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Sweet clarity

'Hey, big spender! Spend a little $1.5 million with me.' Costly revivals, an omnipresent Creator, defeated Brits, movie stars. That was the year on Broadway.

June 05, 2005|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

New York — THE Big Story of the Broadway season, which will be celebrated tonight at the 57th annual Tony Awards, demonstrates the special delirium of the Great White Way: Consider Christina Applegate and "Sweet Charity," the musical revival that has been revived more times on the way to its opening last month than a heart patient on "ER."

A star's broken foot, lukewarm reviews, tepid box office and an official closing. Yet "Sweet Charity" still managed to emerge from these travails to open on Broadway last month, thanks to the plucky Applegate. Not only did she hobble back into the show but she reportedly marshaled backers to pony up a third of an additional $1.5 million needed to get to opening night.

Cheers, tears, flowers, ovations. Tony nominations for the show and its star. The kind of show-must-go-on story Broadway loves. But was it worth it?

Given that the show has a comparatively small advance -- $2 million -- the producers now risk losing $9 million (rather than the reported $7.5 million had the show remained closed.) It seems the investors' additional money might have been better spent at the Fandango Ballroom, where Charity and her friends ply their trade as "dance hall hostesses." Their come-on seems as directed toward today's Broadway investor as to their marks: "The minute you walked in the joint / I could see you were a man of distinction / A real big spender! Good-looking, so refined / Say, wouldn't you like to know / What's going on in my mind?"

What follows is a tip sheet offering some answers to that question, at least as it applies to this delightfully deranged season:


God wanted an Equity card; don't settle for a stand-in

"When in doubt, punt to God" became the mantra of more than one writer, recalling the ancient theatrical device deus ex machina, in which the gods descend to tie up all the messy plot points. Suddenly, God was everywhere -- even off-Broadway. He was summoned by Billy Crystal for a poker game in "700 Sundays," during which the comedian calls his bluff. (What? God can't see Billy's cards?) In "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," Jesus makes a personal appearance to remind a contestant that "This is not the sort of thing I care very much about, Marcy." But God really earns his Equity card in "Spamalot": Whenever King Arthur gets flummoxed, he can count on the Divine One as his show doctor. After God helps Arthur out of one sticky wicket, the king thanks him for his good idea. In response, God (John Cleese, actually) booms, "Of course it's a good idea, you silly twit! I'm God. Jesus!"


Oscar winners need not apply

Tony nominators appeared to yank the welcome mat from under a number of movie stars, showing the back of their hands to Denzel Washington ("Julius Caesar"), Edie Falco (" 'night, Mother"), Jeff Goldblum ("The Pillowman"), David Hyde Pierce ("Spamalot"), Jessica Lange and Christian Slater ("The Glass Menagerie") and John C. Reilly and Natasha Richardson ("A Streetcar Named Desire"). Washington and Lange couldn't muster up Tony nods, but we're pretty sure they can act, since they've each won two Oscars.

Part of the reason, surely, was strong competition, including a few Hollywood names. One could hardly quibble, for example, with any of the leading actor in a play nominees: James Earl Jones ("On Golden Pond"), Brian F. O'Byrne ("Doubt"), Billy Crudup ("The Pillowman"), Bill Irwin ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?") and Philip Bosco ("Twelve Angry Men"). But Broadway has always had an ambivalent attitude toward Hollywood stars, like the wallflower who suddenly gets attention from the Big Man on Campus, only to wonder if she'll be bored on the date.

The one name who set the box office afire -- getting this season's Hugh Jackman Award -- is Crystal, whose "700 Sundays" has a lock on best special theatrical event (too bad, Whoopi Goldberg, Dame Edna and Mario Cantone). There was talk early on that the producers of "700 Sundays" might petition the Tony Administration Committee to consider it for best play, thereby qualifying Crystal for Tonys as both writer and actor. He just might have lost out altogether if they had. Defying God is one thing, testing the Tony nominators quite another.


Les parents terribles

Moms and dads who irrevocably scar their children have long been a dramatic staple. But this season's crop on Broadway could keep Children's Services busy for decades.

The parents in "The Pillowman," who torture and mutilate one son to inspire creativity in the other, win the toxic prize hands down. That haranguing harridan Amanda Wingfield of "The Glass Menagerie, played by Lange, made an appearance. Jones, though a loving spouse, is a less-than-ideal dad in "On Golden Pond." And even "Doubt" had a Mother Superior in Cherry Jones as relentless as Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction" and just as destructive.

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