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Letter from New York: Broadway gets (some of) its mojo back

As the Tony Awards approach, Misha Berson takes a long deep look at the shows that are getting Broadway back on its feet.

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NaTasha Yvette Williams with the cast of “Some Like it Hot.” Photo: Marc J. Franklin

As the lyric of a new Broadway musical with a familiar title song begins, “Start spreading the news…”

So here is the news I gathered from a recent week of Broadway theater-going in New York, New York: Big and small musical comedies are back. New plays are garnering attention, but outnumbered (and outgrossed) by star-driven revivals.  Tickets are pricier than ever – unless you know how to navigate an array of lotteries and discounts.  

And a blow to the Great White Way was the possible loss of the 2023 Tony Awards broadcast. The ceremony, scheduled for June 11 this year, celebrates theatrical achievement while functioning as an effective infomercial for current shows. It is, apart from some occasional talk show exposure, pretty much the only national TV time that Broadway gets these days. And it is a usual box office-booster.

A broadcast cancellation would have been collateral damage from the current Writers Guild of America strike against Hollywood film and television producers. Film and TV writers have a just cause. Their last contract was signed in the DVD era. Now they are demanding higher pay, but also a fair royalty from the profitable streaming of shows they scripted.

After pleas from theater artists, WGA agreed not to picket the Tony ceremony, and the CBS broadcast will go on as planned with show excerpts, but with no freshly scripted chatter. (Will we really miss the jokey filler?) The venue will not be the frequent midtown Tony Awards locale, Radio City Musical Hall. The show will move this year to the (aptly named) United Palace, a gilded former movie house farther uptown – way uptown, to Washington Heights, the neighborhood dramatized in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical In the Heights.

This is all still in process as I write. But let us go back to Times Square, where tourism is on the rise lately, and theater attendance is up from 2022. This year, Covid masking is voluntary in theaters – and about as rare there as it is on airplanes.

As Broadway gets back in gear again, this has hardly been a season for artistic innovation. Sweeney Todd starring Josh Groban; Lea Michele in Funny Girl; a spare staging of A Doll’s House with Jessica Chastain; and Lorraine Hansberry’s searing final drama, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window with Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan, are some of the lingering revivals in the star parade vying for Tonys.

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From left: Adrianna Hicks, NaTasha Yvette Williams and Angie Schworer in “Some Like It Hot.” Photo: Marc J. Franklin

BUT I WANTED TO CHECK OUT NEWER WORKS which may have extended life on national tour and in stagings at regional theaters.

In that vein, I attended a pair of big splashy new musicals: Some Like It Hot and New York, New York — both based (loosely) on Hollywood films and up for the “best new musical” Tony. And both are drawing well – though Broadway critics heartily embraced one and almost uniformly trashed the other.

A blithe song-and-dance farce with cross-dressing and gender fluidity? The Zeitgeist is certainly ripe for the lauded Some Like It Hot, which evokes the wry exuberance of the 1959 Billy Wilder film comedy while adding extra flash, racial diversity and a modern erotic twist.

Christian Borle and J. Harrison Ghee assume the Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon roles of Prohibition-era musicians who flee from gangsters by dressing in drag and joining an all-female jazz band. Borle’s Joe/Josephine falls for the ensemble’s sweetly naïve singer (charmer Adrianna Hicks, who escapes the rut of imitating Marilyn Monroe’s breathless movie turn). And Ghee’s Jerry/Daphne discovers the joys of being nonbinary while being courted by an impish bigwig (scene-stealer Kevin Del Aguila).

This is the second Broadway tuner inspired by the Wilder film (the first, Sugar, premiered in 1972), and it is a film-to-stage transfer that has a readymade reason to be a musical, given the jazzy milieu. There’s a lot to enjoy in Casey Nicholaw’s nimble staging and zesty dance numbers, and the sassy-sweet tunes by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, who also scored Hairspray and other delights.

But given the current political climate, the show’s whiz-bang, old-fangled appeal may be more of a selling point to tourists than its rousing acceptance of queerness. (Florida governor Ron DeSantis would, to put it mildly, not be a fan.) Noteworthy: Ghee, and Alex Newell (from another new musical, Shucked), are the first openly nonbinary actors to earn Tony nods.

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“New York, New York”: building the city, step by step. Photo: Paul Kolnik

WHILE SOME LIKE IT HOT delivers exactly what it promises, New York, New York bites off more than it can chew – or so complained nearly every Big Apple reviewer.

Also set amongst musicians but in the Swing Era, the show largely overrides the downcast, diffuse plot of Martin Scorsese’s same-titled 1977 film about the failed romance between a starry-eyed young nightclub singer (Liza Minnelli) and an arrogant sax player (Robert De Niro).

