The 2011-2012 Broadway Season

Robert Viagas PlblYrbook_AuPhoto_314865Robert Viagas is the editor of The Playbill Broadway Yearbook: June 2011 to May 2012. Below, StageNotes.net asks Mr. Viagas, “How would you describe the 2011-2012 Broadway season?”

Given the economy people expected a contraction of both the number of productions and the amount spent on tickets. Suprisingly, it was exactly the opposite. Broadway had another season in which it sold more than a billion dollars with of tickets, and that’s billion with a “b.” Yes tickets are expensive—but there seems to be plenty of people willing to spend the money.

As I wrote in the preface to the 2011-2012 Yearbook, it was a richly diverse season of tuneful new musicals, delirious comedies, hard-hitting dramas and exuberant dances, plus revivals of some of the greatest works in the American theatrical canon: “Death of a Salesman,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Porgy and Bess,” in versions that earned their share of controversy, criticism…and several key awards.

Composer Stephen Sondheim, who turned 82 this season, rattled Broadway in summer 2011 by blasting Diane Paulus’s new shortened and punched-up version of “Porgy and Bess,” not just for assuming the vanity title “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” (elbowing out librettist and co-lyricist DuBose Heyward, Sondheim noted), but for bringing in Pulitzer laureate Suzan-Lori Parks to rewrite the libretto and even to change the show’s ending. Sondheim—a Pulitzer-winner himself—excoriated these maulings of the classic. But the result was pleasing enough to win “TGPaB” a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, incidentally beating a noteworthy revival of Sondheim’s own “Follies.”

The 2011-2012 season will be remembered for a pyrotechnic display of bravura performances, not least Audra McDonald’s Tony-winning turn as Bess. Audiences were thrilled by Danny Burstein’s heartbreaking performance as Buddy in “Follies,” Christian Borle as a Groucho-Marxian proto-Captain Hook in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” Nina Arianda as a fake (or maybe not) dominatrix in “Venus in Fur,” Ricky Martin as an audience-pleasing Che in “Evita,” Raul Esparza as a charismatic con-man in “Leap of Faith,” and Jeremy Jordan in TWO brightly etched lead performances in “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Newsies,” et al.

Even with all these, the showstopper performance of the season was James Corden’s brethless clowning turn in “One Man, Two Guvnors.” How good was Corden? In the Tony contest for Best Leading Actor in a Play Corden beat heavyweights Philip Seymour Hoffman, Frank Langella, John Lithgow and James Earl Jones, who were themselves giving stage-shaking performances.

It was a season packed with romance (“Once”), politics (“Newsies”), adventure (“Peter and the Starcatcher”) race relations (“Clybourne Park” and “Stick Fly”), families in crisis (“Other Desert Cities,” “Stick Fly”) and religion. Lots of religion. Two shows depicted the crucifixion of Jesus, “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” “Leap of Faith” enacted a tent revival. Holdover show “Sister Act” rocked a convent full of nuns singing gospel. Another holdover, “The Book of Mormon” continued to have fun (and earn a million bucks a week) with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

“Once” won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, not just because the bittersweet Irish love story touched so many hearts, but because the show had a unique look and sound. In 1960 Richard Rodgers wrote “No Strings,” a musical that used virtually no strings in the pit. “Once” did the opposite: with a supporting cast of street musicians, it used only strings (plus an accordion).

And yet, 2011-2012 will be remembered as the season without a blockbuster—unless you count Hugh Jackman’s solo show that was so solidly sold out that they passed on the chance to be nominated for a Tony Award because they didn’t want to give out free tickets to all the potential voters. They sold them instead, kept the money…and watched as Jackman was given a special Tony Award anyway. But that show was only a limited run, as was the other SRO show, “Death of a Salesman.” “Once,” “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “Newsies” were some of the biggest hits of the season, but none was solidly sold out until after the Tony Awards. There was no new “Book of Mormon,” “Jersey Boys” or “The Producers” this year.

Which is not to say that Broadway didn’t sell a lot of tickets. Though the number of tickets sold was down slightly, the overall gross for the season was a new record–$1.14 billion.

Keep reading this article on StageNotes.net.

The Playbill Broadway Yearbook: May 2011 to June 2012

Many of the people who work on Broadway keep scrapbooks of their experiences: photos, signed posters, ticket stubs, and, of course the Playbills. These are treasured keepsakes, something to be savored over a lifetime, and then passed on to friends and descendants. Playbill Books, a division of the iconic 128-year-old company that designs the programs for every show on Broadway, has expanded this idea into an annual project that has become a Broadway institution: The Playbill Broadway Yearbook. Taking the form of a high school or college yearbook, the eighth edition is packed with photos (more than 4,000 of them, many in color) and memorabilia from the entire 2011-2012 Broadway season.

