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It's not quite time to mourn the musical

`Jersey Boys' and lighter fare have dominated, but there are signs of some serious craft and out-of-the-box thinking.

May 28, 2006|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

New York — ON the eve of the announcement of the 2006 Tony Award nominations that would laud a musical season bright with commercial prospects, an alternative celebration was going on at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Sundance Institute was hosting an evening of song by composers and lyricists from its Colorado-based theater development program.

The songs, sung by such Broadway performers as Audra McDonald, Kelli O'Hara, Malcolm Gets and Adriane Lenox, were excerpted largely from shows about, well, "serious" subjects -- the murder of Gianni Versace, the meeting of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh, the excesses of the Emperor Nero, and adaptations of "The House of Mirth" and the work of Franz Kafka.

One couldn't help thinking, over the alternately harmonic and dissonant chords, "Do any of these shows have a snowball's chance in hell of reaching Broadway -- and succeeding -- in this climate?"

Indeed, while Broadway is celebrating the most bullish season in history -- both in attendance and box-office grosses -- the gulf between the artistic and the commercial seems wider than ever, the former solely as the province of the not-for-profit theaters, the latter as so much fodder for Broadway.

Whatever their merits, three of the nominees for the best musical Tony -- "The Drowsy Chaperone," "The Wedding Singer" and "Jersey Boys" -- are in line with the light fare that has been dominant since the 2001 season when "Mamma Mia!" and "The Producers" ushered in a new era of musical comedy and jukebox musicals. Even the fourth nominee, "The Color Purple," based on the gritty Alice Walker novel and tamer Steven Spielberg film, chose to emphasize the brighter hues of the story -- and was rewarded with 11 nominations and grosses of nearly $1 million a week, with the aid of lead presenter Oprah Winfrey.

Indeed, looking at the landscape of jukebox musicals ("Jersey Boys"), cartoons ("Tarzan"), self-referential pastiche ("Drowsy Chaperone"), and those based on thinly plotted movies ("Wedding Singer"), one has to wonder if Broadway has forsaken a musical tradition that has in the past yielded such classics as "Carousel," "My Fair Lady," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Cabaret" and "Sweeney Todd" -- story-driven shows with complicated characters. "My oh my, we are a long, long way from 'Guys and Dolls,' " says John Heilpern, theater critic of the New York Observer. "As much as I admired 'Jersey Boys' and 'The Drowsy Chaperone,' I'm beginning to wonder if there is any room for genuine sentiment and, dare I say it, romance in the Broadway musical."

Yet as bleak as some critics may paint the musical's future -- and they've been doing so for decades -- there appears to be little hand-wringing these days among Broadway's cognoscenti. For one, several pockets are being lined by the boffo box office; two, as Heilpern pointed out, there is real admiration for the skill and savvy poured into the two leading contenders for the best musical Tony: "Jersey Boys," which is up for eight awards, and "Drowsy Chaperone" (with 13 nods), a frothy confection in which a sad-sack theater queen shares his passion for a silly '20s musical that magically comes to life in his drab New York apartment. Finally there is a cautious optimism that a rising tide will lift all boats, including bold efforts to push against the boundaries of the form.

"Things are cyclical, and once the well goes dry, I really think that producers are going to turn to what these composers are doing and take a chance," says Ted Sperling, director of the Sundance Theatre Songbook and a Tony-winning orchestrator and conductor ("The Light in the Piazza"). "Broadway isn't a goal. They just want to do work they're passionate about."

He concedes the expectations of the audiences, particularly tourists who now make up a majority of Broadway ticket-buyers, could well be affected by the steady diet of fluff. "But I do think that if the story is told well, then it will overcome people's fears that it will be depressing and they will enjoy it."

Sperling is also encouraged by the respective fates of two shows that were partly developed at Sundance: "The Light in the Piazza" and "Grey Gardens." The former, a darkly romantic tale of a brain-damaged young woman and her mother on a trip to Italy, defied mixed reviews -- including a slam from the New York Times -- to win six Tonys; the latter, which also received mixed notices, will open on Broadway this fall.

Some pundits say "Piazza," which opened in April 2005 at Lincoln Center and is still running, never would have succeeded had it opened directly on Broadway rather than been sheltered at not-for-profit theaters. Lincoln Center artistic director Andre Bishop disagrees. "I think it might have, had commercial producers been willing to hang on as we did," he says. "We were really going out on a limb. But it really connected and now it will be going on a 44-city tour, playing some really big houses."

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