Penned by David Thompson and Sharon Washington, this is more an unabashed valentine to the “city that never sleeps” than a coupling gone sour. Though it also centers a vocalist-saxman love affair, it adds the challenges that interracial lovers faced in the 1940s. And it layers on additional storylines about newcomers trying to make it in New York. These tick off such issue boxes as antisemitism (vis a vis a Jewish refugee violinist), homophobia (a Cuban conga player), and racism (directed at Black military vets).

Yes, it’s a jumble, and sometimes a jumble sale of cliches. And yet … and yet. New York, New York is also big-hearted and ingratiating, crammed with old John Kander-Fred Ebb tunes, with a few new ones by Kander and Lin-Manuel Miranda. And there are imaginative production numbers created by the ever-inventive director-choreographer Susan Stroman.

Standouts are an ebullient rainy-day ballet with a profusion of colorful umbrellas. And a terrific tap-a-thon by skyscraper construction workers teasing fate by dancing on narrow steel girders. Beowulf Boritt’s terrific, epic scenic design (of Manhattan streets, architecture, vistas and Times Square razzle-dazzle) is so suspenseful, you almost believe any misstep might plunge the tapping workmen to the pavement.

The cast embraces all the characters’ hopes and hurdles, including the corniest ones. And opposite the appealing Anna Uzele, as an ambitious Black singer, Colton Ryan’s lovestruck fella exudes the boyish, goofy charm prevalent in 1940s movie musicals – particularly On the Town, which New York, New York pays homage to.

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“Kimberly Akimbo,” from left: Nina White, Michael Iskander, Fernell Hogan, and Olivia Hardy. Photo: Joan Marcus, 2022

The show snagged nine Tony nominations, including one for Ryan.  But its chances for a haul are low, compared to the odds for Some Like It Hot and Kimberly Akimbo, a critics’ fave based by David Lindsay-Abaire on a wacky dysfunctional family play.  Comparatively, New York, New York‘s notices were brutal.  (“An overstuffed misfire,” wrote one critic; “akin to being stuck on the tarmac at LaGuardia,” cracked another).

Apart from personal taste (I saw the flaws, but had a fine time – as did my savvy companion), I suspect most New York reviewers are especially tough on shows that romanticize or oversimplify their burg. But a “countrified” show spoofing the Corn Belt? Shucked, a pun-laden musical set in easily parodied, rural fly-over country, got a lot of thumbs up for being (as the New York Daily News critic put it) “like an episode of Hee Haw written by Mel Brooks.”

OK, so I skipped Shuck, in favor of a quartet of compelling plays.

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Marcel Spears (left) and Billy Eugene Jones in “Fat Ham.” Photo: Joan Marcus

I WAS ESPECIALLY EAGER TO SEE FAT HAM, recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize. Due to the pandemic, James Ijames’ extraordinary, edgy comedy had only a limited debut, on Zoom, from Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre. It was the script alone, a fiercely comic and poignant family dramedy, that impressed the Pulitzer jury. (I chaired the jury that year.)

The setting is no Danish castle, but a Southern backyard hosting a barbecue. And the would-be Hamlet-esque avenger is a queer, sardonic and very sympathetic Black college kid called Juicy, whose just-widowed mother has married her late husband’s brother.

Sound familiar? So is the ghost of Juicy’s father (whose kingdom was a popular soul food cafe), who appears to proclaim that his brother murdered him and wed his widow – and Juicy should kill him.

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But Juicy is a sensitive soul, a much-bullied but deeply insightful misfit (played by the excellent Marcel Spears) who rejects the violent machismo that landed his male forbears in trouble, and in jail.

And while the raucous spasms of slapstick, karaoke and family embarrassment are winning (Juicy’s party-down mother is a hoot), Fat Ham pays ample respect to Shakespeare and at its core is dead-serious about the need to resist social and familial pressure, in order “to thine own self be true.”  

Fat Ham is up for a best new play Tony, and has already been slated for productions next season at numerous regional playhouses — including Seattle Repertory Theatre.

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Eden Epstein (center) and the Broadway Company of Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt.” Photo: Joan Marcus, 2023

TOM STOPPARD’S LEOPOLDSTADT was also a must-see for me. Stoppard is still writing, at 85. This expansive, highly anticipated drama (which premiered in London, in 2020) chronicles the fates of the Merzes, an extended Viennese Jewish clan, over half a century, from 1899 to 1955. It was spurred by Stoppard’s own Eastern European-Jewish background – which he only learned about in his 50s.

