An old producer with a jaundiced view of Broadway recently surveyed the new crop of original musicals and said: “You know, from the looks of things, I’d say Spider-Man might win the Tony for Best Musical next year.”
That the most expensive and dangerous show in Broadway history—$80 million and counting, four actors rushed to the hospital—might be a Tony contender is a sobering thought. But I’m afraid my producer friend is right. New musicals, which have been the engine of Broadway ever since Florenz Ziegfeld produced Show Boat in 1927, are in short supply in New York this season. The slim line-up includes a Gershwin catalogue show, a campy transfer from Off Broadway, a movie retread and yet another musical from that Andrew Lloyd Webber wannabe, Frank Wildhorn.
The Gershwin show is called Nice Work If You Can Get It and is notable because of its star, Matthew Broderick, who’s ripe for a comeback. Broderick was once one of Broadway’s most sought-after leading men. He won a Tony in 1995 as J. Pierrepont Finch in a revival of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. And he gave one of the great musical comedy performances of all time as Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’ 2000 smash, The Producers. His co-star, Nathan Lane, won the Tony that year as Max Bialystock, but brought Broderick up on stage with him and said: “This award is as much his as it is mine.”
But then came Matthew’s misfires. He seemed at sea in The Odd Couple, stumbling through his lines as Felix Unger. Lane, who played Oscar Madison, was visibly annoyed with Broderick at some performances. A few years later, the critics roasted his unfunny performance in the old farce, The Philanthropist. He got some decent reviews for the Off Broadway play The Starry Messenger, but wound up on the front page of The New York Times because he had to be prompted during previews.
But I’m told Broderick is determined to prove he’s still got his stage chops in Nice Work. Loosely based on the 1926 musical Oh, Kay!, Nice Work is a screwball romantic comedy about a Long Island playboy (Broderick) who falls in with a pack of bootleggers. Kathleen Marshall, who staged the Tony Award-winning Anything Goes, is directing and choreographing. Playing opposite Broderick will be that critics’ darling, Kelli O’Hara. If Marshall and O’Hara can’t help Broderick get back on top, nobody can. Nice Work begins previews at the Palace Theater in March.
Representing the camp department this year on Broadway is Lysistrata Jones, a bit of confection from Douglas Carter Beane, the author of such enjoyable regional theater staples as As Bees in Honey Drown and The Little Dog Laughed. Based on Aristophanes’ classic comedy, Lysistrata Jones is about a college basketball team that hasn’t won a game in 30 years. The fun begins when a sexy female transfer student convinces the cheerleading team to withhold sex from the players until they break their losing streak. Lysistrata Jones was a big hit Off Broadway this past summer. It opens in December at the Walter Kerr Theater. Don’t expect Carousel or South Pacific. This is not a groundbreaking musical. But if you have a cocktail or two before the show—maybe something fruity—you’ll have some laughs.
Bonnie and Clyde, the new one from Frank Wildhorn, comes to New York from the Asolo Rep, where it ran earlier this year. Thanks a lot, Sarasota! Wildhorn is the whipping boy of New York theater critics. They’ve trashed every single show—every single note—he’s ever written since Jekyll & Hyde in 1997. But he’s got the hide of a rhino and just keeps charging and charging at Broadway. His musical Wonderland crashed and burned last spring. Wags dubbed it Blunderland.
Hopes are certainly not high for Bonnie and Clyde, although I have heard the score and I will say that it’s more sophisticated than the syrupy power ballads Wildhorn normally cranks out. The composer and his creative team, which includes lyricist Don Black (Born Free), have taken much of what the Sarasota critics had to say to heart and have done a fair amount of rewriting. Because Wildhorn is so reviled in New York, his producers, I hear, are insisting he keep a low profile on Bonnie and Clyde. I guess that means that when the shooting begins, he’ll be sitting in the back seat with Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons.
Bonnie and Clyde starts performances in November at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater.
