Once upon a time, there was such a thing as an off-Broadway musical. Not a show produced by one of the many well-established off-Broadway companies, but a commercial musical that did not have aspirations toward The Great White Way. Those shows sought to prosper with smaller audiences in productions that were smaller, but no less wonderful, than the blockbusters uptown. In fact, off-Broadway became a thriving alternative to the uptown with productions like “The Threepenny Opera” at what was then the Theatre de Lys and “The Fantasticks,” which became the longest running show in the world at the tiny Sullivan Street Playhouse, running for 42 years.
“Little Mary Sunshine” and “Little Shop of Horrors” are off-Broadway shows that had vibrant lives “off” and went on to success touring the United States. In fact, the latter ran for five years off-Broadway, and, when it was revived on-Broadway in 2003, it only survived for a little over one year despite a marquee cast and high-tech Hensen Company puppets. While there had been offers to move the “Little Shop” uptown during its original run, writer and director Howard Ashman felt the production should stay in the theatre for which it was designed, the long and narrow but small Orpheum Theatre on 2nd Avenue near St. Mark’s Place.
But the economics of off-Broadway have changed radically over the last two decades. The 1960 original production of “The Fantasticks” cost about $2,000 to stage, while the going capitalization on-Broadway at that time was ¼ of a million dollars. The legendary original publicity campaign involved producer Lore Noto prominently displaying the record jacket and programs when he road the NY subways. Now, the minimum cost of mounting an off-Broadway production can be significantly higher than 1960 on-Broadway expense. And musicals cost much more to run.
Most of what used to be independently produced off-Broadway has metamorphosed into a successful set of not-for-profit companies that focus on a season of presentations, each running for two to three months. These companies, many of them stars in their own right, rely on a combination of box-office revenue, contributions, governmental support and grants to balance their books. Many of these companies include new and revival musicals in their season and, occasionally, one of those productions moves uptown — sometimes successfully, more often not. But none simply move from their not-for-profit to a commercial run off-Broadway. There are several long-running, independently produced “specialty shows” like “Stomp” and “The Blue Man Group” and a straight play here-and-there that survive beyond a single season off-Broadway, usually with a gimmick like a rotating cast (“Love, Loss, and What I Wore”) or a specific target audience appeal (“Freud’s Last Session” which pits the founder of psychology against the author and controversial lay theologian C. S. Lewis). Recently, there has been a pattern of Broadway musicals moving to houses classified as “off-Broadway,” but might more accurately be described as “mid-sized theatres” after a successful run on Broadway (e.g., “Avenue Q” and “Rent” at the New World Stages in the heart of the Theatre District). But for the most part, the off-Broadway that produced its own musicals for indefinite runs is gone.
Still Givin’ It Up for Lysistrata
So, it’s no surprise that the new musical season this fall has been marked by limited run musical successes in not-for-profit houses and several transfers to Broadway from smaller houses. For me, the most successful transfer, and one that I thought was doomed to failure after its much-lauded limited off-Broadway run, is “Lysistrata Jones.” Originally it was produced at the Judson Church Gym (recently converted into a very nice flexible “independent” off-Broadway house) by the Transport Group, a theatre company that specializes in using environmentally specific venues for its productions [www.transportgroup.org]. In a former gym, this absolutely silly but totally hysterical and wonderfully performed piece of fluff seemed to have found its place. Most of the critics raved and most of the musical’s fans hoped it would transfer to similar space. When it was announced that this show would open on Broadway this fall, I dreaded how the show would be “blown up” (figuratively and literally), even for one of Broadway’s smaller houses, the 975 seat Walter Kerr Theatre [www.lysistratajones.com].
“Lysistrata Jones” reconceptualizes Aristophanes’ classic comedy about a plot by the Greek women to deny their warrior husbands and lovers sexual gratification until they cease their fighting in the Peloponnesian War, lead by the ever-determined (dare I say liberated) Lysistrata. In Douglas Carter Beane’s adaptation, Lysistrata Jones is a would-be cheerleader at Athens University in the heart of America (in more ways than one). AU’s basketball team hasn’t won a game in over thirty years, and, when Ms. Jones discovers the heritage of her name (her parents were children of the 60s, of course), she plots a similar strategy to force the men on the team to focus on winning a game rather than “gaming with the girls” after their loss.
