Busy Broadway season: No room for new shows

Jazz master Wynton Marsalis helped put together "After

Jazz master Wynton Marsalis helped put together "After Midnight," a 90-minute song-and-dance entertainment evoking classic Harlem jazz from Duke Ellington's Cotton Club in the '30s. The onstage Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Star orchestra is sensational. (Credit: Matthew Murphy)

Linda Winer

Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer. Linda Winer

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday,

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Today may be the start of Thanksgiving Week for civilians. But for Broadway, oddly enough, today's double opening of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in "No Man's Land" and "Waiting for Godot" unofficially marks the end of a seriously interesting fall season.

You may well ask: What happened to December? Even last year, when superstorm Sandy tossed theater plans as if they were plastic blowup toys and piled up autumn shows in November, there still were five major (or major-looking) openings between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Katie Holmes had not yet made her blink-and-you-miss-it turn in "Dead Accounts." Patti LuPone and Debra Winger were not yet the victims of David Mamet's short-lived "The Anarchist." A richly satisfying revival of Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy" had not yet showed its staying power. The storm- delayed "Glengarry Glen Ross," starring Al Pacino, had not shown its strangely slack face, and Bebe Neuwirth was still preparing to star in Terrence McNally's hardly remembered opera farce, "Golden Age."

I mention these to remind us -- this includes me -- that, until this year, December was considered a prime time for theater openings. Producers did not always take this long a running start before the Thanksgiving tourists arrived. History and reason led us to expect an incremental sprinkling of shows before the hotels filled up.

But this month has been so busy that more than one colleague has asked, "Since when did April start coming in November?" By April, of course, they refer to the insane official close of the Broadway season. In recent years, April has descended into a high-stakes stampede to get the attention of Tony nominators before the national Tony telecast and the arrival of summer theatergoers in shorts and flip-flops. In the final two ridiculous weeks last spring, we had 12 big openings -- including "Kinky Boots," "Matilda," "Pippin" and Tom Hanks in "Lucky Guy."

As Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League, tells me, divining seasons by the busy months is about as useful as horoscopes. Yes, producers want to get in before the tourists, but much depends on available theaters -- or, as she says, "where you are in the queue."

Although Broadway has 40 theaters, many are booked with long-running shows. "I don't think everybody says 'OK, I want to open on April 15 or Nov.15.' They want to make it through the holidays so maybe they can hold out during January and February," says St. Martin. "But, except for shows with limited runs, it is hard to know when a theater will open up. You can begin to watch grosses go up or down," but that is hardly a science. "I was at dinner the other night, and three producers told me they are waiting for a theater. They don't wish anyone bad luck," she adds, "but the fact is that we have a limited number of theaters."

So here we are with no theaters available for December openings. In other words, it may feel presumptuous to summarize the fall season before anyone heads to the Thanksgiving table, but a little early overview is timely.

Most of the events with the highest profiles have been the biggest disappointments. For the week ending Nov. 17, Orlando Bloom's Broadway debut in an ill-conceived "Romeo and Juliet" was grossing just 38.9 percent of capacity. So much for last year's surefire formula of hot stars in limited runs.

The only new musical of the season, "Big Fish," has posted a closing notice for Dec. 29, just three months after it opened. "A Time to Kill," the adaptation of John Grisham's novel with Broadway debuts by Tom Skerritt and Fred Dalton Thompson, closed last Sunday after a month run.

Despite mixed reviews, the hot ticket of the fall remains Harold Pinter's "Betrayal," starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, directed with little Pinteresque edge by Mike Nichols. Top tickets are going for $423, just under the $477 top for "The Book of Mormon." I guess the formula of stars in limited runs still works with the right stars and the right play.

Smashes have come to far more speculative projects, including Mark Rylance in an extraordinary more-or-less authentically Elizabethan "Twelfth Night" and "Richard III" from Shakespeare's Globe. Although the

McKellen/Stewart double bill of Pinter and Beckett have not yet been reviewed, the plays are attracting an impressive 95.7 percent of capacity.

An important revival of "The Glass Menagerie" is a huge success with stars -- Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto -- who are not easily Hollywood brands. And who could have dreamed that a revival of Terence Rattigan's long-forgotten 1946 "The Winslow Boy" would be a must-see at the Roundabout and "After Midnight," a musical revue about '30s Harlem jazz, would be such a hit?

Last year at this time, Broadway was overrun with new family-friendly productions -- "Annie," "Cinderella" as well as both "Elf" and "A Christmas Story, The Musical." This year has the musical holdovers, plus "Matilda," which opened in the spring and the usual "Lion King"/"Newsies" staples.

But all the Christmas shows are going to arenas this year, and the new shows are decidedly grown-up. Has Broadway lost interest in the family trade? Not nearly.

St. Martin explains the business. It all goes back to the queue. "If you are a theater owner offered both an open-ended run and a six-to-eight week holiday run, which one would you pick? I'm guessing that, this year, more producers with open-ended runs were in the queue."

Theater, even commercial Broadway, is not exactly organized with a stopwatch. "Nobody says, 'OK, we have four family shows, six serious plays, six new musicals and four revivals this fall. It doesn't work that way. We are not making widgets. We're making magic."

Some nights at the theater, I have to wonder. But I like the way that sounds.