Broadway may well be the last bastion of free enterprise
in North America. Faced with possible extinction a decade ago, it went big business in the ’70s just to survive: new au-
diences were wooed,
Times Square was cleaned up and higher ticket prices were justified by persuading the public that shows were more desirable than ever. Now, with the average cost of mounting a musical at $2 million and the strong possibility that unfavorable reviews might close a play after opening night, producing a show has become a chancy venture-capital investment. Big hits do yield big returns: A Chorus Line has netted more than $22 million on Broadway alone and Evita has pulled in more than $83 million worldwide. But inevitably when producers talk about a “property,” the script takes a back seat to the balance sheet. The new crisis on Broadway is, therefore, not financial. In question now is whether the cultural component of this exotic arts-business hybrid will wither away entirely.
The glamor of Broadway has always resided in a characteristically American passion for combined artistic and
commercial success, epitomized by the hit musical. The latest champion is Dreamgirls, a captivating high-tech variation on the quintessential Broadway form, the “backstage” musical—a show about putting on a show and making it. The story follows a Motown group (modelled on the Suprêmes) from obscurity to glory to dissolution. Their manager, an ex-Cadillac salesman, says it all: “The American concept of success lies in one three-letter word—big.” Even though payola is his downfall, the point is taken and au-
diences paying up to $40 a seat can certainly relate to it.
Dreamgirls gives the term underdog new worlds of meaning. The extra emotional kicker is that the group, too appropriately dubbed the Dreams, is not just struggling but female, black and, in one instance, homely and fat. Bluntly stated, Jennifer Holliday has been typecast in the role of Effie, and the plot hinges on her expulsion because she spoils the group’s glamorous look. Holliday cannot act, but she does have a magnificent blues voice; her roof-rais-
ing farewell to the group leaves the audience gasping. When the Dreams crumble and Effie emerges victorious as a solo artist who remains true to her gospel, she is cheered not just for triumphing against all odds but for retaining her black identity while still incarnating the American Dream.
The show is far from perfect. The music and lyrics are serviceable at best, but the stunning interplay of high-tech production gimmickry propels Dreamgirls far beyond the ordinary. Effortlessly controlled by computers, huge mobile lighting booms and towers pirouette onstage, ^.creating wraparound ^technicolor effects with <a dazzling array of cine¿matic techniques. “Theatre is theatricality,” says Dreamgirls' mastermind Michael Bennett, and a growing source of theatrical inspiration for him and other Broadway directors is film.
Cinematic language translated for the theatre is only part of Hollywood’s massive influence on Broadway. Creating stars and myths to match has always been a prime function of Broadway, as if its 40-odd theatres crammed into a few dingy blocks were the labs in which the essence
of American culture is distilled. But Broadway’s inherent star syndrome is fast turning into an epidemic. Stars born on Broadway are now flocking back from film, either disillusioned or simply eager to regain contact with live audiences. Since stars minimize investment risk, producers are willing to pay more, and if a show is a hit there’s a percentage of the gross to be had as well. The preferred play is a star vehicle, one that displays the star to best effect and does not distract the audiences with plot, characterization or serious intent.
Lauren Bacall in Woman of the Year, Faye Dunaway in The Curse of the Aching Heart and Katharine Hepburn in West Side Waltz are the reigning queens.
As Elizabeth Taylor’s appearance last season in Lillian Heilman’s The Little Foxes sadly demonstrated, few works can stand up to the abuse imposed by star treatment. Even classics sometimes collapse under the strain. After creating Hamlet in his own dyspeptic image 15 years ago on Broadway, Nicol Williamson has returned with an equally eccentric and unanimously condemned version of Macbeth. James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer fare much better with Othello. Plummer’s lago is astonishing: half Jacobean avenger, half choleric fool, this dervish whirls around the impassive mountain of Jones’s Othello spewing venom and flattery. His outpouring of words usurps Othello’s gift of speech, in effect rooting out his tongue long before the Moor nearly slices it off himself in an epileptic fit. Although Plummer’s strutting and fretting at times appears histrionic, by the end his performance stands revealed as an arch-manipulator’s frenzied dance of death.
