-Broadway premiere. Rent's producers had vision and took a
genuine risk, but it was a calculated risk informed by years of business experience. They
guided composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson
through extensive rewriting in the months before the show opened at The New York Theatre
Workshop, and would have encouraged further revisions had Larson lived.
was, the composer's death on the night of the Off-Broadway dress rehearsal made Rent
a cultural cause celebre. As the show moved to Broadway on a wave of sympathetic publicity,
no opportunity was wasted. Long before arranging foreign production rights, the producers were
authorizing a Rent fashion department at Bloomingdales. For all the fuss made over
Rent's contemporary rock score, nothing
from the show ever made it to the pop charts. It was an outright failure in London, where
critics and audiences were less susceptible to the poignancy of the composer's death.
As with corporate musicals, the independently produced Rent
was reproduced world wide with the precision of a photocopy. Its simple set,
bargain-basement costuming and rudimentary staging could be
re-created or packaged for
travel. From New York to Tokyo, blonde-dyed male leads wrapped their bare biceps around
curly-haired Mimis as their head mikes met in an identical kiss. Staged
at one-fourth the cost of The Lion King but charging the same ticket price,
hefty profit was assured. Critic Ron Lasko commented
I have nightmares every time
I see the new ad campaign for Rent that features an entirely new cast of actors
that look and act exactly like the original cast; its like some B-Horror movie version
of itself, "Invasion of the Rent People."
- Next magazine 10/29/99
"Fortune's Winds Sing Godspeed"
1996 concert staging of Chicago became the longest running revival
in Broadway history.
Two well-known Kander and Ebb musicals returned to Broadway in the
mid-1990s in stagings that gave them as much impact as new hits. A five
performance City Center Encores! concert version of Chicago
(1996 - 6,100+ perfs, still running) was such a sensation that it moved to the Shubert
Theatre. Co-directors Walter Bobbie and Ann Reinking paid tribute to the
late Bob Fosse's original intentions, but gave the show a simpler,
streamlined staging that made this cynical look at fame and American pop
culture seem even more timely than it was in 1975. The Roundabout Theatre
brought over a hard-edged British production of the 1967 hit Cabaret
(1998 - 2,306 perfs) that rankled traditionalists but delighted many others.
Thanks to rave reviews and a succession of stellar replacement casts, both
revivals outran their original productions.
The most successful black musical of the decade was Bring
in Da' Noise, Bring in Da' Funk (1996 - 1,148 perfs), which used a
series of contemporary tap numbers to look dramatize and reflect on the
history of Africans in America. The score was new, but the key issue was
the dancing, which expressed every emotion from despair to rage to
triumph. Savion Glover headed a spitfire cast and received a Tony
for his groundbreaking choreography.
One of the few new American composers to find success on Broadway in the
1990s was Frank Wildhorn. His turgid adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde
(1997- 1,543 perfs) developed a dedicated cult following, and his entertaining
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1997 -772 perfs) was revised twice during
its run. Wildhorn made a noisy misstep with The Civil War (1999 -
61 perfs), an incoherent attempt to present America's national nightmare in a semi-revue
format. But there was no question that his works appealed to a dedicated, if
The best musicals of the late 1990s came from corporate producers that
aimed for artistic integrity as well as profit. Composer/lyricist
Maury Yeston (Nine, Grand Hotel) and
librettist Peter Stone (1776),
had built their reputations on making unlikely
projects sing. When their Titanic (1997 - 804 perfs)
sailed off with five Tonys, including Best Musical, the theatrical community was
shocked. The best new American musical in over a decade, it put creative
aspects ahead of the marketing concerns. Over a dozen key characters were defined
through songs which invoked various period or ethnic styles: the hopeful immigrants
dreaming of life "In America," the arrogance of the rich exclaiming
"What a Remarkable Age This Is," the elderly Mr. & Mrs. Strauss reaffirming
that they "Still" love each other as they face death. A stronger director or
solo producer might have sharpened the dramatic focus, but corporate thinking let matters
lie. Whatever its imperfections, Titanic deserved its success.
(1998 - 861 perfs) was another example of the corporate musical at its best, thanks to
a spectacular score by American composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
The epic story told of a crumbling family, a black man seeking justice, and a Jewish immigrant
father fulfilling the American dream for himself an his child. As with Titanic, a huge
cast of characters was brought into focus by a score that invoked musical styles from the
early 20th century and a book that wove disparate lives into a common pattern
the concept musical blown up to epic proportions. Ragtime was not
afraid to use satire ("Crime of the Century") or raunchy humor ("What A
Game") along with soaring chorales, ballads and rags. When
Brian Stokes Mitchell (as musician Coalhouse Walker)
and Audra McDonald (as his beloved Sarah) sang of
how they would ride into the future "On the Wheels of a Dream," it was pure, potent
musical theatre. Though overproduced and under-directed, Ragtime was a musical with
brains, heart, and a touch of courage.
Century's End: Old and New
The 1998-99 season was one of disappointments. The few new musicals
suffered from serious flaws.
- A stage adaptation of the film Footloose
(1998 - 737 perfs) had enthusiasm but reeked of professional ineptitude - a
fact that repulsed critics but drew strong ticket sales.
- A bloodless stage adaptation of Saturday Night Fever
(1999 - 500 perfs) was dismissed by the critics, but still racked up a fourteen
million dollar advance proving yet again that there is no underestimating
the taste of some ticket buyers.
- Despite composer John Michael LaChiusa's insistence that his
Marie Christine (1999 - 44 perfs) was a musical, it was a
didactic modern opera inaccessible to most audiences.
- Parade (1998 - 84 perfs) was a somber history
lesson with little audience appeal, given a handsome production by
director Hal Prince. The true
story of a bigoted Southern mob lynching a Jewish man for a crime he
didn't commit, this show had few admirers until after it closed. As
the only major book musical competing with Footloose, Parade
copped Tonys for Best Book and Score.
- A revised Annie Get Your Gun
(1999 - 1,046 perfs) gave the radiant
Bernadette Peters her strongest vehicle
to date, and her second Tony as Best Actress in a Musical. Despite
clumsy cuts, Irving Berlin's finest stage score still delighted
- Fosse (1999 - 1,108 perfs),
a compendium of the late choreographer's finest dances, was the season's
longest running hit. Consisting of previously seen material, it
could hardly be called a new show, but it won the Best Musical Tony.
Co-directed by Richard Maltby Jr. and
Ann Reinking, with special assistance by
Fosse's widow Gwen Verdon, it offered a wide
ranging look at what this "razzle dazzle" genius had accomplished.
An acclaimed revival of Kiss Me Kate (1999 - 885 perfs),
stood out all the more in an era when most new musicals
were marked by intellectual vapidity and a terminal shortage of humor.
Audiences were amazed to hear themselves laugh out loud at lyrics for the first time
in years proving Cole Porter's genius was indeed
timeless. After years of "heavy" musicals, theatre goers were hungry for
something happier. But musical comedy was dead and buried
-- wasn't it?
After flourishing through most of the 20th Century, the Broadway musical
was in uncertain condition at century's end. Shows that appealed to the lowest
common cultural denominator thrived, while wit and melody were reserved for
revivals. Musical theater professionals and aficionados had good reason to wonder what
the next century might bring.
Next: 2000-The Present