I worried that the fun that was had by all in the small venue would be lost in a big house. The basketball court unit set would become a bunch of lavish college settings, and the cast would not have the chutzpah to play the show for what it is – a simple but delightful diversion for 2 ½ hours. Surprise! The Broadway production is virtually identical to the Transport Group’s production (with a few new set embellishments) and it is pure entertainment. It makes no pretentions at any meaning or even the least bit of moral rectitude. But Mr. Beane’s wonderful wit (not much in evidence in his recent Broadway adaptation of “Sister Act”), the always cute, if not terribly memorable musical numbers, and a cast transferred directly from the Judson Church provide a thoroughly delightful evening of big laughs uptown. The mainstream critics were quite divided on this show, ranging from outright raves to near total pans. Many lamented the trivialization of Aristophanes’ original (I don’t think the Greek master need worry) and others felt the show did not fit in its new venue. But those who touted it did so for the right reasons: it’s funny and sassy and brings joy to the Broadway stage. To see more of what I thought about the original production (which is just as true of the Broadway transfer), see my review in my “2010-11” menu on this blog.
The other off-Broadway, soon to be on Broadway-transfer, that I worry will lose its charm in transition is the extraordinary stage adaptation of the justifiably acclaimed independent film, “Once.” The New York Theatre Workshop production (originally developed at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts), does the near impossible – it translates a uniquely cinematic artwork into an equally unique theatrical experience. Films are particularly good at telling love stories and theatre rarely captures the emotional punch of pure tales of love. While love stories form the context for the plot of many of the classic American musicals, they never really draw you into the relationship between the two characters nor do you have an emotional response to the relationships – the songs, not the story, provide the emotional sensations. Do we really care whether Curly ends up marrying Laurey in “Oklahoma!”? Sure, we identify with the issues discussed in “People Will Say We’re in Love” and “Carousel’s” “If I Loved You” sequence is as close as any musical has ever come to taking the audience to operatic heights. But as with opera, we are always aware that the relationship is there for the music, not the other way around.
But this “Once” is a pure love story made compelling, engaging, and emotionally satisfying even as its ending jars the audience and takes us somewhere unexpected. The stage production uses a barroom unit set as with minimal furnishings and props to suggest other locales. All of the characters are on-stage throughout and each plays an instrument accompanying the original Irish-cum-pop songs, including the Oscar winning “Falling Slowly.” There have been minor changes from the movie, but the stage adaptation is quite faithful to its source.
As with the film, at the center are two performances that fully illuminate the psyche of a very odd couple, an Irish songwriter with low self esteem and a mystical but inspiring Czech immigrant in a strange land. Neither of the leads, Steve Kazee nor Cristin Milioti, evoke the memory of the film’s creator/actors. Instead, they give us a fresh take on two people undeniably drawn to each other but incapable of fully escaping the bondage of their past. There are moments that make the viewer want to shake these two overgrown kids and tell them to admit their true feelings, a testament to the show’s ability to involve its audience in this maddening love story. And when that final moment reveals the true meaning of the show’s title, we feel the disappointment and the inescapability of these two lovers’ fate. While there are plenty of movies that bring us to a similar state of dislocation, it’s quite rare in the theatre, and rarer still in musicals. Sondheim captured it in a song, “Send in the Clowns.” “Once” embodies it in its Irish soul.
On opening night, the producers announced that the production would move to Broadway barely a month after it’s run in the East Village. The Theatre Workshop is, as the title suggests, a very intimate environment [nytw.org]. If only shows like “Once” could flourish through long runs in a similar environment. But when theatre becomes an entirely commercial venture, bigger is thought to be better. I can only hope that “Once” maintains its intimate power as effectively as “Lysistrata Jones” preserved its silliness.
No Small Fete that Queen
The Transport Group at the Gym at Judson also produced one of the most successful off-Broadway musicals of the fall season, “Queen of the Mist” by veteran on- and off-musical composer, Michael John LaChiusa. Last year, Transport’s production of LaChiusa’s adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s classic turn-of-the 20th-century play, “La Ronde,” in a production lauded and condemned for its frank depiction of sexual acts — a rather odd point of criticism given that the source material’s place in theatre history is predicated on its portrayal of sexual desire gone wild. Originally produced at Lincoln Center in 1993 in a more reserved production, LaChiusa’s “Hello, Again” certainly amplifies the original’s exploration of sexual mores by setting each sequence in a different decade of the 20th Century. Transport’s production took that exploration, shall we say, “more deeply,” using a Soho loft set up as a nightclub with actors rather graphically “committing their acts” on tables and in the aisles among the audience.
