This began as a column about news — some might say alarming news — from London. Instead, we find ourselves heading toward troubling questions about Broadway.
You may have noticed. Suddenly, or so it seems, we are in the storm path for a deluge of British mega-musical revivals from the ’80s and ’90s. First came a restaging of “Les Miserables,” which closes Sunday, Sept. 4, after 18 months — a relatively modest run for what must still be considered an international blockbuster.
Now we have “Cats,” which originally opened on Broadway in 1982 and was the first in a Big-Event phenomenon of imports dominated by extravagant scenery (mostly by design wizard John Napier) over content. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “now and forever” hit reopened July 31. Attendance has been respectable, hovering in the low 90 percent of capacity, and though weekly grosses are not in the “Hamilton”/“Lion King” stratosphere, they are in the coveted $1 million club that indicates a healthy run.
But the new-old British invasion is just revving up. “Miss Saigon,” with its genuine flying helicopter, re-enacted the American evacuation of Saigon — with a little help from Puccini — on Broadway from 1991 to 2001. The show, based on the West End revival that opened to ecstatic reviews in 2014, returns here in March with a new production staged by Laurence Connor, who co-directed the revised “Les Miz” — also written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil— and Lloyd Webber’s new hit, “School of Rock.”
But not so fast. Here comes a major rumor that “Sunset Boulevard,” its Tony-winning star, Glenn Close, and its giant moving staircase will pre-empt the roar of “Miss Saigon” with an unexpected 20-week run in January. The show, which first opened on Broadway in 1994, was a startling triumph last spring for a brief semi-staged revival, with Close, at the English National Opera.
At the Tony Awards in June, Lloyd Webber broadly hinted that the show is New York-bound. If so, that — plus “The Phantom of the Opera,” still going strong since 1988 — would make four of his shows on Broadway at one time. And nobody is even mentioning, yet, a resurrection here of the bogglingly well-received revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” that just closed at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
Musing aloud about the abrupt resurgence of his flagging career, Lloyd Webber said, “It’s kind of like London buses, they either don’t come or they come all together.”
Well, not really. Unlike buses, there is an extremely finite number of Broadway theaters — specifically 40 Tony-eligible houses, each with 500 or more seats and each in the Theater District or Lincoln Center.
When the British mega-musicals originally swept Broadway, they filled a very real vacuum. The theaters had been left begging, partly by the flight of America’s best talent for pop music and Hollywood, partly by the illness and death of such giants of directing and choreographing as Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse and Gower Champion.
These useful imports had many things in common. They appealed to international audiences by using as few words as possible (see “Starlight Express” — on second thought, don’t). They brought in sophisticated marketing. They appealed to the broadest number of people with recycled potboiler stories that almost everyone knew, with music that sounded like music we had heard before and grand sets that distracted theatergoers from noticing the handsome, highly professional vacuity.
But the reality of American theater is very different today — vital, creative, popular. New musicals and, most desperately, plays are stacked up at the doors of those 40 theaters. But first subtract the five (soon to be six) houses controlled by nonprofit theaters with their own missions, take away Disney’s New Amsterdam and don’t even consider those with long-running hits ensconced for the foreseeable future.
Wait. Don’t forget to find homes for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and the musical “Groundhog Day,” two huge London hits that have theater owners falling over one another to sign.
Which brings us to the Broadway crisis — gridlock for all but the mega-musical revivals and monster hits.
What happens to the unexpected adventures, the crazy-brilliant projects that landlords can’t see coming? What happens to the new work, the gems developed in regional theaters and Off-Broadway or dreamed up by the next Lin-Manuel Miranda? What happens to the spontaneity that feeds the life and the heart of the theater?
Independent producers are worried. This includes Elizabeth McCann, the Tony-winning producer and Edward Albee specialist who has played hardball with the big guys for decades. Along with Tony-winning producer Daryl Roth, she is trying to find a Broadway theater for “Indecent,” Paula Vogel’s seriously wonderful play with music that was a hit at the Vineyard Theater earlier this year.
“There is almost no movement in the theaters,” she laments in a phone interview. “There’s a horrific booking jam. Everybody is chewing on this problem.”
When “An Act of God” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” close Sunday, Sept. 4, there will be just one new play on Broadway — Stephen Karam’s shattering, Tony-winning “The Humans.” It’s something of a producing miracle, especially since the terrific ensemble has no stars. Even better, the drama just moved to the Helen Hayes Theatre (soon to belong to the Second Stage Theatre) to the much bigger Schoenfeld Theatre.
According to McCann, the Shubert Organization is building a new theater on its land on Eighth Avenue between 45th and 46th streets, but that will take forever and will be a house for musicals.
“I sometimes sit here just staring at the wall,” says McCann, not a force known for sitting still and staring. She speculates that, perhaps, independent producers can survive by making deals with the nonprofit theater owners — the Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club and the Lincoln Center Theater. Or, if producers and unions want it badly enough, they might be able to renegotiate contracts to turn some Off-Broadway theaters into Tony-eligible houses.
“It’s very tricky what effect this jam-up can have,” she says thoughtfully. “This could be the death of the independent producer.” She gets even more sober. “We suddenly can be in a situation where there won’t be new musicals.”