High School Inspired Broadway: Q & A with Robert Viagas

Robert Viagas PlblYrbook_AuPhoto_314865Robert Viagas is the editor of The Playbill Broadway Yearbook: June 2011 to May 2012. Below is a Q &A with StageNotes.net.

What first sparked your interest in Broadway and Theatre?

Being tall (now 6′ 4”) had a curious amount to do with it. Although I wasn’t raised in a theatrical household, I was often asked play the father or other adult roles in elementary school plays because I was the tallest. Then, when I was in my teens, I had a friend who loved theatre and got a reviewing gig for our local newspaper so he could see shows for free. But Times Square in the 1970s was a much more dangerous place than it is now, so he invited me to come along, partly as a bodyguard, I suppose. Well, the theatre bug bit me hard, and it’s been all downhill from there. I’m now a member of the Tony nominating committee, as well as being founder of Playbill.com and founding editor of “The Playbill Broadway Yearbook.” Over the years I have blocked the view of countless theatregoers sitting behind me, especially when I am accompanied by one of my sons, who are 6’8” and 6’6”, respectively.

What was your favorite subject in High School and why?

It would be easy to say Music or English, both of which I did like a lot. My 8th grade English teacher Miss Heidengen, took me to my first Broadway show on a field trip: “Man of La Mancha.” But my favorite was Social Studies, mainly because I also like history and, especially, maps. That interest has helped me a lot when watching plays like Shakespeare’s War of the Roses dramas or more recent plays like “Copenhagen,” “Democracy,” “The Coast of Utopia,” and even “Clybourne Park.” Every year our high school music department staged a big musical, and in 7th grade I was invited to help beef-up the chorus of “Guys and Dolls,” again because I was tall and could easily pass for a 10th grader. In 11th grade they gave me the lead in “Promises, Promises,” even though the lead usually went to a senior. So I did have a certain fondness for Music as well, although I played no instrument. However, I didn’t consider theatre as a career at that point.

How did the Playbill Broadway Yearbook come to be 8 seasons ago?

It was the brainchild of our publisher, Philip Birsh, who had originally hired me to launch and run Playbill.com, and has since expanded Playbill from being just a theatre program company into a theatre INFORMATION company, with numerous websites, a travel branch, an online branch, a book branch, broadcast, etc. He walked into my office one day and said, “I have an idea. Let’s make a high school yearbook, but for the people who work on Broadway.” Everything else grew out of that.

Keep reading this Q&A on StageNotes.net.

The Playbill Broadway Yearbook: June 2011 to May 2012

Many of the people who work on Broadway keep scrapbooks of their experiences: photos, signed posters, ticket stubs, and, of course the Playbills. These are treasured keepsakes, something to be savored over a lifetime, and then passed on to friends and descendants. Playbill Books, a division of the iconic 128-year-old company that designs the programs for every show on Broadway, has expanded this idea into an annual project that has become a Broadway institution: The Playbill Broadway Yearbook. Taking the form of a high school or college yearbook, the eighth edition is packed with photos (more than 4,000 of them, many in color) and memorabilia from the entire 2011-2012 Broadway season.

The new edition includes chapters on 70 Broadway shows, which is every show that ran during the season – not just such new shows as Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Once, Newsies, Nice Work If You Can Get It, and One Man, Two Guvnors, but the long-running ones from seasons past, such as Phantom of the Opera, The Book of Mormon, and Wicked. In addition to headshots of all the actors who appeared in Playbill, the book has photos of producers, writers, designers, stage managers, stagehands, musicians, ushers – even Leonardo, the “SM” fish who is the backstage mascot at Jersey Boys. This year’s roster is expected to top 10,000 names.

Happy Birthday, Danny Kaye

The following is an excerpt from I’m the Greatest Star: Broadway’s Top Musical Legends from 1900 to Today by Robert Viagas.

Danny Kaye
Geet-Got-Gittle-Oddle-Got-Go-Say

There are a lot of photos of Danny Kaye, and not one does him justice. Oh, he looked like that, all right. But Kaye existed in a frenzied world of scats, squeaks, pops, thrums, oofs, and gargles delivered at rat-tat-tat velocity and with Olympic-class mug- ging no still image could hope to capture. Sharp-featured, with an explosion of red hair and a manner that could be sweet and shy and retiring one minute and wildly bombastic the next, his specialty was high-speed verbal and physical gymnastics performed with almost supernatural energy. Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Kurt Weill were intrigued enough by his special abilities that they wrote musicals to showcase him. Adorable onstage, Kaye had a tendency to temperament and temper offstage, vigorously encouraged by his wife and frequent writer, Sylvia Fine. He was beloved by audiences for decades and was such a tireless fundraiser for UNICEF that the children’s organization chose him to accept its Nobel Peace Prize. Yet in the end his restless running from one form to another left him not only with a spotty record on Broadway (just four musicals and two special concert appearances), but overall a career in film, variety, and television that was great, but not as spectacular as everyone who experienced him live in those early years would have predicted.