“Queen of the Mist” is a much more traditional musical (a.k.a. “accessible”), portraying the story of the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Anna Edson Taylor performed this fete on her 63rd birthday in 1901 and LaChuisa portrays her as motivated by a stubborn willfulness and a burning desire to make money. The musical was written for the very talented Mary Testa, who has made a career of memorable “featured actress” parts, “Queen” being her first lead in a musical. She was wonderful, giving this near-pathological character a real sense of humanity and spirit; and LaChuisa knew the voice for which he was writing and fully exploited Ms. Testa’s great talent. The show held to very traditional musical theatre conventions – specialty numbers, choral anthems, and belt-them-out ballads for Ms. Testa’s powerful resonating voice. The show was always engaging and entertaining, although, like many of the reviewers, I felt the second act lost its steam and focus and the whole show might be successfully cut down into the now very popular 90-100 minute, no intermission format. Transport’s production, directed by Jack Cummings III, used the intimacy of the Judson venue effectively, placing the audience on two sides of the performance area. While this is the type of show that could transfer to a larger venue with a more lavish production, small was good.
The Blue Flower: A Rose by Another Name
Among the many not-for-profits, the Second Stage Theatre consistently presents interesting work in productions that match the quality (and frequently star power) of its Broadway neighbors near 43rd Street and 8th Avenue [2st.com]. So it was no surprise to encounter a musical about Germany between the two world wars told from the viewpoint of the German intelligencia and artists. “The Blue Flower” was originally presented in 2004 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. As with “Once,” the recent production premiered at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge in 2010. ART was also the incubator for the controversial production of “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess,” scheduled to open on Broadway next month.
“The Blue Flower” provides an embarrassment of riches and that may be the primary reason I found it highly admirable, frequently insightful, always interesting, but, in the end, not totally satisfying. Written by the husband and wife team of Jim and Ruth Bauer and directed with great imagination by Will Poerantz, “The Blue Flower” is a fictionalized story of the German artist, Max Baumann, loosely based on the tangled involvements among Baumann, another artist, and Marie Currie. But its real focus is on the evolution of German intellectuals from “good German citizens” to exiles in the wake of the rise of Hitler. The story is told with a combination of direct narration (a sore point for many critcs) and a long series of little playlets dramatizing the unfolding of historical events around the complex relationships of the three central characters.
We watch as the artist Baumann starts as a loyal and committed German dealing with the ravages of the Great War but is slowly disillusioned as his country becomes a fascist state that eventually labels him and his friends as “degenerate artists’ and forces him to emigrate to the United States. This is no “Cabaret.” This is a sympathetic portrait of an intellectual who lives a bohemian life that, at first, shelters him from the deterioration of the very cultural values that made him a proud German and finally makes him a stranger in his own land.
The most successful element of the Bauer’s creation is the score. The music is a combination of Kurt Weill style mid-20th century German sounds and American country-western. While country western shares little with the jazz inspired sounds of pre-WWII Europe, the Bauers use the idiom as a sort Brechtian commentary on the action and events. As odd as that may sound, these contrasting textures actually had the desired effect, drawing in and then distancing the audience at the same time. I felt compelled to buy the album of this show’s music, not to hum along, but to understand how the Bauers pulled off such an unlikely musical fete.
Will Pomerantz’s production was full of visual and aural embellishments. The scenes were interspersed with black and white film recreations of this aching period in German history by the show’s authors. The musical numbers were staged creatively. Many critics and bloggers felt the action was too complex, presented with a combination of narrative and short scenes that made the show less engaging and slow. I found it fascinating throughout, full of insights provided by its relatively unique point of view. It closed after its scheduled run at Second Stage, but it probably would not have survived as a commercial off-Broadway presentation anyway. To quote a line from that other musical about this period, “Money makes the world go round” and this musical could not survive without support.
Bonnie and Clyde: DOA; On A Clear Day, not!
There were the two absolute bombs that should not (and will not) survive on- or off-Broadway. The creators of “Bonnie and Clyde” did the near impossible: make this legendary story dull. The show looked like a big Broadway musical and it played like one, too. It was just boring. The music is by Frank Wildhorn, who in spite of a last season’s #1 flop, “Wonderland,” was still able to generate investors with a score that sounds like a Broadway musical but lacks charm, insight, or emotional punch. The book basically documents the story of these two hoodlums who initially were folk heros in the midst of the depression, but who eventually became a symbol of merciless crime. The only original twist in the script was the occasional appearance of childhood versions of the two outlaws, one longing to be a movie star, the other with a fixation on Al Capone – neither really adding anything to the story. As one critic noted, you know you are in trouble when the images of the real Bonnie and Clyde, projected on the set, seem more engaging and interesting than the characters portrayed on the stage. A closing notice has been posted for end of the month. BTW – This show had its “try-out” at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, a venue that fits the mid-sized category. The size of the theatre was the least of this show’s problems [bonnieandclydebroadway.com].
