NEW YORK — Those foolhardy souls who create Broadway musicals are fond of quoting writer Larry Gelbart: "If Hitler's still alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical."
The only thing more hellish than that, they agree, is being in town with a musical in trouble. Three new musicals will open this week, and not one of them had an out-of-town tryout. What's more, "Titanic," "The Life" and "Steel Pier" all are book-musicals based on original concepts and created by veteran talents. They are also mostly driven by ensembles, rather than stars. And all have taken their lumps in the past few weeks from the infamous New York preview crowd that seems to love to polka to the German tune of Schadenfreude--a song about taking pleasure in others' misfortune.
The trio's producers also have one more thing in common. "We are all terrified," said Martin Richards, one of those behind "The Life," speaking for both his peers and collaborators.
Running scared, of course, is the nature of a business where a $10-million investment can go up in smoke--or sink from view--after just one performance. While these are only three of seven new musicals that will have opened when this season's Tony nominations are announced May 5, they collectively form a bellwether of sorts for a musical season that earlier was dominated by talk of the shrinking Andrew Lloyd Webber empire after the closing of his new "Whistle Down the Wind" and the announcement of losses forcing a shutdown of both the London and New York productions of "Sunset Boulevard."
There are other contenders: "Juan Darien," Julie Taymor's fantasy based on an Uruguayan fable, played last winter at Lincoln Center. "Play On!," a musical of Duke Ellington tunes strung along an updated version of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," which originated at the Old Globe in San Diego and is now on Broadway. "Dream," a revue of Johnny Mercer songs starring Lesley Ann Warren, generated less enthusiastic notices but is also making a run for it. "Jekyll & Hyde," seen in eight performances on a 1995 tour at the Orange County Center for the Performing Arts two years ago, will be the last contender to enter the Tony ring, opening April 26 with a new director, Robin Phillips.
This week, however, is set to be the defining one for the season. "Steel Pier," "Titanic" and "The Life" all are much-anticipated shows, and each provides its own window on the state of the art form.
Can "Titanic," with its wildly inventive British director, Richard Jones, successfully bring a postmodern vision to a legendary story line? Will "The Life," which is about the hustlers, pimps and whores of 1980 42nd Street, take the Broadway musical "10 steps beyond 'Sweet Charity,' " as was claimed by Cy Coleman, composer of both shows?
And will "Steel Pier," a bittersweet romance set against the backdrop of 1933 marathon dancing, succeed in reinventing the traditional American musical and solidify this season as the year of John Kander and Fred Ebb--creators of the 1975 musical "Chicago," which is enjoying a smash revival, but who otherwise have not had a commercial Broadway hit in more than 15 years?
Only a few seasons back, when the British flag was flying high over Broadway, who would have guessed that all seven new musicals of the 1996-97 season would be made in America?
'Titanic," which cost $10 million and opens on Wednesday at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, ran into heavy seas even before it began rehearsals last winter. Michael Braun, one of the producers, died on Jan. 27, leaving his partners to scramble for his $4-million investment. New anxieties arose in late March when previews had to be postponed for a couple of days because of technical problems with the elaborate and complicated sets, and the New York media was set to buzzing. It looked like "Titanic" might have hit an iceberg even before leaving port.
"When you have a title like 'Titanic,' you have the kind of awareness which can make you the butt of every joke in town," says Michael David, president of the Dodgers, the chief producing entity for the show. "But if anybody thought that we were doing this musical called 'Titanic' simply to put lavish scenery on stage and sink something, then they're not aware of what I hope our reputation is for doing something new, unexpected and, hopefully, perversely exciting."
Indeed, "Titanic" is a huge and risky gamble for the Dodgers, a production team that developed off-Broadway in the 1970s and steadily built a respected reputation on Broadway for their savvy mix of glitzy, sleek revivals ("Guys and Dolls," "The King and I" and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying") as well as adventurous, groundbreaking originals ("Into the Woods," "The Who's Tommy").