The intergenerational Merzes in Act I, at the close of the 19th century, are solid members of the Vienna intelligentsia. In 1899 they are living in prosperity and relative security, seemingly well-assimilated into an Austrian society that has alternately tolerated, terrorized, and exiled Jews for centuries.

These people navigate their Jewishness in various ways. For instance, the family gathers around a Christmas tree (briefly topped by a Star of David), as the sage matriarchal grandmother jokes that her grandson was circumcised and baptized on the same day. And they engage in intermarriages and affairs with gentiles.

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As expected, Stoppard’s characters are witty, learned, sophisticated. They discuss and debate meaty subjects, and name-drop psychiatric pioneer Sigmund Freud, dramatist Arthur Schnitzler, composer Gustav Mahler – a nod to what these and other Jews contributed to Austrian (and world) culture.

With a very crowded family tree of 38 characters knotted through a cat’s-cradle narrative, Stoppard and director Patrick Marber meticulously (if at times confusingly) outline their characters’ love and business relationships, their views on religion and politics, their fears and compromises.

But we know what is coming, and the sense of foreboding intensifies as World War I leaves its mark, World War II looms and the valuable trappings of the Merz home gradually, symbolically disappear.

When we get to 1938, the family confronts the worst with varying degrees of alarm. German forces have rolled into and annexed Austria (greeted by cheering throngs of Viennese), and vandals are torching synagogues and Jewish businesses. Nazi soldiers stomp into what had once been a gracious parlor, to bully family members and command them to vacate their home. There is little left to save – other than their own lives by emigrating, which they can’t all manage to do. (An estimated 125,000 Jews fled Austria around this time; another 65,000 were murdered by the Nazis.)

Like this clan, Stoppard’s own Czech-Jewish family suffered horrific losses during the Holocaust. All four of his grandparents, numerous aunts and uncles, and most other members perished in the Holocaust.  His widowed, traumatized mother met and married a British army officer after fleeing to India, and raised a very young Tom/Tomas and his brother in England. She never revealed her Jewish background to them or her spouse, nor the devastation of her family.

By the fifth and final act of Leopoldstadt, we get the only direct references to Stoppard’s personal experience. He is represented by a successful writer who grew up in Britain, unaware of his maternal heritage. One of his two remaining cousins, scarred and embittered by tragedy, castigates the callow Stoppard surrogate for his ignorance of this tragic legacy. “You live as if without history,” he accuses, “as if you throw no shadow behind you.”

Leopoldstadt (the title refers to the venerable Jewish quarter of Vienna where the Merzes resided) is two hours long, without intermission. And the cumulative effect, as we witness the gradual destruction of the Merz clan, is powerful. Stoppard contextualizes the Holocaust not as an anomaly, but as the ultimate chapter in generations of antisemitic wreckage. Many Jews are painfully familiar with this history, while some playgoers may be learning it for the first time. Or they are being reminded of it in another frightening historical moment when white nationalism (and its ingrained anti-Jewish bigotry) is again rearing its monstrous head.

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More than one friend who saw the play, however, shared her disappointment. Why hadn’t Stoppard poured more of his own even more fascinating, less remote Czech family history into the play?  (You will find it detailed in Tom Stoppard: A Life, the excellent new biography by Hermione Lee.) Why are the Merzes observed almost clinically, like figures in an extended historical diagram?

A review in The Forward, the online Jewish news magazine, amplified such concerns. “Stoppard is a Jew of Culture — not a cultural Jew raised with Yiddishkeit, but a Jew obsessed with culture and history often to the detriment of feeling,” wrote critic PJ Grisar. “Cerebral, Stoppardian detachment strikes again, but it is more disappointing given this play’s material and, in the end, its desire to confront familial alienation head on.”

The more I pondered this complaint, the more I understood and agreed with it, as a Jewish daughter of a mother who fled an Eastern European pogrom. I still admire the play for what it does do, perhaps more for non-Jewish patrons who approach this historical horror with similar sympathetic detachment.

Stoppard has said he was wrenched by the discovery of his Jewish ancestry (also via cousins), and by survivor’s guilt. But that occurred long after he developed his distinctive theatrical idiom, which has long been criticized for its emotional detachment. Perhaps at a younger age, his emotional and creative engagement with that past would have been different.

At any rate, Leopoldstadt is favored for the Tony Award for best new play – in part as a valedictory prize for Stoppard’s decades of artistic achievement. And it is worth seeing, should any regional theater have the resources to produce it. And on Tuesday, May 23, Playbill reported that Leopoldstadt is being seriously shopped by Stephen Spielberg and hsi production company, Amblin, as a television series.