The most surprising failure of the fall season has to be the revival of “On Clear Day You Can See Forever,” although there was much scuttlebutt about its problems before its opening. Here is a production that has some of the most successful and creative talent on Broadway adapting a musical that never really succeeded in its original form, but has an almost cult following among musical theatre mavens. Michael Mayer, whose recent musical accomplishments include “American Idiot” and “Spring Awakening,” seems to be at the center of this mess. He is credited with “reconceiving” the show that is misconceived in almost every way, although the original was wasn’t exactly remembered for its strong book.
Mayer’s reworking transforms the role of the oddball chain smoker who seeks psychiatric help in breaking her habit into a stereotypical swishy gay guy with smoking and relationship issues. As with the original role that made Barbara Harris into a Broadway star, Daisy (now Davey) is susceptible to hypnosis and, once having hypnotized his patient, the psychiatrist miraculously finds himself in the middle of David’s past life as a 1940s pop singer (an 18th Century English courtesan in the original). The therapist instantly falls in love with this WWII incarnation. Harry Connick, Jr., provides the show’s marquee draw, but throughout the improbable and unimaginable mess that ensues, he consistently looks quite uncomfortable on stage.
Of course, his flamboyant patient thinks his doctor desires him and the scenes in which the three characters (doctor, singer, and Queen David) try to physicalize their relationship with a mere kiss become very sad jokes that might have caused titters 20 years ago but which now simply make the audience uncomfortable to be witnessing such sophomoric attempts at humor. David Turner, an actor with plenty of respectable credits on- and off-Broadway, consistently opted for the obvious choices learned in “Gay Musical Characters 101.” The show’s only redeeming asset is the truly beautiful voice of Jessie Mueller, making her Broadway debut as the girl from the past life.
For some unfathomable reason, Mr. Mayer and set and costume designers Christine Jones and Catherine Zuber chose to place the show in the early 1970s. So the costumes make the cast look like they’re in Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh-In” (without the laughs), and the set is down right obnoxious, with constantly moving vertical and horizontal panels crossing paths against psychedelic lighting and endless red spiraling patterns projected onto the set. There is only so much of 70s tastelessness that one can tolerate for 2 ½ hours [onacleardaybroadway.com].
The music, the original show’s most highly regarded feature, has been rearranged and supplemented with songs from (and a few not from) other works by composer Burton Lane. And lets not even consider the book’s view of professional therapy, gay culture in the evolving 70s, or the spiritual beliefs of well-educated people. The expression is used too frequently but there are few shows as emblematic of the phrase “What were they thinking?”.
One last footnote. The Circle in the Square was one of the original powerhouses of off-Broadway theatre. Founded by Theodore Mann and Jose Quintero in 1951, it combined the presentation of classic drama with a highly respected actor-training program [circlesquare.org]. When the largest Broadway theatre, The Gershwin was constructed in 1972,(originally named for the property’s developers, the Uris brothers), the Circle in the Square found an uptown home in an adaptable space developed as one of the conditions for the approval of the project by the City. The company’s record in this location has been variable, focusing more frequently on new works with some amount of mass appeal.
This fall Circle presented a revival of one the quintessential “flower children” hits, “Godspell.” The production was pretty thoroughly trashed by the mainstream critics (with a few exceptions). I found David Goldstein’s update to be thoroughly enjoyable. The show boasts Stephen Schwartz’s best score; sorry “Wicked” fans – I thought that ever-popular turn on OZ would have been a great show were it not for its barely serviceable music. Many of the critics found Mr. Goldstein’s efforts to update the jokes too heavy handed and I’d have to agree that the production really does lean a bit too heavily on lines you would find in a late-night talk show monologue. But this revival has energy and a very talented cast. Unfortunately, Hunter Parrish, the cutie-pie from “Spring Awakening” is wrong for Jesus – he makes most of Christ’s teachings sound like the moral of a television cereal commercial. But Wallace Smith is a powerful and beguiling Judas and the rest of the company created the feeling of a “be-in” for the 21st Century. The Circle’s mid-sized arena theatre gave life to its title, “a circle in the square.” [godspell.com]