Who As I write this, the chilly January winds are having their annual effect on Broadway's box office — posting dismal grosses this past week were two problem musicals, Seussical and Jane Eyre. The Seussical folk are fighting back by casting Rosie O'Donnell as the Cat in the Hat, for a few weeks. So far, Jane Eyre's producers have refrained from similar gimmickry (although I think Kathie Lee Gifford would be just dandy as Rochester's crazy wife).
It's too bad about Jane Eyre, not because I loved the show — I didn't — but because the design is truly extraordinary, even groundbreaking. The circular drum, designed by John Napier, which delivers various pieces of scenery; the lighting, by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; and the projections, by Napier, Fisher, Eisenhauer, and Lisa Cuscuna, are all unlike anything you've seen before. It's a show that should be seen by anyone interested in the future of Broadway design.
Jane Eyre's big problem is one of timing — it got to Broadway five years too late. There's been a shift in the audience's taste away from solemn pop operas with big sets and big emotions back toward musical comedies with a few laughs, a few tears, and a lot of hummable tunes. These days, audiences want The Full Monty rather than The Secret Garden. Furthermore, the chief theatre critic of The New York Times, Ben Brantley, absolutely does not want to see one more big, serious musical. Since coming onboard, Brantley has panned Ragtime, Parade, Marie Christine, and both versions of The Wild Party. He didn't even bother to review Jane Eyre (largely, I think, because he had disliked an earlier version of the show in Toronto). On the other hand, he's raved over Contact, Kiss Me, Kate, and The Full Monty.
Do I see a trend? Is it then surprising that the list of upcoming musicals includes revivals of Bells Are Ringing and 42nd Street, plus new shows like The Producers (based on the Mel Brooks film), Mamma Mia! (featuring a playlist of Abba hits), and Thoroughly Modern Millie (based on, yes, the 1967 Julie Andrews film). Frivolous isn't the word for this bunch. This isn't a value judgment — I loved Ragtime, Parade, and the Broadway Wild Party, and didn't much care for Marie Christine and the Off Broadway Wild Party. I also loved The Full Monty. However, if your agent calls to say that you've been asked to design a new pop opera based on, say, The Lower Depths, you might want just put him or her on hold — for a couple of years.
Speaking of Bells Are Ringing, the producers of that show are taking the unusual step of publicizing the show's design. According to a preview on Playbill Online, “The show is still set in 1956, but the scenic elements will be ‘fabulous minimalism,’ a trend of the time,” according to producer Mitchell Maxwell. The article continues, “Playwright Jeff Moss' apartment, for example, is expected to be made up of a city skyline, a sculpture, and a lima bean — shaped coffee table, with the audience using its imagination to fill in spaces.” [No comment]. We are also told, “There will be a plexiglass [sic] skyline that glitters and rises and falls, changing the perspective depending on the setting — whether an Upper East Side penthouse or the basement of a brownstone… The scenic design underlines the tension between the haves and have-nots.” Hey, Mitchell — this isn't The Threepenny Opera, you know. Anyway, the scenery is by Riccardo Hernandez, who, two years ago, did very interesting work on Parade. The rest of the designers include David C. Woolard (costumes), Don Holder (lights), and Acme Sound Partners (you have to guess).
Here's a new trend: Designers who revisit their greatest hits. In December, Ming Cho Lee once again designed K2, Patrick Meyer's mountain-climbing drama, once again for Arena Stage. (In 1982, Ming designed it for Arena and, later, Broadway). In The Washington Post, reviewer Lloyd Rose raved over the design, calling it “a mercilessly vertical white cliff, soaring up out of sight and plunging down into an invisible abyss, up from which cold mist drifts.” The other designers were Noel Borden (costumes), Allen Lee Hughes (lighting), and Timothy M. Thompson (sound).
Now I hear that John Lee Beatty is going to design a new production of Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly for Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Beatty's Talley design, with its glorious gazebo, was one of his big early successes. The designer is revisiting his past in another way. In December, Seattle Repertory Theatre produced In Real Life, the latest one — woman show by Charlayne Woodard. In this one, Woodard relives the early days of her career, when she was cast in the hit musical Ain't Misbehavin', a show designed by Beatty. The designer of In Real Life was none other than…. John Lee Beatty.
Do you remember all-black musicals? There were a million of them in the 70s: The Wiz, Bubbling Black Sugar, Eubie!, Sophisticated Ladies, and many others. There was even an all-black revival of Guys and Dolls, in which “Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat” became a big-time gospel number. These shows eventually faded away, to replaced by, among other things, serious-minded pop operas, with literary pedigrees. Which, if I'm not mistaken, is where I came in. Anyway, go see Jane Eyre — while you still can.