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Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant in “Good Night, Oscar.” Photo: Joan Marcus

IN A FAIRLY CROWDED FIELD, Doug Wright’s Good Night, Oscar was not nominated for a Tony after it transferred from Chicago to Broadway this spring with someone surprising in the lead role. But it might have deserved a slot.

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Sean Hayes spent many a season cavorting as a flamboyant pixie on the sitcom Will and Grace. Here he morphs convincingly into the late Oscar Levant, best known as an accomplished pianist, an intimate of George Gershwin, as an actor playing acerbic sidekicks in such movie musicals as The Bandwagon and An American in Paris, and for his unbuttoned witticisms while guesting formative late-night TV talk shows of the 1960s.

Since Levant’s heyday has long passed, it was gutsy of Wright to resurrect him from obscurity in Good Night, Oscar — and to implicitly make the case for him as a comedic groundbreaker who preceded Lenny Bruce as a soul-baring social humorist of scathing candor.

The play is sprinkled with plenty of Levant’s choicest bon mots. But it also captures his unvarnished agony. In this semi-documentary depiction of an appearance on the Jack Paar show, he is a bundle of neuroses and a nervous wreck, a self-medicator addicted to opioids (following a heart attack). And long before mental illness was openly discussed by celebrities, he chatted and joked openly about his own breakdowns and spells in sanitariums. It was a subversive act.

“I first had deep apathy, then relapsed into deep depression,” he once explained on national TV. “Gee, how I long for those deep apathy days.”

Hayes, virtually unrecognizable from his sitcom clowning, uncannily captures the rapier wit, the tics and tremors, and the musicianship (a trained classical pianist, he stops the show with a performance of Rhapsody in Blue) – all of which you can witness on YouTube videos of Levant’s actual appearances with Paar and on Merv Griffin’s show:

But as a frail Levant has a near melt-down backstage, Wright also imagines touching moments with his loyal wife, June; Paar’s manipulations of his frequent guest; and a network exec’s fears that Levant will (horrors!) make on-air jests about sex and politics. (Which of course, he does.)

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The play bogs down at times in exposition. And Levant’s hallucinations of Gershwin don’t add much dramatic force. There’s enough of that in this closely observed, brilliantly enacted portrait of a prescient transgressive jester, defying his own ferocious demons to make people laugh and think as he tested the boundaries of a new medium.

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 Laura Linney (left) and Jessica Hecht in “Summer, 1976.” Photo © Jeremy Daniel, 2023

MY TRIP ENDED WITH a performance of Summer, 1976, a one-acter staged on Broadway by former Seattle Rep artistic head Daniel Sullivan, for Manhattan Theatre Club.

David Auburn’s play features Broadway veterans Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht as women with young daughters, and strikingly different temperaments, who encounter one another in a college town.

Linney’s Diana is a rather chilly artist-teacher and single mother whose tart perfectionism contrasts with the looser, more relaxed demeanor of Hecht’s Holly, a hippie-ish housewife (she smokes grass to relax) with a workaholic professor husband.

Directly addressing the audience, they describe from two vantage points the progress of their brief, but meaningful friendship during a Bicentennial summer that tests them both. Holly’s marriage isn’t what it seems. And Diana’s life is not as fulfilling as she suggests. Moreover, it is the mid-1970s, an intense period of feminist awakening for many women.

I like that Summer, 1976 was written by a man who gives a credible, empathetic (and often humorous) accounting of the kind of bond that may not have come easily for middle-class women in an earlier, more rigid period for gender roles.  And under Sullivan’s attuned direction, the actors make the most of every observation, every emotional and facial nuance. (Linney is especially impressive, though only Hecht got a Tony nod.)

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Unlike Auburn’s more expansive hit Proof, this is a slender slice of experience, a resonant snapshot of a certain moment (with a coda, set years later). And given its compact dimensions, it a play with chewy roles for women that will likely get airings around the country.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Misha Berson, Seattle-based writer and teacher, was the head theater critic for The Seattle Times from 1991-2016. She is the former theater critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and has contributed to American Theatre, Los Angeles Times, Oregon ArtsWatch, Crosscut.com and Salon.com, among other outlets. She is the author of three books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause/Hal Leonard Books). She was chair of the jury for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and has been a Pulitzer drama juror three additional times. She has taught at several universities, including Seattle University and University of Washington.

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2 Responses

  1. It’s either the fault of autocorrect or Ms Berson not knowing; it’s J. Harrison Ghee not J Harrison Glee.

    1. You are right; autocorrect is wrong. Thanks — we’ve updated the spelling.

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