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Popular Musical Revivals Dominated Theater Scene in 2002 - 2002-12-14

More than a year after the terrorist attacks in New York City, the lights on Broadway shine as brightly as ever. Robin Rupli has a look back at the shows that made headlines in 2002.

It could be said that the 2002 theater season was the "year of Richard Rodgers." Rodgers, whose 100th birth anniversary took place in June, was honored in special concerts and events throughout the country and the world for his contribution to musical theater. Oklahoma!, the groundbreaking musical he wrote in 1943 with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, II, was revived on Broadway this year to critical acclaim. And one of the lesser-known Rodgers and Hammerstein shows was also revived for the first time since its premier in 1958 Flower Drum Song.

In addition to the popular musical revivals, there were outstanding new musicals to open in 2002 as well. The standout was the big budget, big-haired John Waters comedy, Hairspray, based on his 1988 movie of the same name.

Hairspray offers a lot of dance and humor and an upbeat story that have critics calling it a strong contender for "Best Musical" at the upcoming Tony Awards.

"Certainly Urinetown, The Producers and Hairspray have that feeling in common that they sort of make fun of the genre as they actually celebrate it," says Composer and director Gerard Allesandrini, creator of the long running musical satire revue, Forbidden Broadway, now in its 20th year. He says there seems to be a trend away from big epic musicals like some of the British imports that are more serious in nature, to shows with more humor like Hairspray and the recent Urinetown and The Producers. These are shows, he says, that don't take themselves quite so seriously.

"I think musicals now are more prone to tongue in cheek and sort of self-deprecating. Because I think it's clearer now that if you take yourself too seriously it looks a little phony. Perhaps the idea of a show without irony is over, " he says.

And, like the success of last year's Mama Mia, a show that features the music of the rock group Abba, a new dance musical, Movin' Out, with music by Billy Joel is packing in crowds who enjoy lively singing and dancing to pop music. Theater director and composer Gerard Allesandrini says there isn't enough plot in these kinds of shows to really consider them musicals. He prefers to call them "revuesicals."

" Movin' Out is that. It's not a book show, it's taking pre-existing popular music and assembling it in a new form," he says. " Even though they may have a story and a book they're more like revue form. Because they're basically just looking for some kind of framework to make it acceptable to sit through a string of popular songs."

One of the hottest tickets for non-musical plays to open this year in New York is Euripides' Greek tragedy Medea, starring Fiona Shaw; Television actress and comedienne Carol Burnett made her playwriting debut in the autobiographical, Hollywood Arms, a tale of three generations of women, which she co-wrote with her late daughter, Carrie Hamilton. And film legend, Paul Newman returns to the stage in nearly 40 years, as the narrator in Thorton Wilder's Our Town.

"It was very simple," explains Newman. " I said, 'Before I die, I'm going back to Broadway. Before I go to that great rehearsal hall in the sky, I should go back.' '"

But New York City isn't the only place where theater made news in 2002. In Washington D.C. this summer, the first retrospective of the musicals of Stephen Sondheim played to sold out crowds at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In a reverse trend, this time it was many New Yorkers who traveled to the nation's capital to attend a once-in-a lifetime theatrical event.

Part of VOA's Year series