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When Producers Play It Safe, The Art Form Suffers

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By James Winer

                It’s officially springtime! While students across the country prepare for exams and finals, it’s time for the Broadway community to rev up for the annual Tony Awards, honoring the best of Broadway and celebrating the creativity it has to offer. It’s the busiest time for theatre in New York, with the city receiving an influx of new plays and musicals opening in March and April in order to make the Tony eligibility deadline.

            For several years now, I have enjoyed going to New York City over spring break to catch a few of the newest musicals that are predicted to be nominated for Tonys. I am attracted to productions that are new and fresh, including brand new musicals and newly reimagined revivals of old classics. While there is usually at least one show every year that doesn’t sound too exciting, for whatever reasons, this year, I was confused upon hearing the plans for a revival of Cabaret.

            Back in 1998, Broadway saw its second revival of Cabaret, starring Alan Cumming as the Emcee. The production was nominated for 10 Tonys, with Alan Cumming winning for Best Actor in a Musical and the production winning Best Revival of a Musical. The show ran for 2,377 performances on Broadway before closing, a healthy run. Now, in 2014, Broadway will see its third revival of Cabaret. Only this time, it is the same exact production that was seen in 1998. It even stars Alan Cumming in the same role again.

            When I say that it is the “same production” as the 1998 production, that means that all the elements of the show are going to be the same: orchestrations, choreography, set design, costumes, direction, etc. Most of the cast will be different, however, that is not what constitutes a new production. Typically, when a show is revived, it is re-imagined and brings a new perspective on the material. That’s what makes them interesting.

            For example, last season, Broadway saw its first revival of the musical Pippin. Although it took some inspiration from the original Bob Fosse choreography, the show was drastically different (concept-wise) than the original. The revival was built around the concept that the cast was a circus that has come to town to tell the story of Pippin’s life, and the ensemble “players” were all mind-blowing acrobats. The Leading Player (originally played by Ben Vereen) was played this time by a woman (the so-talented-I-cannot-think-of-words-to-describe-her Patina Miller).

            I had the great fortune of seeing the aforementioned production of Pippin when it was in its previews on Broadway, and I can say without a doubt that the new concept and direction of the show is what led it to be so successful. In fact, it was the best piece of theatre I have ever witnessed–and I’ve seen a lot of theatre in New York and elsewhere. (That would explain why Pippin’s director, Diane Paulus, won the Tony and was named in Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people.)

            This kind of new energy is what is blatantly missing from the new revival of Cabaret, being produced on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout Theatre Company is a non-profit theatre company in New York that operates at three Broadway theatres. For some reason unbeknownst to me, someone at Roundabout decided it was a good idea to bring back the same production of the same show that already won Tonys and had a long run on Broadway. And financially, it surely is a good idea. A great idea! By bringing back this Cabret, they are recreating a production that they know will work because it won Tonys and was already  successful. Not only that, but they have a golden opportunity to cast a big celebrity in the lead role of Sally Bowles. And they did by giving Michelle Williams the part. They are guaranteed to sell lots and lots of tickets, right? Right. And that is another part of the problem.

            Broadway producers these days are, generally, not doing a great job of fostering new talent and creative. The new Cabaret revival is an extreme example. Being a Broadway producer is a notoriously risky profession. You invest so much money into a production that has to go through an out of town tryout, and, if that is successful, the show will hopefully be able to book a Broadway theatre and open on Broadway. And maybe, if your show is lucky, it will survive the critics and possibly get nominated for awards.

            As you can imagine, producers are under pressure to sell as many tickets as possible. And to do that, more and more of them are turning to Hollywood stars to be in their shows. More than half the time, this does not work. For example, in 2012, Broadway saw a revival of the classic musical Evita. Unfortunately, the producers put Ricky Martin in the male lead of Che. He sold tickets of course, but boy was he a bad actor! I think I learned more about his character in the five minutes that Che was discussed in world history than Ricky Martin cared to learn about him in the year that Evita was playing.

           Putting Hollywood celebrities into Broadway musicals is okay if that celebrity knows how to do theatre and do it well. All too often, however, you get bland performances from these stars, although that certainly is not always the case. There are plenty of Hollywood stars who are completely at home on the Broadway stage (for example Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying or Antonio Banderas in Nine).

           Creativity is also crushed by producers wanting to play it safe by mounting shows that seem familiar to a large audience, rather than taking a chance on truly new material. Take, for example, the infamous 2011 Broadway musical Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark. While it appealed to many because of the title, it ended up doing more damage than good. Not only did it rob somebody else of producing an original musical on Broadway, but the high tech scenery often malfunctioned, injuring many actors in the process. (You know there’s something wrong with a show when the thing that people remember most about it is that the cast members were literally in casts.)

            Or take this year’s revival of Les Miserables. While it is not an exact replica of a previous production, it looks like your typical production of Les Mis and is clearly capitalizing on the success of the movie. In this production, it is fantastic that real Broadway actors and actresses are in the leading parts, but the whole thing just seems too soon. Les Miserables had a revival that only opened in 2006 and ran until 2008. And that was only three years after the original production closed in 2003. Yes, it’s an amazing musical, but that does not mean we should see it on Broadway every few years. The show should be shelved for at least 20 more years, so it can make a triumphant return to Broadway in a fresh revival. Now, it just seems like it’s back for its bi-decade visit.

            These are only a few of the endless examples of Broadway producers just trying to make a buck. Sometimes, playing it safe works and exposes new talents and gifts, but, oftentimes, playing it safe is boring and is not well-received within the theatre community. I commend those producers who take a chance on new talent and new, original productions.

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When Producers Play It Safe, The Art Form Suffers