Friday, December 24, 2010

Broadway News Makers #6 and #5: New Broadway Writers Welcomed and Legends Protested

The news makers at numbers 5 and 6 run the gamut from true Broadway legends to complete Broadway newbies.  The legends in question are John Kander and Fred Ebb, whose storied career has never ventured into the easy or non-controversial - celebrating murderers (Chicago), glamorizing Nazi Germany (Cabaret), homosexuality and the South American prison system (Kiss of the Spider Woman).  Their final (to date) new Broadway offering might even seem a bit tame in comparison: the true story of The Scottsboro Boys, who were wrongly accused and imprisoned in the Jim Crow South for allegedly raping two white women.  Straight forward history, right?

Well, sorta.  Using their tried and true "frame the story with out of reality, though timely, 'entertainment' pieces" is what got these legends in a bit of hot water.  Timeliness, in this case, meant framing the story as a minstrel show, which is pretty controversial.  Controversial enough that the Freedom Party formed a protest group outside the Lyceum Theatre, handing out literature that encouraged audiences to stay away due to the shows overt racism and use of black face.  After reading the "literature," it was pretty clear that most if not all of those protesters never even saw the show.  How fitting that a show about an actual historical event caused protests, just as the event itself did, decades ago!

Read more about that protest HERE.

The news makers at number 6 on the list all probably hope that they have as storied and controversial  a career as Kander and Ebb.  I'm talking about the influx of fresh writing talent on Broadway this year.  Fresh, with exciting idioms within which they operate, boundary-pushing formats and ideas - something Broadway fans always swear they want to see more of.  Unfortunately, so far this season, these new ideas, while critically acclaimed, aren't setting the box office on fire and some are meeting untimely and speedy deaths.

Playwright Geoffrey Nauffts (left) rehearses his
play, Next Fall, with its director, Sheryl Kaller

Two plays come to mind: Next Fall and Brief Encounter.  The former, critically acclaimed across the board, was the first effort by playwright Geoffrey Nauffts; the latter also critically acclaimed, the first Broadway effort by writer/director Emma Rice, who shaped two Noel Coward works into a wonderous production that sets new standards for creativity and flair.  Next Fall closed pretty quickly, especially after going Tony-less.  But Brief Encounter has had its limited run extended and has recouped its investment, though it is hardly the sell out crowd pleaser it really should be.

A scene from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

From off-Broadway to Broadway came the daring, boundary-pushing "emo rock musical" Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and unlikely show about the corrupt life of our 7th President.  Timely and timeless this fast-paced comedy with frentetic direction, an edgy book (both by Alex Timbers), and edgier score (by Michael Friedman).  The critics loved it, a new Broadway star was minted in the name of Benjamin Walker, amd still, the crowds have stayed away.  The show will close January 2.  Let's hope we hear more from Timbers and Friedman.

Of course, there are a few exceptions, too.

Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar at the
opening of Elf: The Musical

One such pair has a second show on Broadway that will probably be back eventually, and is closing despite boffo box office due to its holiday theme and limited engagement status.  I am speaking, of course, of Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar's Elf: The Musical that is drawing people to the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in droves.  Like their previous outing, The Wedding Singer, the new show is based on a popular film.  And also like their previous outing, they are demonstrating an uncanny knack of writing in the style of a certain time period/genre, while still making both scores seem fresh - the 80's style of The Wedding Singer and the family-friendly/Broadway razzle dazzle style of Elf both work very well.

Composer David Bryan (far right) with Memphis
co-stars Chad Kimball and Montego Glover

And there is the Broadway debut of both Joe DiPietro (lyrics) and David Bryan (music), whose show, Memphis nabbed Tonys for Best Score and Best Musical.  True neither are complete musical novices - DiPietro has had a few off-Broadway hits, and Bryan is in a little rock band called Bon Jovi.  But both brought a new musical - a hit one, at that - based on an original idea to Broadway.  And that is news worthy.

Green Day: Billie Joe Armstrong is
top, left

Somewhere in the middle would be Green Day, who collaborated with Michael Mayer and Tom Kitt to bring their hugely successful album (plus a few sings from others) American Idiot to the stage.  The overall reviews were mixed, but nearly everyone agreed that this was a fresh voice and a new frontier for Broadway.  Largely ignored during awards season, the show has struggled with perpetually low box office numbers and grosses.  It sems the show only hits its numbers when lead singer of the group, Billie Joe Armstrong appears in the show as St. Jimmy.  He will be returning this January, in hopes, one assumes, that profits will once again be on the rise.

Click on the REVIEWS tab above to see what I had to say about The Scottsboro Boys, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Next Fall, Brief Encounter, Elf: The Musical, Memphis and American Idiot.

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