Neon Lights Are Bright This Year

xanaduThe end of May also marks the end of another Broadway season. The awards season is upon us, with the Tony Awards upcoming (Sunday, June 15). It makes this a good time to take a look back at the Broadway musicals of 2007-2008.

It was a season marked with a fascinating contrast between the revivals and the new musicals. The four major musical revivals include three revered classics of American musical theater: Rodgers and Hammerstein's glorious South Pacific; the brilliant Gypsy, an iconic show many fans believe is the greatest American musical ever written; and Stephen Sondheim's Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George.

The new musicals nominated for Best Musical will probably never become classics, but some of them are ambitious and cutting edge in their own right, and all have scores heavily influenced by pop and rock, as opposed to the traditional theater songs in the revivals. While I don't think any of the new musicals were great ones, all the Tony nominees -- In the Heights, Passing Strange, Cry-Baby, and Xanadu have their passionate fans and advocates.

Let's start with the revivals, because, to me at least, they constitute the season's most distinguished entries. Victoria Sullivan has written an insightful review of South Pacific here at CultureCatch, so I won't go into a lot of detail here. Suffice it to say that I, too, was taken with the richness, beauty, and emotional wallop of this magnificent Lincoln Center production. The hero, to me, is director Bartlett Sher, whose cinematic, fluid direction helps to make this revival so special. He trusts the material and, rather than directing a star vehicle, he has wisely made South Pacific itself the star, and the results are worth cherishing.

But, the quality revivals do not stop there. Gypsy is definitely a star vehicle, and with Patti LuPone (right) as the star, the results are thrilling. Gypsy, as I mentioned, is a favorite of musical theater lovers. Written by Arthur Laurents, with a score by Jules Styne and the then-young Stephen Sondheim, it is the story of the stage mother to end all stage mothers, played to great acclaim in the original by the legendary Ethel Merman. gypsy_luponeThe musical shows us the backstage view of some of the seedier sides of show business, including the late days of vaudeville and, ultimately, burlesque, ending with Rose's daughter Louise rising to fame as the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. I was a bit young to see the original, but I have seen all the Gypsy revivals since then, which have starred the likes of Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daley, Linda Lavin, and Bernadette Peters as Rose. The Lansbury revival was thrilling, and none of the Gypsy productions I have seen since had quite matched its power until the current revival. It starts with the famed Broadway diva, Ms. LuPone, who gives a sensational performance, mixing seductiveness and moments of charm with ferocity. She can be funny, fierce, determined, and playful, with just the right amount of vulnerability. Her breakdown at the end in a scene with Louise is heartbreaking and done in a way I don't recall seeing in past productions. LuPone's singing is stylized and doesn't work for everyone, but I found it totally effective and appropriate. When she belts out the final moments of "Everything's Coming Up Rose" and "Rose's Turn," it was thrilling, truly raising the roof of the St. James Theater.

This Gypsy does not stop with LuPone. The terrific Boyd Gaines gives us a Herbie (Rose's boyfriend and the vaudeville act's agent) for the ages, filled with a beautiful mix of self-doubt, weakness, strength in some key moments, and humanity. Then there is the equally wonderful Louise of Laura Benanti, whose character growth was marvelous as she evolved from tomboy to the glamorous Gypsy Rose Lee, and her confrontation with Rose late in the show was memorable. Because the three leads are so strong and balanced, scenes seemed more moving, dramatic, and powerful than they have been in other recent productions, and the comedy was sharper, with lines I have heard many times before and sight gags I have seen previously seeming funny once again. Eighty-nine-year-old Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book to Gypsy, is the director, and he has been willing to revisit the show and add some nice new touches, including a much-discussed new wrinkle to the show's ending. The net result of everything is a dazzling show, and the best Gypsy I have seen since the Lansbury production over thirty years ago.

sunday_in_parkThe third major revival is Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George. I have always considered myself a big Sondheim fan, but Sunday has never been a particular favorite. Did the revival change the views I had held since seeing the original? Yes and no. For much of the first act, I was, quite frankly, bored. Act One is based on the famous George Seurat painting, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and it presents a mostly fictionalized version of Seurat's creation of the painting, including background stories of the people in the painting. However, I just don't find the back stories to be particularly interesting or entertaining, and that part of the musical does not appeal to me. However, just when I was starting to give up on Sunday, the show started to click, starting with the song "Finishing the Hat." The first act finale was stunning and magical, and the second act, which takes place almost one hundred years later (in 1984) and focuses on George's great grandson while continuing to comment on the creative process themes raised in Act One, proved to be involving and, ultimately, quite moving. There are moments of shimmering beauty in the show and the score. Ultimately, I think I appreciated and responded to this Sunday more than I have before. It will never be a favorite, as it is just too tough for me to get through much of the first act, even though most people consider that to be the superior part of the show. British director Sam Buntrock, who first mounted this production to much acclaim in London, has made effective use of projections and animation, adding some nice theatricality to the evening. Whatever my reservations about Sunday, there is much beauty in the show, and the choral renditions of the "Sunday" number that close both acts remain exquisite moments.

