In theater news, the 2000-2001 season on Broadway marked the arrival of several new musicals, and a good showing of new non-musical plays as well. And, like so many other businesses in New York City and throughout the country, the theater industry was changed by the terrorist attacks on September 11.
For many people, the year 2001 on Broadway could be summed up in two words: ". . . winner is, The Producers!"
"The Producers," written by Mel Brooks and starring Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, won an unprecedented 12 Tony Awards, including for Best Musical. The line of people waiting to buy tickets in front of the St. James Theater has still not abated - the show is sold out until May.
"Mel Brooks wrote it and he came from a background of the old traditional theater, he understood how the older musicals were constructed. But what makes it palatable for contemporary audiences is that it's sort of a satire musical itself," says Gerard Alessandrini. He knows about satire. Mr. Alessandrini is the creator of the multi-award-winning musical revue, "Forbidden Broadway," - now in its 20th year - which spoofs current Broadway productions in song and dance. Mr. Alessandrini, an astute follower of theater trends, says he had hoped that the success of "The Producers" would have signaled a resurgence of interesting new musicals to come - but, he says, that didn't happen.
"It almost seems like the straight theater has more interesting things going on than the musical theater does, at this point dramas and comedies. But I think they kind of figured out that if a show got good reviews, was a good evening of theater, you could actually produce it for less than musicals because musicals became so expensive to produce. And they still are," he says.
Some of the successful non-musical plays that opened this season included "The Invention of Love," by Tom Stoppard; August Wilson's "King Hedley, III," and "Proof," by David Auburn, which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and three Tony Awards, including for Best Play. Musical producer Gerard Allessandrini says interest in big-budget British import musicals like "Cats," "Miss Saigon," and "Les Miserables," musicals that are mostly sung and rely heavily on circus-like special effects, seems to be waning.
"They're not the stellar hits that they were before," he says. "But of course, they've run for so many years. They almost became tourist attractions like the Empire State Building. It's definitely the end of an era."
Of the new musicals that opened, "The Full Monty," "Jane Eyre," and "Suessical," enjoyed some degree of success and award nominations. Next to "The Producers," the second biggest hit musical now is "Urinetown," a dark fantasy that, like "The Producers," gently makes fun of old musicals of the past. And, the longest running show in the history of New York Theater is closing: "The Fantasticks," will close January 13, after 42 years and more than 17,000 performances.
Producers attribute the demise of the legendary show, not to lack of interest by audiences, but rising real estate prices. Its costumes will be donated to the Museum of the City of New York.
One of the surprise successes this year, says Mr. Allesandrini, is "Mama Mia," a show featuring music from the 1970's Swedish pop group, Abba. "Mama Mia" got a lot of negative criticism for its weak plot and low production values. But the seats at the Wintergarden Theater are selling out.
"It's successful because it's just a very looser form where they can do the Abba music and I think people are enjoying the Abba music - it's tuneful and it's upbeat," he explains. "And there's really not much else going on in the sense that there's nothing dramatic happening. the book is very sketchy. It even doesn't look like a well-staged revue like 'Fosse' or 'Dancin,' where it's got excellent choreography or sets. It's just very slipshod. So I think the success of it is that it is easy and non-taxing and you don't need to think much. And there is a place for that."
That may be partly due, says Mr. Allesandrini, in response to the events of September 11. Audiences seem to be gravitating more to light comedies and music that provide an escape from the grim realities of the day. This might also explain the enduring success of Girard Allesandrini's comedy satire revue, "Forbidden Broadway," that has been hailed by critics as "one of the funniest shows around" and "one of the 10 best shows of the year." It has also been a major hit in cities throughout the United States and in Europe, Asia and Australia.
The latest edition, premiering in January, is called "Forbidden Broadway: 20th Anniversary Celebration." Creator Girard Alessandrini says his revue will still be topical, will still make fun of the current crop of shows. But he says it will also be a kind of "love letter to Broadway" - a celebration that the most important theater district in the world - through good times and bad - Broadway is still here.
Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001