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Broadway Faced Tumultuous Year - 2003-12-20


2003 was a topsy turvy year on Broadway with supposedly surefire hits stumbling badly while dramas had unexpected successes. It was also a year when backstage goings on were often more riveting than the action taking place onstage.

It was one of the strangest years on Broadway in memory. Firings and closings received more attention openings. Hits were few and far between and critical approval seemed to have little to do with box office success. At least two leading ladies walked out of shows before opening night. One play that received bad reviews closed 24 hours after opening. Broadway insiders say many producers, faced with enormous costs, are cutting their losses as soon as they can.

Television personality Rosie O'Donnell invested $10 million in Taboo, a musical imported from London about pop star Boy George and the London club scene in the 1980s. The troubled production received so much negative publicity before it opened that Ms. O'Donnell barred a major New York critic from media previews. To just about everyone's surprise, however, the show received better reviews than expected. Rosie O'Donnell calls the show a traditional musical.

"It's the kind of show where you sit down and you are introduced to a bunch of people who you never thought you would love and by the end you are crying. That is a great musical," she said.

But Taboo is struggling at the Box Office and still must face the cold winter months of January and February when New York theaters cannot rely on tourists.

Little Shop of Horrors, a musical version of a cult film and off-Broadway show, received excellent reviews but is not filling the theater.

Yet an extravagant musical, Wicked, loosely based on the popular book and movie, the Wizard of Oz, appears to be a commercial hit despite lukewarm reviews.

But there were some productions that garnered critical and commercial success. A star-studded production of Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night sold out during its limited engagement.

Actor Kevin Kline, best known for his roles in movies such as A Fish Called Wanda, is giving one of the most acclaimed performances of the year as Falstaff in a blockbuster production combining Shakespeare's Henry IV and Henry V.

"Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery then," Kline said.

Veteran theater critic Dennis Cunningham called Mr. Kline thoroughly brilliant and praised the entire production and cast.

"All the preceding conspiring to offer and many not yet mentioned, artfully conspiring to offer an intimate portrait of history, comedy, family, friendship, honor and all manner of the human life," he said.

Serious plays resonated. Golda's Balcony, a one-woman drama about the American-raised former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir made a successful transition from off-Broadway to Broadway as did another one-person drama, I Am My Own Wife.

The play, based on the true story of a transvestite in Germany who survived both the Nazi and communist regimes, received glowing reviews, especially for actor Jeffrey Mays, who portrays more than 30 different characters.

Reviewers loudly applauded a revival of Wonderful Town with music by Leonard Bernstein.

It is based on the popular 1950s movie My Sister Eileen, about two sisters from the Midwest who come to New York to live in Greenwich Village.

But the critics were not similarly charmed by Never Gonna Dance, a show with many of the same ingredients. It is based on the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie Swing Time, with a music score by the great Jerome Kern. Like Wonderful Town, Never Gonna Dance focuses on a glamorous period of time in New York. All the ingredients are there but critics say the show's stars lack the chemistry needed to make a hit.

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