So, which revival gets the Tony? All these are worthy productions, but my vote, and prediction, goes to South Pacific, with Gypsy a very close second. It all comes down to how special this South Pacific production is. As outstanding as LuPone and company are in Gypsy, the production itself isn't all that different from the other Gypsy revivals we have had, most of which were also directed by Laurents. But you cannot go wrong with either show. I think South Pacific director Bartlett Sher will win for Best Director of a Musical, and his leading man, opera singer Paolo Szot, will take home a Best Actor Tony. The Gypsy trio of LuPone, Gaines, and Benanti are my picks to win the other Tony musical acting prizes. passing_strange

The fact that so many of the musical Tony wins will probably go to performers and directors of revivals says something about the strength of this season's musical revivals. Turning to the new musicals, my favorite is Cry-Baby, the irreverent and thoroughly enjoyable adaptation of the John Waters movie, which I reviewed recently for CultureCatch. But I am in a distinct minority in proclaiming Cry-Baby the season's best new musical, and the Tony will probably go to either In the Heights or Passing Strange. Reviews of those are posted here as well. I respect both, but I also have some real reservations, and neither show quite worked in total for me. I'm guessing that Heights will win, but I wouldn't be shocked if Stew's rock musical, Passing Strange, pulled a small upset.

The fourth nominated musical, Xanadu, has also become, much to my surprise, a favorite of mine. Based on the flop 1980 movie which starred Olivia Newton-John, Xanadu proved to be great fun and hard to resist. What surprised me most were the show's heart, charm, and sweetness. I also laughed a lot. Noted playwright Douglas Carter Beane has written a book that gently spoofs the movie and its roller-disco story. He writes some very funny lines while sneaking in some unexpected substance in commenting on the creative process and love (the same themes dealt with, in quite a different and more serious manner, by Sunday in the Park), and he has brought some genuine warmth and even some emotional pull to a rather silly story. Director Christopher Ashley has set just the right tone, resulting in a spoof that also allows you to care about the characters and even proves a bit touching at times. The score is made up of '80s songs, including those from the movie, written by Jeff Lynne (ELO) and John Farrar, and include the title song and "Have You Never Been Mellow," to name a couple of the better-known numbers. Kerry Butler is glowing and deserving of her Tony nomination. Her co-star, Cheyenne Jackson, is the most deserving of those who were overlooked for Tony nominations; he is totally adorable and winning in the role, displaying some expert low-keyed comic timing. Jackson is becoming the master at playing the somewhat dim-witted but big-hearted hunk. Xanadu, like Cry-Baby, puts a big smile on my face, and I left the theater in a pretty joyous mood. The best shot either of these shows might have at the Tonys is for Cry-Baby to pick up a much-deserved award for Rob Ashford's sensational choreography, although Beane's book for Xanadu could also pull a surprise win. next_to_normal

I did not see every off-Broadway musical, but should note a few productions that left an impression. Next to Normal was a bold off-Broadway musical with a pop-rock score, dealing with family problems and a character suffering from bipolar disorder, which certainly isn't normal musical theater subject matter. The show still needs work, but it has an attractive score by Tom Kitt and some intense, emotional scenes. While a bit uneven in spots, Next to Normal has powerful emotional payoffs that are genuine, heartbreaking, and exceptionally moving. It is a work in progress and could emerge on Broadway in the near future. The talented Peter Mills and Cara Reichel's Prospect Theater Company continued their strong track record of impressive productions with Honor, which took Shakespeare's As You Like It and moved the story to feudal Japan. It was a mix of dark drama with tragic overtones, Samurai adventure, and romantic comedy. It started slowly, but I eventually found myself getting involved in the characters and the story; by the second act, Honor had become winning and even enchanting. The Irish Rep provided us with a gem in their small production of the 1959 musical Take Me Along (Jackie Gleason starred in the original), a soft show, but one so sweet and even beautiful that I found myself totally enveloped in its warm glow.

Probably the best new musical I saw this season wasn't on Broadway or off Broadway. It is a musical called Yank!; it had a successful engagement at the Gallery Theater in Brooklyn, which I unfortunately missed, but I was able to catch a reading at the York Theater, and I found this story of two gay soldiers falling in love during World War II to be melodic, funny, enormously moving, and just plain terrific. To go along with its fine score, it actually has that hard-to-achieve wonder of wonders: a first-rate book, one that builds drama and creates characters you can really care about. Bobby Steggert, who appeared in last season's 110 in the Shade revival, gives a brilliant performance, filled with incredible sensitivity. I hope Yank! will emerge in a full production some time soon.

This season has provided a satisfying and intriguing picture of the breadth and diversity of musical theater. It is a mix of old and new, of rock, pop, and traditional scores, of classic masterpieces, cutting-edge new material, and escapist fun. Beyond everything I've already mentioned, we got another Disney musical (The Little Mermaid), a big Mel Brooks/Susan Stroman musical (Young Frankenstein), and another Grease revival. All in all, it was a pretty good formula for a successful season. - James Miller

jim_miller.jpgMr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.