Broadway Reviews

The 2003/2004 Season in Review

by Matthew Murray - June 1, 2004

Though the 2003-2004 season "officially" ended near the beginning of May, it's not until the Tony Awards have been bestowed that we can completely close the book on one of the most contentious and unpredictable years in memory. True, no New York theatre season is ever lacking in drama, but this one seemed crazier than most, complete with dizzying highs and truly abyssal lows. (Many serious theatregoers and industry professionals were often unable to agree on which was which; that only added to the fun.)

So, with the Tonys just a few days away, it seems an ideal time to reflect on the last twelve months of New York theatre - the shows and people that made it what it was, what worked, what didn't, what we'll never forget, and what we can't wait to lose all memory of.

The Casualties

Before examining the season, however, we should doff our hats to a few of the major casualties that, for theatre enthusiasts, made the year consistently surprising. So, let us salute Harvey, Bobbi Boland, Harmony, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Jackie Mason's Laughing Room Only, Laura Benanti and Jasmine Guy of The Violet Hour, Mary Tyler Moore of Rose's Dilemma, Barbara Barrie of Fiddler on the Roof, Melora Walters of Match, Sixteen Wounded, and Prymate. Fortune might not have been on their sides, but each and every one was as important to the season as the biggest of hits, and is no less deserving of our consideration and recognition when summing up the year.

The Plays

Jumpers Let's begin by taking a look at some of the plays that graced New York stages this season. One of the earliest was Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy, but as was later proved by the long-overdue New York premiere of Indian Ink at Walkerspace in August, and by the vibrant Broadway revival of Jumpers, no one does Tom Stoppard better than Tom Stoppard.

Master Harold...and the boys Many of the season's major productions of plays were revivals, and they varied greatly in quality, from Roundabout's solid Broadway "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys. to the revelatory Far and Wide at the Mint; from the pussy-footing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, from which only Ned Beatty emerged unscathed, to the overstuffed The Caretaker; from the spotty Broadway Sly Fox to the misguided botch of Twentieth Century, easily the least funny revival (or revisal) of a comedy during 2003-2004. Entries like the New Group's tart and biting Aunt Dan and Lemon and the Public Theater's stellar, moving production of The Normal Heart were far better examples of how to breathe new life into pre-existing works. (Beckett/Albee was another attempt to do that, but that valiant effort - despite featuring the incomparable Marian Seldes and Brian Murray - didn't completely pay off.)

Henry IV Shakespeare also had a banner season on Broadway, receiving not only a solid production of Henry V in the Park and a rare mounting of The Two Noble Kinsmen (both courtesy of the ever-reliable Public Theater), but a vivid re-imagining of his two Henry IV plays from adapter Dakin Matthews, and a conventional - but not unpleasing - King Lear, both at Lincoln Center. Kevin Kline's Falstaff and Christopher Plummer's Lear were two of the most effective (and affecting) must-see performances of the year. While it's great to know that Shakespeare can still bring out the best in people, Bill Irwin seemed to have a similar magic touch with his season of plays at the Signature: The Harlequin Studies and The Regard Evening were superb realizations of Irwin's unique vision and voice, and Mr. Fox: A Rumination was a highly admirable, if not wholly successful, effort. Shakespeare and Irwin came off better this year than just about anyone else.

Shakespeare and Irwin aside, if you were at a great play in early 2004, chances are it was Off-Broadway. In the span of about ten weeks, from early February to mid-April, there was a string of truly remarkable new plays Off-Broadway, each uniquely demonstrating the best of what New York theatre has to offer. Any two of Valhalla, Bald Diva!, Roulette, Bug, The Moonlight Room, Wintertime, Small Tragedy, Well, and Blackbird would make for a memorable Off-Broadway season, but we got them all. A combination like this of such well-done comedies, dramas, thrillers, conventional plays, and unconventional works just doesn't come around every day (or every year).