★ ★ ★

Kaye was born Daniel David Kaminsky (“Kominsky,” according to some sources) on January 18, 1913, into a family of Ukrainian Jews who immigrated to Brooklyn three years earlier. His father was a tailor, not much different from Motel in Fiddler on the Roof, and like Motel, he made sure his family didn’t starve—but couldn’t do much beyond that.

The family had the immigrant’s near-worship of doctors, and young Daniel harbored a lifelong dream of becoming a surgeon. But there was no hope, financially, of medical school, so he dropped out of Thomas Jefferson High School when he was fourteen and worked at a soda fountain before creating a little singing vaudeville act called Red and Blackie, with his friend Louis Elison. They sang and danced, and Kaye began displaying his facility with physical comedy, silly voices, and funny faces.

But his entry into vaudeville came just as the art form was expiring, partly due to the Great Depression. He toured the United States, adopting the shortened name “Kaye,” and even traveled to East Asia, where he developed his unique style of double-talking gibberish, which, combined with his nonverbal clowning, helped him transcend the language bar- rier. It would become his trademark.

Returning to the United States, and finding little employment in vaudeville, he took his skills to the ’Skills—the Catskill Mountains northwest of New York City, where middle-class “campers” with any money at all retreated to leafy resorts to escape the pre-air- conditioning summer heat. His job was to serve as “tummler,” a combination emcee, social director, and street performer, who kept things lively by bringing people together for out- door activities by day and entertaining onstage by night. It was a good training ground for Kaye.

In his quest for employment, Kaye traveled to London to perform in music halls there, beginning a lifelong love affair between Kaye and the British. Back in New York in 1938, he auditioned for Saturday Night Vanities, a small-time revue. There he met a dark-haired pianist and songwriter named Sylvia Fine. She penned parodies of classic songs, along with original material of her own. “I walked in and saw Danny doing a song called ‘Vultures of Culture,’” she later told a magazine interviewer. “He terrified me. I was never naive and before I had left that day, he made offers of a suggestive nature.”

They were married within a year. It was the turning point for both of them. She understood his abilities, and they matched her satirical instincts. For the rest of their lives she was his most reliable writer and he was her most reliable interpreter. She crafted (sometimes with help) many of his signature songs, like “Anatole of Paris,” “Lullabye in Ragtime,” and “Melody in 4-F.” She also served as his business manager, earning a reputation for as- sertiveness (and sometimes brusqueness). Later, she coproduced his films The Five Pennies (earning an Oscar nomination for her songs) and The Inspector General. They also produced a daughter, Dena.

While both Kaye and Fine bristled when one commentator snidely remarked that Kaye “has a Fine head on his shoulders,” the truth remains that the Danny Kaye known to the world was in a great part the creation of Sylvia Fine. He was her masterpiece. But it’s not easy being someone else’s masterpiece. Though they stayed married until death, there was no small amount of friction in their relationship. They even separated for four weeks in 1947. There were rumors of affairs over the years, with Kaye, at various times, being connected with Eve Arden and even the pre-Fosse Gwen Verdon.

The most sensational claim came in Donald Spoto’s 1992 biography of British master actor Laurence Olivier, with whom he alleged Kaye carried on a ten-year homosexual relationship—an assertion backed by Olivier’s wife, Joan Plowright. However, in a 1994 biography of Kaye, Nobody’s Fool, Martin Gottfried rebutted the story, saying, “There is no evidence of, and there are no witnesses to, a Kaye–Olivier sexual relationship.”

Whether the stories are true or not, the Kaye–Fine alliance survived the difficulties and lasted more than forty years.

Danny Kaye in Wonder Man:

I’m the Greatest Star: Broadway’s Top Musical Legends from 1900 to Today by Robert Viagas (Applause Books)

Here is the first major survey of Broadway musical theatre stars, telling the life stories of 40 stage luminaries from Al Jolson, Fanny Brice and Gwen Verdon, to Nathan Lane, Patti Lupone and Audra McDonald. Author Robert Viagas describes each star’s most important stage roles as well as the triumphant, tragic, inspiring, and cautionary tales of how they achieved – and maintained – their status as top Broadway stars. I’m the Greatest Star is available on Amazon, B&N, independent bookstores, and from Applause Books.