As for the Hollywood retread, last season it was Sister Act and this season it’s Ghost. Based on the 1990 romantic thriller about a medium who reunites an artist with her murdered boyfriend, Ghost is coming to New York from London, where it received mixed reviews. What it has going for it is the director, Matthew Warchus. He’s given New York a string of hits in recent years—The Norman Conquests, God of Carnage and the farce Boeing Boeing. I have not seen the show, but my London spies tell me Warchus’ production is slick and that the ghostly effects are impressive. What would really be impressive, however, is if the script and the score turned out to be good. Ghost begins previews in March at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater.
If none of those shows grabs your interest, here’s the one that should: Hugh Jackman just announced that he’s bringing his one-man show to the Broadhurst for 12 weeks beginning Oct. 25. Jackman is one of the greatest stage personalities I’ve ever come across. He’s right up there with Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Liberace, Shirley Bassey and Liza Minnelli (before she started slurring her lyrics). He managed to take a third-rate musical called The Boy From Oz, about Peter Allen (another great stage performer) and turn it into first-rate entertainment. Nobody wears a leopard-skin shirt tighter than Hugh. His new show is very simple—he just sings, dances, ad libs and oozes that irresistible Jackman charm. In San Francisco, where it tried out, a woman threw a pair of handcuffs onto the stage one night. He picked them up and by the time he got done playing around with them, everybody in the theater was into S&M. Take it from me—this is the show to see in the fall. But you’ll pay. The top ticket price is going to be somewhere around $250, handcuffs not included.
Another hunky leading man heading to New York this fall is Harry Connick Jr. He’s starring in a reworked version of an old flop from the ’60s, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. The show, about a kooky young woman who’s been reincarnated, would have been forgotten but for its gorgeous score by composer Burton Lane and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner. If the show, which also delves into ESP and psychiatry, is bizarre it’s because Lerner was doped up at the time. He’d fallen in with Max Jacobson, who became infamous as Dr. Feel Good. Jacobson was a guest on Lerner’s yacht while he was writing On a Clear Day, and regularly injected the writer and other members of the creative team with a cocktail that allowed them to work round the clock. The joke was that On a Clear Day is a show about people with ESP written by people on LSD. Peter Parnell has reworked the book for this revival, directed by Michael Mayer, who staged the Tony Award-winning Spring Awakening. One thing is certain: Connick will make those Burton Lane tunes soar. It opens in December at the St. James Theater.
Another revival worth note is Follies, the 1971 Stephen Sondheim musical about a reunion of former showgirls. The score, one of Sondheim’s best, is packed with standards—Losing My Mind, Broadway Baby, I’m Still Here. This production features a trio of great Broadway divas—Jan Maxwell, Bernadette Peters and Elaine Paige. Follies has always been a cult show—the legendary original production lost $1 million and nearly bankrupted its producer, Hal Prince. But this revival, which opened to strong reviews last month, is settling in for a good long run at the Marriott Marquis Theater. Don’t miss it.
As for plays, I’d recommend Frank Langella, one of New York’s finest stage actors, in an old Terrence Rattigan play called Man and Boy, now at the Roundabout Theater Co. It’s about a corrupt financier whose gigantic Ponzi scheme is on the verge of unraveling. Rattigan based it on a real-life crook from the 1920s, but audiences today will be thinking of a real-life crook from today’s headlines—Bernie Madoff.
And in the spring, you must catch One Man, Two Guvnors, a side-splitting modern adaptation of an old Venetian farce called A Servant of Two Masters. It tells the zany story of a servant who’s so hungry, he works two banquets at the same time and tries to devour as much food as he can while his employers aren’t looking. This is an import from the National Theater of Great Britain, which has given Broadway some of its best plays in recent years—War Horse, The Seafarer and The History Boys. I caught One Man, Two Guvnors in London earlier this year and still laugh out loud when I think about all the farcical goings-on. The show is slated for the spring. When it goes on sale, snap up a ticket and start planning your trip to New York.
