History of the Musical Stage
2000 to Today
by John Kenrick
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Musical Comedy Returns: "Where Did We Go
The year 2000 found the Broadway community quite unsure of what the future of musical theater could be. James Joyce's The Dead (2000 - 111 perfs) was written by men with no experience creating musicals. It showed. The plot: after sharing a Christmas celebration with friends, a Dublin couple realizes that their marriage is a sham. That a cast of musical stage and screen veterans would take part in such a dull project was symbolic of how desperate actors had become for a chance to appear in a new Broadway musical.
Disney scored a commercial hit with Aida (2000 - 1,852 perfs) with Verdi's slave princess and a war hero sharing romance and death in ancient Egypt. However, the Elton John-Tim Rice pop rock score offered little substance to back-up a high tech production. Susan Stroman's Contact (2000 - 1,008 perfs) triumphed with a trio of experimental dance pieces that wowed the critics and swept the Tonys. Unions and theatrical purists protested that a show with no orchestra and no book was not really a musical, but few ticket buyers seemed to mind as they packed the house to see "The Girl in the Yellow Dress" (the ravishing Deborah Yates) taunt handsome Boyd Gaines.
The following season got off to a promising start when critics raved for The Full Monty (2000 - 768 perfs), based on the hit 1997 film about a group of unemployed men who try to make a few bucks stripping in a ladies club. David Yazbek's workable score was no match for Terrence McNally's witty book, and business was far from sell-out level.
Amid a slew of revivals and ill-conceived new shows, Mel Brooks brought in his long-threatened musical adaptation of his 1967 screen classic The Producers (2001 - 2,502 perfs). Nathan Lane played the manic producer Max Bialystock, who hopes to make millions staging a Broadway flop, assisted by Matthew Broderick as the nebbishy accountant Leo Bloom. Staged by Susan Stroman, it picked up a record-setting 14 Tony Awards. The full sized, shameless Broadway musical comedy, long considered extinct, was back and roaring. The sore point was that, for all its laughs, The Producers had almost no genuine sentiment but few complained, even when Brooks priced the best seats at a chilling $485. It was hard to say which was more frightening the greed of someone willing to charge such a price, or the stupidity of those willing to pay it. But with Full Monty, The Producers and a sensational revival of 42nd Street running strong, musical comedy was once again the dominant force on Broadway.
This coincided with a period of creative stasis in London's West End. A musical comedy based on the hit film The Witches of Eastwick and Andrew Lloyd Webber's heavy-handed The Beautiful Game (about British football) had their admirers but did not find an international audience. As far as musicals were concerned, the ball was once again very much in America's court, and Broadway did its damnedest to keep it that way even after an event that redefined New York City's way of life for years to come.
Dark Times, Fresh Humor
The London-born Mamma Mia (2001 - still running) roared into town a few weeks later, offering a familiar comic plot (a mother must confront the three men who might be her daughter's father) rebuilt around old hit songs by the pop group Abba. Critics were under-whelmed, but enthusiastic audiences kept the Winter Garden sold out for years to come. On Broadway and on tour, Mamma Mia's pure joy sold a heck of a lot of tickets. It was the first in a wave of jukebox musicals, "new" shows built around existing pop songs. Some of these pop-athons were revues, but most were book musicals where the songs came first, the plot second..
Broadway legend Elaine Stritch returned in a one-woman triumph, At Liberty (2002 - 69 perfs), winning Stritch the Tony she had waited half a century for albeit a special award, not one for Best Actress. The big winner of the 2000-2001 season was Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002 - 904 perfs), a tap-happy adaptation of the 1967 movie musical. The new songs were mediocre, but vintage showstoppers by Gilbert & Sullivan and Victor Herbert combined with sensational choreography to garner several Tonys, including Best Musical.
Many enjoyed Movin' Out (2002 - 1,202 perfs), a dance musical built around the pop songs of Billy Joel, and Baz Luhrmann's updated Australian Opera production of Puccini's opera La Boheme (2002 - 228 perfs) won justified raves during its brief run. Broadway marked Richard Rodgers' 100th birthday with rewritten flop revivals of The Boys From Syracuse and Flower Drum Song. Bernadette Petersstarred in a minimalist revival of Gypsy (2003 - 451 perfs) that please some but disappointed purists. The long-awaited German hit Dance of the Vampires (2002 - 56 perfs + 61 pvws) offered Michael Crawford in an incoherent blend of misfired comedy and passionless romance, and a well intentioned stage version of the film hit Urban Cowboy (2003 - 60 perfs + 23 pvws) soon two-stepped its way into obscurity.
The new musical comedy trend rocked on with the arrival of Hairspray (2002 - 2,642 perfs). Based on a popular 1988 film by John Walters, it told the story of an overweight Baltimore girl finding romance and stardom on a local TV show in the early 1960s. With a hilarious book and giddy period-flavored score, it gave Harvey Fierstein a chance to camp his way to glory as Broadway's ultimate drag mama. Hairspray became the third American musical comedy in a row to win the Tony for Best Musical and the third winner in a row based on a decades-old movie.
Witches, Puppets and Jukeboxes
Avenue Q (2003 - 2,534 perfs) was an intimate, low-budget musical comedy about life among struggling 30-somethings in New York's outer boroughs. With Muppet-style puppets, some mild naughtiness (coy ads promised "full puppet nudity") and an irreverent sense of humor, Avenue Q quickly moved from Off-Broadway (adopted by the producers of Rent) to win rave reviews and Tonys for Best Book, Score and Musical. After a long Broadway run, the production relocated to a smaller off-Broadway venue where reduced costs kept the laughs coming.
Of course, it helped that the Tony committee classified Stephen Sondheim's brilliant Assassins (2004 - 101 perfs + 26 pvws) as a "revival" -- despite the fact that the show clearly qualified as a new show under previous eligibility guidelines. This daring production had to settle for winning Best Revival and Best Director of a Musical -- for Joe Mantello, who had also helmed Wicked. Ah, what a small world Broadway can be.
The following season saw the zany Monty Python's Spamalot (2005 - 1575 perfs) win the Tony for Best Musical over the toughest competition of the decade. The good news was that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2005 - 666 perfs), A Light in the Piazza (2005 - 504 perfs) and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005 - 1,136 perfs) all enjoyed profitable runs, proving that there was still a diverse audience for new, high-quality Broadway musicals. However, this golden moment would prove short-lived. The second half of the decade would see the showtune give up a forty-plus year battle to stand its ground against changing tides in popular music. Rock and pop would finally reign supreme, and the sound perfected by Kern, Berlin, Rodgers and Sondheim would become a thing of the occasionally revisited past.