CURTAIN DOWN/CURTAIN UP
By Barry Singer
“Every ending does offer a new beginning,” I write in the Introduction to Ever After (my still forthcoming new book).
“When the lockdowns are finally unlocked and the theaters reopen (a phrase that conjures, for me, Elizabethan times and the plague), I trust that musical theater will begin anew, having learned something from the musicals of the last forty-plus years — the musicals in this book. A heroic, noble bunch of them broke vital new ground — in the music they embraced, the methods they deployed, and, especially, the subject matter they grappled with. There was also, as we all know, an exorbitant inflation of ticket prices over the past forty years that really was the epitome of . . . well . . . ‘White Privilege.’ This inflation has now been arrested by an act of God. Musical theater may actually benefit from the weight of all that money being lifted. We can only hope.”
Well, I'm still hoping. Broadway's reopening contour is rapidly rounding into shape on the commercial horizon and, of course, that shape resembles a dollar sign. All the high-rollers have posted Autumn return dates — Hamilton, Lion King, Book of Mormon, Wicked, Phantom (I'd so hoped that someone would have hidden the keys to the Majestic Theatre while Phantom was away). Aladdin is coming back, as are Chicago, Dear Evan Hansen, Hadestown and Come from Away. Jagged Little Pill, too, will return, along with Moulin Rouge! The Musical, the new and disproved West Side Story, and Ain't Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations.
As a very random exercise in futility, I clicked on Wicked’s Ticketmaster order icon and selected the show's second scheduled performance: September 15. The range of available ticket prices ran from $360-$599. Each. All ticket options were designated “Verified Resale Ticket,” meaning: ‘The casino is open, please come in and leave your wallet at the door.’ So much for the weight of money being lifted.
I know that producers have taken a huge hit in the last year. More so have their employees; Broadway's magnificent performers. Money must be made, in a hurry. Will audiences fork over pre-pandemic sums (and then some) in numbers sufficient to support all of these worthy, over-capitalized musical enterprises?
I have no idea.
My focus is on the future. Not much sunshine there either, from a strictly creative perspective. Thus far slated to open on Broadway in the fall are three musical revivals (Company, Music Man and the electrifying but still not new, Caroline, or Change); three jukebox musicals (Girl from the North Country [Bob Dylan], MJ The Musical [Michael Jackson] and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical); one movie-remake-musical (Mrs. Doubtfire); and, confoundingly, not one, but two original musicals about female British royals (Diana and Six: The Musical, featuring the dead wives of Henry VIII. Singing.)
Deep in the pandemic's depths, as I labored to finish Ever After, I indulged in a nurturing, if utterly unrealistic, fantasy. When Broadway finally returned, the audiences for insanely over-priced elderly musicals, lame bio-jukebox musicals, and redundant screen-to-stage asset-reallocation musicals, would have vanished; forced by the pandemic to retreat and reappraise their entertainment priorities. Musical producers, desperate to fill Broadway theaters with product, would resort to smaller-scale, lower budget, ever-so slightly more creative fare. A new musical theater age would be born from the ashes.
Now reality is setting in.
Looking past Broadway to the non-profit Off-Broadway realm where adventurous new musicals have long been hatched, the view is even murkier, though still dollar-shaped. Lincoln Center Theater, a Broadway entity in Tony Award terms, but an Off-Broadway non-profit in spirit and advantageous tax exemptions, will finally premiere a very intriguing sounding new musical that the pandemic shut down. Written and directed by James Lapine, Flying Over Sunset musicalizes an altogether imaginary, LSD-induced encounter in 1950s Hollywood between novelist Aldous Huxley, writer-gold-digger-power player Clare Boothe Luce and Cary Grant; each of whom did actually experiment with acid apparently. The score is by Next to Normal composer Tom Kitt and Grey Gardens lyricist Michael Korie.
What else beyond that? It isn't yet clear. Anywhere.
“I think nonprofit theater is deeply, deeply imperiled," Thomas Schumacher recently confided to me — Disney Theatrical's Kingpin-in Chief and a ubiquitous voice of theatrical sagacity throughout Ever After. "I worry for nonprofit theaters because of how their funding works. Their money is always essentially local, as opposed to Broadway, where we can call on tourism and have other levers to pull. I worry about our existing nonprofits, but I do think new nonprofits will rise as a result. That’s the hope, that the current imperilment will lead to a renaissance, a new wave of nonprofits, as we saw in the early 1960s into the mid-70s, when all these different theaters opened up around the country run by a new generation of young voices: Zelda Fichandler and Arena Stage, Gordon Davidson and the Mark Taper Forum, Joe Papp and the Public. We forget that they were all young then and had something to say. As a result, everything changed.
“I definitely believe the Covid experience will be an accelerant in the theater,” Tom maintained. “It’s going to accelerate certain people out and certain people in, creating space for new young leaders who are going to need new structures, new budgets, new ways of working, new patrons who want to see the world in a new way. Many of the existing nonprofit leaders are just going to say, ‘That's it, I’m done.’”
Some already are. Jim Nicola, the man who gave us Rent, as artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop, has announced he will step down on June 30, 2022. Woodie King, Jr. who founded New Federal Theatre in 1970 as part of that nonprofit ferment Tom references, will retire as Producing Director this month; a pioneer for African-American leadership in the theater.
Those who now follow in their towering stead must be more than just young.
“Black Theatre Coalition and Broadway Advocacy Coalition are already doing sensational work placing people of color in jobs in theatrical offices and backstage in the theatrical unions, where our biggest failures have been until now," Tom points out. “Black Theatre United is looking at how we can come together and re-examine our industry in a focused, sharp, pointed way. What can we change within a year? What can we change within three years? Five years? That’s about the same time as it takes to deliver a big musical.”
Progress can feel like such a chimera, though. Yes, we freed ourselves during the pandemic from the talons of the Trump era, yet his absolute evil relentlessly claws its way back, despite our best efforts to move on. Musical theater is hardly on that plane. Still, I wish I could feel more sure about its future. Or even a little less unsure about its present. Then I think about the creative talent I got to write about in the latter chapters of Ever After: Lin-Manuel-Miranda, of course, Pasek and Paul, and Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael R. Jackson, directors Rachel Chavkin and Thomas Kail, composers Jeanine Tesori, David Yazbek and Dave Malloy, to name only a few, and I think: You know, let the business worry about the business. We’re going to be all right.