Othello is challenged and glorified by a probing star turn such as Plummer’s lago. However, recently constructed star vehicles often dispense with the rest of the play altogether, and the rise of one-man shows reflects the joint demands of the star approach and economic stringency. The most satisfying if not earthshaking dramatic experience on Broadway is the unassuming two-man show Mass Appeal. This witty sonata by Bill C. Davis about an overly principled seminarian (Michael O’Keefe) who forces an overly indulgent priest (Milo O’Shea) to honestly confront an ethical dilemma for the first time in his life, weaves a delicate counterpoint of mutual respect, antagonism and love which enchants its audience. In more egotistical hands, these juicy roles might have prompted all-out war. But O’Shea and O’Keefe reinforce each other, carefully reconstructing a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
Without such tender ensemble playing, Mass Appeal might only be a hot dramatic property squatted in by stars. Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is just that, an inventive, quirky script on a movie theme larded with Hollywood personnel, including director Robert Altman and actresses Sandy Dennis, Cher and Karen Black. A small-town Texas chapter of the Jimmy Dean fan club holds a reunion 20 years after his death at which the women replay old loves and hates and reveal new secrets. Altman has done little to prevent this nostalgic pop concoction from separating and souring on stage. The three stars could be acting in three different plays, and only Cher with her striking presence and brassy vulgarity looks as if she belongs in this one.
Graczyk’s play is badly served in this production and it may pass into undeserved oblivion. But Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, a similar slice of southern gothic comedy, is in no danger of obscurity. Crimes is basic fluff rendered piquant by giddy antics such as a woman shooting her husband because she “just didn’t like the sound of his voice,” then making herself a jug of lemonade before calling an ambulance. Like other recent Pulitzer Prizewinners, A Chorus Line and Talley’s Folly, Crimes is winsome, shallow and studded with carefully set up emotional punches. Audiences see more in Crimes
than is actually there; Broadway’s increasing commercialization has blunted sensibilities to the point where sentimentality is readily mistaken for true feeling. Even though Crimes's three leading ladies were not stars to begin with, overwhelmingly favorable critical response and overly expectant audiences are colluding to turn their roles into star numbers. For all its ostensible toughness, the play’s gossamer fabric is tearing under this added weight.
Crimes, Jimmy Dean and Mass Appeal are about as profound as new drama gets on Broadway. High seriousness is not in great demand, and gone are the days when Heilman, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were standard fare. Broadway’s reluctance to dig deep was summed up recently by Edward Albee, one of the few important American playwrights who still bothers with it: “When you’re paying $40 a seat, you don’t want to see your basic assumptions challenged.” A test case of whether Broadway can still accept the best of contemporary playwrighting may soon come with John Guare’s Lydie Breeze, currently playing off-Broadway. A previous work, Bosoms and Neglect, starring Kate Reid, flopped on Broadway despite favorable reviews. Lydie has been fingered as Broadway material on the basis of the acclaim accorded Guare’s screenplay for Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, a rising star cast (Ben Cross, Robert Joy and Roberta Maxwell) and Malle as director.
But the play is so good it may never succeed on Broadway. Set in Nantucket, Mass., immediately before William Randolph Hearst’s provocation of the Spanish-American war, the play explores historical incidents in a modern idiom that also evokes current concerns. Guare’s double vision is funny and iconoclastic yet tinged with a poignant humanism, and in the play’s lyrical passages he forges a poetic language worthy of Eugene O’Neill. The play’s only flaw is that it is an hour too short.
With this work, John Guare steps into the front rank of American playwrights. Although he has not yet made it on Broadway, he could probably survive quite happily without it. And the way Broadway is heading, he may have no choice. The classics aside, drama that is moving and addresses timeless truths has trouble finding room on stages awash with commercial entertainment. Traditionally thought of as the apex of mainstream American theatre, Broadway has in fact embraced the dollar so fervently that it has become a rare hothouse flower, force-fed a diet of hype, high tech and stardust. If Broadway does not accept the likes of John Guare, serious writers will carry on elsewhere, leaving Broadway to its own seductive, narcissistic devices.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.