Waiter, Is It July Yet? Broadway’s New Season Burps and Belches

Daniel Craig
Have gun, will Pinter.
Have gun, will Pinter.
Have gun, will Pinter.

As the new season kicks into fall high gear, Shubert Alley pundits are already screaming “Hit the fast-forward button to spring, and bartender — make it another Old Fashioned, please!” With the sole exception of the Mike Nichols production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal starring Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Craig — only premium seats at a whopping $1,000 a ticket apparently remain unsold — none of the incoming shows is really selling.

Even Rockythe musical promising to be the greatest import from Germany since the Hindenburg — is selling way below expectations. Everything has been discounted and then discounted again and still the takers are few. The hope is that anticipated wild critical praise will spur an uptick of sales of No Man’s Land — yes, another Pinter revival, this one starring Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley — and for Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto in the umpteenth return of The Glass Menagerie.

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On the flip side, there are a number of productions already written off as “losers.” These include the fall musicals Big Fish (glub, glub, glub), A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (though the critics will rally around this one and praise it to sky, it lacks the required “oomph” necessary for Broadway and its producers don’t have any clue how to market it), After Midnight (the Cotton Club musical, done bigger and better before), and the two jukebox musicals built around Janis Joplin and Carole King, both of which flopped Off-Broadway in previous incarnations.

Broadway statisticians (both of them) are also bemoaning the new season’s downward spiral (it officially started on June 1). They cite the record number of dark theaters, declining attendance and, despite record-high ticket prices, an overall decline in box-office. These Cassandras, in tones worthy of Eleonora Duse, claim Broadway needs four solid new hits every fall in order to offset the hardening box-office arteries of the holdovers, and they see none, let alone four, in the coming lineup. Sure, Romeo and Juliet with Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad has started off well, but long-term prospects are cloudy, especially as it faces competition from a less starry Romeo and Juliet at Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company with T.R. Knight and Elizabeth Olsen (frightening prospect — hand me the potion) and at half the Broadway price. Maybe we should watch this instead:

Manhattan Theatre Club has a sold-out hit already with its production of Amanda Peet’s The Commons of Pensacola (yes, the actress who turned Neil Simon’s funny Barefoot in the Park into an unfunny scream-atorium seven years ago), but that is also Off-Broadway and therefore won’t help numbers on the Rialto. The run of this closely-watched new play, which stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Blythe Danner, is a sure late-spring transfer to Broadway if it is any good. Otherwise, again, there’s nothing new except The Snow Geese, also courtesy of MTC, and that one has the hoariest of plots: the widow of an upper class WASP family finds out her husband left the family deep in debt as their son goes marching off into World War I. This is MTC Artistic Director Lynne Meadow’s answer to Downton Abbey, no doubt, though Geese, will herald Mary Louise Parker’s return to the theatrical flock.

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As one veteran group sales agent put it to me: “the same shows, over and over, and the audience could care less; I’m closing shop next spring.” Adds a Tony-winning producer: “Too many highbrow classics with not enough audience to support them all, but you don’t have to pay Shakespeare royalties.” This is true: old Willie boy will have no fewer than four Main Stem revivals this fall, plus there will be yet a second Macbeth (Kenneth Branagh’s is at BAM) due in the spring, making it three productions of the Scottish Play in just one year. It’s enough to make the ghosts of dear old Walter Hampden and Richard Bennett do a jig at the financially struggling Players Club. Come to think of it, maybe it would do the Players some good.

Weeping? Photo by T. Charles  Erickson.
Weeping? Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Wait, what about The Bridges of Madison County musical? Surely that can’t miss, right? As we told you last month, word of mouth from Williamstown is a polite “stinko.” Just look at the boring artwork already up on the marquee at the new “house of flops,” the once red-hot Schoenfeld (or at the equally boring still photography at right). Nobody involved is the least bit excited about Bridges to even bother to try to stimulate you into buying a ticket. The art of ballyhoo once practiced with dazzling aplomb and surehanded expertise by Belasco, Ziegfeld, David Merrick and even dear flop-prone Alexander Cohen is as lost to us now as the art of Gypsy Rose Lee and Poodles Hanneford.

So what fixes do the captains of the Rialto offer to tilting decks of the ship? Better shows? No! Put spring shows on sale early and suck in as many suckers at full price as possible! Then, about four weeks before previews, market deep, massive discounts to reel in the rest, with TDF-ers and Theatremania and BroadwayBox discount-seekers squatting in the rear mezzanine. “They’ll go to anything at a discount, even the dreadful First Date, like ants to a picnic, and they behave accordingly — no taste at all!,” one veteran producer told me. Ouch! Glad he didn’t mention how they dress.

But let’s be specific. Already selling to the unwashed and unwary are three major spring shows is Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway (“a bad selection of songs from the 1920s that bear little or no relation to the story,” one insider told me) and there’s even a promotional video from Zach Braff. Then there’s Disney’s Aladdin (I do hope someone falls off the flying carpet nightly — Spider Man’s travails have become such a bore), and last, but certainly never least, there is way too-old-for-his-role Denzel Washington in a shriveled up Raisin in the Sun. Diahann Carroll is Mama, so perhaps the Younger family is eyeing Brooke Astor’s old duplex on Park Avenue. If you feel you’ve seen the Youngers already and could care less…you’re right.

Now some good news. There’s strong hope that the delightful Drop Dead Perfect, which just concluded a smash tryout at the Penguin Rep in the wilds of Rockland County where New York producers packed the house, will arrive Off-Broadway by spring, too. This delicious comedy boasts a tour de force performance by the incomparable Everett Quinton that is worthy of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett in their comic prime. Not to mention a walloping dollop of Judith Anderson and Ethel Barrymore thrown in the Quinton mix for good measure. It’s one of the performances of the season.

Now, where’s that remote and that fast-forward button? Let’s speed up to the Weissler vs Weinsten vs. Paulus combat of next season’s Finding Neverland. That promises to dwarf Taymor vs Berger vs. Spider-Man. Or maybe it’ll be a lot taller than a dwarf.