A Raisin in the Sun Betty Shamieh's Roar also opened during that time period, and while terrific, it stands apart. It's a strong play on its own terms, but it also held its own against the formidable Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, one of the best revivals of a contemporary play I've ever seen on Broadway or anywhere else. Each production had a monumental central performance (Roar's in Sarita Choudhury, Raisin's in Phylicia Rashad), strong supporting performances (Roar's Sherri Eldin and Raisin's Sean Combs notwithstanding), firm direction (from Marion McClinton and Kenny Leon), a unique perspective on the American experience (from the Arab-American and African-American viewpoints), and perceptive, incisive writing. I'm not sure if Shamieh is the next Lorraine Hansberry, but she's a major up-and-coming talent.

The Violet Hour But for the most part, this season's new plays to be all over the map in quality. Mary Zimmerman's The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci didn't live up to her Metamorphoses, and though The Mysteries at Classic Stage Company tried its best, it couldn't live up to either. Living Out, about the uneasy relationships between parents and the nannies they hire, was a solid fall entry. Omnium Gatherum and Recent Tragic Events were two very different September 11 dramas, though only the former felt really satisfying. The Retreat from Moscow was by turns insightful and mawkish in dealing with the difficult topic of divorce, though Ben Chaplin made an auspicious Broadway debut. At its best, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks was predictable and insipid. The Long Christmas Ride Home seamlessly melded Japanese Bunraku puppetry with a thoughtful Paula Vogel script. MTC started its Broadway tenure with an uneven production of Richard Greenberg's The Violet Hour and Regina Taylor's witless, senseless re-thinking of The Seagull, Drowning Crow. (MTC also presented a sure-fire hit in Neil Simon's Rose's Dilemma that was never sure, was hardly a hit, and never caught fire; let us all hope that Simon can still redeem himself, and that this is not his last new play in New York.)

Frozen was a powerful but transitory play, Roundabout's Intimate Apparel proved a multiple-award-winning hit at their new Off-Broadway space, and Tim Robbins's satirical polemic Embedded extended multiple times, even though almost no one who saw it liked it. (I'm sure a lot of producers would love to know how that was accomplished!) Big Bill, Beautiful Child, and The Stendhal Syndrome had some good writing and a few sterling performances, but never completely came together. All three, though, seemed more effective than the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics, which didn't heat things up quite enough during its brief Broadway stay. Neither were the flaccid Sixteen Wounded nor Stephen Belber's Match around for long, but Frank Langella's lithe performance as the dancer-choreographer Tobi in the latter will linger in the memory for quite a while. So will Prymate, but for different reasons: It's difficult to forget the scenes with Heather Tom getting urinated on by - and later masturbating - the gorilla played by André de Shields.

Golda's Balcony The season's one-person shows ranged from Theresa Rebeck's comic Bad Dates at Playwrights Horizons starring the hilarious Julie White to the serious I Am My Own Wife and Golda's Balcony. Those two, starring Drama Desk Award winners Jefferson Mays and Tovah Feldshuh respectively, transferred to Broadway, ended up even better after their moves. And while there were a number of effective solo performances, including the limited runs of the Sylvia Plath drama Edge (starring Angelica Torn), Tom Gualtieri's stirring and funny one-man interpretation of Macbeth called That Play, the return engagement of John Leguizamo's Sexaholix, Sarah Jones's sell-out hit bridge & tunnel, and Martin Moran's quietly heartbreaking The Tricky Part, not all shows fared well. Ben Gazzara couldn't make Nobody Don't Like Yogi particularly likeable, and Yeardley Smith's highly anticipated More, was a distancing disappointment that failed to bring you into the personal world of the Simpsons star. And while Oldest Living Confederate Widow... wasn't great, its star (Ellen Burstyn) was quite good; she and the show deserved at least a slightly longer run than the one performance they eked out at the Longacre.

