Clown for a New Day

Clown for a New Day
Dagwood might make it in today's emasculated circus

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Broadway’s Cruel Reversals Tumble, Humble Once-Invincible Neil Simon. Is Disney Next? ...


What a breath taking shock to discover that Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, greeted in revival by a slate of glowing notices. closed in just one week. Repeat: one week.

Simon, once the king of comedy along the Great White Way, told a reporter how he was “dumbfounded after all these years.” Indeed, what happened to his revered play feels almost like a public assassination. The New York Times described it as “one of the biggest commercial flops on Broadway in recent memory.”

“I still don’t know how Broadway works, or what to make of our culture,” said the humbled 82-year-old author of numerous hit shows, among them The Odd Couple.

And now, another planned Neil Simon revival, Broadway Bound, is no longer Broadway bound, nixed, too, for lack of sufficient advance sales.

Next for the chopping block may be Disney, already in a slow motion free fall. The tortuously adapted stage version of its instant film classic, The Little Mermaid, which provoked scathing notices, closed last June, less than two years on the boards. Today, less than two years on the boards amounts to box office failure. Before that, another Disney turkey, Tarzan, clomped out of town amidst critical disgrace and customer indifference.

I never quite bought the Disney act. Its productions have a slick manufactured look and feel to them. Yet to be seen is how long its Mary Poppins, a mixed-notice co-production with another foundering producer, Cameron Mackintosh, can last.

Simon may not have lost his touch; audiences may no longer respond to his pen. But there are things to be said against Brighton Beach, essentially about a contrived third act that resolves conflicts raised in its finely wrought earlier scenes with sit-com simplicity. I left the show years ago feeling that Simon had missed a chance to reach the level of O’Neil or Williams.

Broadway produces high drama itself, merely by dramatizing the vexing ironies of how art and commerce intersect. I’ve seen plodding audience pleasers in recent years (Elton John’s cardboard Aida – it did well) and absolute gems (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels -– it didn’t).

Has anything really changed on Times Square? Gone, it seems, are the long-running contributors who can be counted on to stock stages with popular entertainment over long lush hauls. The remarkable Richard Rodgers, who worked first with Larry Hart and then with Oscar Hammerstein II, enjoyed four prolific decades. So did pop master Irving Berlin. Cole Porter’s output spanned a good thirty years. Other master creators, like George Gershwin, died all too soon.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, a contemporary giant, suffered widespread critic indifference -- some might call it outright abuse -- when he came to town. Never mind the envy. This master of melody and showmanship landed five hit shows in New York, and his Phantom of the Opera is now the longest running production in Broadway history.

From whence the next Rodgers and Hammerstein? The next Andrew Lloyd Webber?

We can always count on the one- and two-hit wonders. Think Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line; They're Playing Our Song). And the town is also a place where promising talents get many second chances and yet still fail to turn a profit for the producers. Think Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, whose plodding and didactic Ragtime is now in previews, set to be revived next Sunday. Maybe this time it'll work. Advance praise from avid fans and a good notice in Variety suggests a better outcome the second time around. But don't count on anything. New York has yet to weigh in.

John Kander and Fred Ebb, a couple of giants, came to town with many fine shows, but only two of them clicked, and one — Chicago — is now New York's longest running revival. The other is Cabaret. I'm hoping their score-rich Steel Pier will get a second chance someday.

Indeed, musical theatre is a devouring mistress who usually turns away her most ardent creative suitors sooner than later. Lerner and Loewe first struck gold in 1947 with Brigadoon. Thirteen years later, following the lucky success of their critically dismissed Camelot, they went their separate ways. Two revivals of the leaden Camelot suffered more critical disdain; both return visits were out the door within weeks. Remember the long-running off-Broadway phenomenon, The Fantasticks? Its creators Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones landed just one hit on Broadway -- I Do! I Do! Popular music giant Johnny Mercer courted Times Square for many years, mostly in vain. In 1956, he finally hit a minor jackpot with his Ll'l Abner, which managed to outfox a set of widely mixed reviews.

And what is to become of the ultra gifted Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers? His masterfully wrought, Tony award winning The Light in the Piazza played out a respectable thought profitless run at Lincoln Center. I fear for the future of so accomplished an artist in so treacherous a place.

Now, in lieu of established names, Broadway gets by with more than a little help from a handful of monster hits (Lion King and Phantom of the Opera, Mama Mia, and promising new candidates like Wicked and Jersey Boys) that can generate winning ticket sales for decades, a feat unheard of thirty seasons ago. And Broadway stages stay open, thanks also to rentals for revivals of popular shows created by yesterday’s top talents. Finian’s Rainbow just opened to upbeat notices. West Side Story is doing well in revival. So is South Pacific and so was Hair, but “golden age” classics rarely hang around for longer than a couple of seasons. Others less lucky or ill-directed, like Guys and Dolls and the recently opened Bye Bye Birdie, do not enjoy guaranteed respect and patronage merely by returning to the Broadway battlefield.

Steven Schwartz is something of an aberrational rarity -- a composer who struck gold in a second act that may turn out to be bigger than his first, with his mega hit, Wicked. And then, at the top of the revival heap, there is legendary Stephen Sondheim, the prince of trenchant tuners whose acclaimed musicals rarely turned a profit when originally produced. Sondheim has great shelf life; his work gets revived regularly.

Broadway is a strange place. A show can bomb there and have a huge afterlife elsewhere. A Broadway flop is a Broadway show in any other town, and a Broadway show is all the public wants to see. They're funny that way.

“I‘m dumbfounded. After all these years, I still don’t know how Broadway works or what to make of our culture.”

Neither does anyone else, Mr. Simon. Welcome back to the club you once ruled.


[photos of people: Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers; Chicago cast members Nicole Bridgewater, James Patrick Sands, Dylis Croman, and Donna Marie Asbury; Adam Guettel; Neil Simon and Elaine Joyce on opening night of the revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw Steel Pier the week it closed. It's a great show! The problem was no chemistry between the leads. I too, would love to see it again.