Where the Stars Meet and Eat
Michael Riedel’s restaurant picks.
Tourists tend to dine before the theater. This is a no-no if you’re in the theater. We theater types prefer a light supper after the show, if only because attending a show on a full stomach can cause the eyelids to grow heavy as soon as the lights go down, and it’s awfully embarrassing to be caught napping during the first act. Especially if you’re a critic.
Sardi’s is the most famous theater district hangout. It’s been a Broadway institution since the 1920s, when Mr. and Mrs. Sardi started serving cheap spaghetti dinners to cash-strapped actors. Over the years the place got posh; now you can sit in red leather booths once occupied by Marilyn Monroe, Yul Brynner, Paul Newman, Ethel Merman and Robert Preston. Their caricatures adorn the walls. Veteran performers still come here. Keep your eye out for longtime regular Angela Lansbury. She sits in back behind a pillar so no one will disturb her. But when she leaves, the dining room inevitably rings with applause. A tip: The second-floor bar is the spot where powerful producers and theater owners hang out after work. Keep your ears open and you’ll pick up a lot of showbiz gossip.
If you’re looking for a younger crowd, your best bet is Joe Allen on West 46th. Like Sardi’s, it started out as a cheap joint (hamburgers, chili) for young actors in the early ’60s. On any given night, you’re likely to see Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy, Jerry Seinfeld, Vanessa Redgrave and Al Pacino. If you see an old guy who looks like Humphrey Bogart hanging out at the end of the bar, that’s Joe Allen himself. A tip: The guacamole is fabulous.
Right next door to Joe Allen is Orso, which Allen opened in the early ’80s. This is the ultimate insider restaurant, the modern-day club room in the Stork Club. Reservations are highly recommended. But unless you have pull, expect to be seated in the back. The front is reserved for the likes of Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer, Hugh Jackman, Steven Spielberg, Liam Neeson, Julia Roberts, Stephen Sondheim and Frank Langella. A tip: Star-gaze discreetly. Joe does not like autograph seekers.
The most charming host in town is a crazy Frenchman named Jean Claude Baker. He owns Chez Josephine on West 42nd Street. It’s named after his adoptive mother, the great Josephine Baker. The restaurant, which looks like a 19th-century bordello, is chock-a-block with Josephine Baker memorabilia. Baker is always at the door, usually clad in red silk pajamas. “Bonjour, my dear,” he says as you enter. He sweeps you to a table, barking orders at a waiter: “Bring some rosé for mes amis!” Then adds: “Darling, you look wonderful, wonderful!” And this is how he greets strangers. Regulars often get: “Where have you been you, you f—ing sh–!? Can’t you spend some of your money to keep this poor soup seller from the poor house?” A tip: Ask Jean Claude to tell you about his mother. You’ll get fabulous stories, a free book he wrote about her—and a glass of champagne on the house.
Another charmer is Angus McIndoe, a handsome Scotsman who owns the eponymously named restaurant on West 44th Street next to the St. James Theatre. Chorus kids, character actors, critics, producers and stars like Patti LuPone and Nathan Lane hang out here. After the theater, the third-floor bar is where the action is.
It entered theatrical lore in 2004 when yours truly got punched out by the director of a revival of Fiddler on the Roof. I’d been taunting the director in my column for taking the Jewish soul out of Fiddler (Tevye’s daughters were played by actresses named Murphy, Kelly and O’Reilly!). I ran into the director after the opening-night party and he shoved me off my bar stool. I was fine, but word travels fast around Broadway, and the next day The Post carried a story about our tiff under the immortal headline: “Roof Director Floors Post Scribe.”
Frequent Sarasota visitor Michael Riedel is the theater columnist for the New York Post and co-host of the PBS show Theater Talk. He’s currently writing a book for Simon & Schuster about how Broadway became a multibillion-dollar business.