Gina Gershon,John Stamos in 'Bye Bye Birdie.' (Photo by Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK – Judged by any standards, Broadway has had a superior 2008-2009 season. Ticket sales have reached an all-time high of almost $950 million and 43 new productions debuted – seven more than in the previous season.
There are several reasons for this upturn: an influx of foreign visitors; cash-strapped tri-state locals' treating themselves to a night on the town and a Broadway show instead of traveling, and, perhaps most important, an interesting array of first-rate plays and musicals to choose from.
Toward the end of summer attendance had slipped a bit – by 9.7 percent according to Variety, the show business trade newspaper. This was because of the closing of several limited run shows, such as the imports "Mary Stuart" and "The Norman Conquests," the early departures of the musicals "9 to 5" and "The Little Mermaid" and the brief summer hiatus of this year's Tony-award winning play, "God of Carnage." All of this contributed to the lowering of Broadway's overall tally for a few weeks.
But now the fall season is in full swing with a new roster of attractions that should please even the most discerning of theatergoers. "A Steady Rain" stars two Hollywood film stars, Hugh Jackman and David Craig, both with theatrical roots, in a play about two policemen friends by Chicago playwright Keith Huff. It was a success in Chicago in 2007. If you don't have tickets for the already-sold-out New York engagement, you just might have to wait for the movie version. Of course, there is always the chance of last minute cancellations at the box office. John Crowley directs. Gerald Schoenfield Theater, 236 W 45th St., through Dec. 6.
Another film actor with theatrical chops, Jude Law, is taking on Shakespeare's prince of Denmark in "Hamlet," an import, produced by London's highly thought of Donmar Warehouse. Currently at the Broadhurst Theater, W 44th St., also through Dec. 6.
George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber wrote the valentine to the theater, "The Royal Family," in 1927. It concerns a fictitious theatrical dynasty, the Cavendishes, supposedly based on the legendary Barrymore clan. The cast is filled with seasoned Broadway stalwarts like Rosemary Harris, Jan Maxwell, Tony Roberts and John Glover, with Doug Hughes doing the staging. It opens at the Samuel Friedman Theatre, West 48th Street on Oct. 8 and runs through Nov. 22.
"Superior Donuts" is a new comedy-drama by another Chicago playwright Tracy Letts, who last brought the Pulitzer Prize- winning "August: Osage County" to New York. To me, "August" seemed like an extended version of a soap opera like "Dallas," yet I seemed to be in the minority. It ran for a year and a half on Broadway and is currently on a national tour. As with "August," this new work began its life at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Co. It stars Michael McKean as the owner of the coffee shop named Superior Donuts. African-American actor Jon Michael Hill plays his new employee. Music Box Theatre, West 45th Street, currently through Jan. 6.
"Wishful Drinking" is Carrie Fisher's autobiographical solo show that played at the Hartford Stage in the summer of 2008. She is the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, but probably is better known as Princess Leia of "Star Wars." Her life as a Hollywood child was not easy, but she is one of the funniest and brightest of storytellers, a resilient survivor whose philosophy of life could be summed up in one sentence: it only hurts when you don't laugh. Her show runs through Jan. 3 at Studio 54, 254 W 54th St.
The Neil Simon plays "Brighton Beach Memoirs and "Broadway Bound" will be staged by another Chicago theater talent, director David Cromer, who's still running off-Broadway productions of "Our Town" that I greatly admired. He will make his Broadway debut staging two of Mr. Simon's autobiographical trilogy –the third play, Biloxi Blues, is not being revived. The talented ensemble features Laurie Metcalfe of "Roseanne" TV fame, and Josh Grisetti, who made a splash off Broadway last winter with the York Theatre's revival of the musical "Enter Laughing." He also starred at Goodspeed at Chester's Norma Terris Theatre this past spring in "Lucky Guy." "Brighton Beach Memoirs" is currently in previews, to be joined by "Broadway Bound" on Nov. 18. They are at the Nederlander Theater 208 W 41st St., between Broadway and Eighth Ave.
Shakespeare's seldom-seen romantic comedy "Love's Labour's Lost" will be brought over from London in a production from that city's Globe Theatre and will be directed by the Globe's new artists' head, Dominic Dromgoole. It plays at Pace University's downtown campus, at the Michael Schimmel Center from Dec. 9-23.
"Memphis" is a musical about the beginnings of rock and roll, circa 1950s, before "Bye Bye Birdie." It has a book and lyrics by Joe Dipietro with David Bryan, who was a keyboardist for Bon Jovi, composing the music and also contributing some added lyrics. Now in previews for an Oct. 19 opening. Schubert Theater, 225 W 44th St.
"Fela," an original musical, is about "Fela Anikulapo Kuti," the Nigerian father of Afro-beat. The songs are all by Kuti with staging and choreography by Bill T. Jones. Previews begin Oct. 19 and the opening is set for Nov. 23. Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 W 49th St.
There is a treasure trove of musical retreads. I guess with the huge popularity of "West Side Story" and "Chicago," producers think the familiar is easier to finance and sell than the new.
"Bye Bye Birdie," the 1960 rock and roll musical by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, stars John Stamos and Gina Gershon. In previews for an Oct. 15 opening. Henry Miller's Theatre, 124 W 43rd S.
"Finian's Rainbow," the 1947 musical with a heavenly score by E.Y. Harburg and Burton Lane, previews Oct. 8 and opens Oct. 29. This is a Broadway transfer of the recent critically acclaimed "Encores!" production that was seen at the City Center last spring. St. James Theater. 246 W 44th St.
"Ragtime," the popular 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel set to song and dance by Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), is returning. It ran at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington this past May and June and was such a success that a group of producers decided to try it again on Broadway. Previews begin Oct. 23. Opens Nov. 15. Neil Simon Theater, 250 W 52nd St.
"A Little Night Music," the 1973 Stephen Sondheim gem, is another import that began last year at Londoon's Menier Chocolate Factory and went on to a successful West End run. Trevor Nunn of "Cats" and "Les Miserables" fame directs. The production will feature film star Catharine Zeta Jones, who began her career on the London musical stage; and Angela Lansbury, who knows a thing or two about musicals, having won four Tonys for her performances in classics like "Mame" and "Sweeney Todd." Walter Kerr Theater. 219 W 48th St. Opens mid-December.