The Musicals

Avenue Q Perhaps not surprisingly, the season's musical selections were, on the whole, weaker than its non-musical offerings. As producers continued their pursuit of safe, saleable shows, most of the daring, intriguing work couldn't be found in more conventional venues, and some shows good enough to be bigger hits (like the intriguingly contemporary The Thing About Men) didn't really get the notice they deserved. Others, like the pleasant-enough Sesame Street take-off Avenue Q, (which still thought it was on 15th Street even when it moved to Broadway's Golden Theatre) got more than they should have, though, as of this writing, Avenue Q has recouped its investment, which may presage better things from its composers (Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez) and librettist (Jeff Whitty) in the future.

Much of the season's best work was done last summer, at the Midtown International Theatre Festival and the New York International Fringe Festival. Brian Lane Green composed some of the season's most sublime and beautiful music for Waiting for the Glaciers to Melt, though his miraculous score was wedded to a confusing, often impenetrable book. Stephen Dolginoff's Thrill Me had no such problems, and nothing all season quite matched the creepy creativity of this sell-out MITF hit that chronicled the lives of Chicago "thrill killers" Leopold and Loeb. At the Fringe, Stephen Sislen and Ben Winters's Slut was a vivaciously clever adult musical comedy that could have transferred to a commercial run with few alterations (and will hopefully arrive soon). Cupid and Psyche wasn't part of either festival, but this early fall entry was in the same league; this charming, miniature myth-based musical comedy is also deserving of a longer life.

Taboo Most of the season's later new musicals didn't match what came earlier on; misfires like the bewildering Wilder (nine words: "Loneliness is automatic / When you live in an attic"), the jaw-dropping dystopian Ministry of Progress, Open Heart (about which only star Karla DeVito is particularly worthy of mention), or the one-joke Johnny Guitar were, strangely, often the most interesting offerings. bare aimed high, but didn't always hit its targets - this pop opera about gay high-schoolers has some real potential, and is scheduled to re-open this fall; a bit of rethinking and retooling could help it be a huge hit. Another rock musical, Taboo, boasted a fine Boy George score and a handful of excellent performances, but couldn't live up to the hype given it by producer Rosie O'Donnell. Another heavily promoted show did better, at least eventually: the Kushner/Tesori Caroline, or Change lumbered about at the Public for an extended winter run, but came to life with a bit of rewriting and recasting for its spring Broadway engagement. Overall, however, a "B" musical (in multiple senses) came the closest to really delivering the goods: Bombay Dreams, a flimsy, marshmallow-light spectacle skewered by many critics, unapologetically delivered more solid entertainment than any other new Broadway musical this year.

Wonderful Town But this season, like so many recent seasons, was filled with revivals. Some, like the Broadway Wonderful Town, the City Opera Sweeney Todd, and the Irish Rep's Off-Broadway Finian's Rainbow were sterling examples of how to make older shows seem fresh with a minimum amount of unnecessary tinkering. Others, like the misbegotten Fiddler on the Roof and Little Shop of Horrors, went out of their way to avoid imitating their original (and successful) incarnations, and met with only limited artistic success. The Roundabout/Deaf West production of Big River couldn't make that mediocre show good, but the mixing of hearing and non-hearing actors resulted in a one-of-a-kind theatre experience that seemed more than the sum of its parts. The Off-Off-Broadway First Lady Suite was a starry affair featuring a dazzling array of talented performers, but some earth-bound direction kept the show from completely taking flight.

The Boy From Oz The Boy From Oz wasn't really a revival, but its tired book and familiar score made it seem like it was. Nonetheless, Hugh Jackman made the most of his Broadway debut, and gave the season's most energetic and charismatic leading performance. No one came close to matching Jackman's unstoppable star quality, certainly not Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager of Never Gonna Dance; if their stage presence had equaled the technical proficiency of their dancing Jerry Mitchell's choreography, it's possible the middling show packed with classic Jerome Kern songs might have lasted a bit longer. David Friedman's Listen to My Heart was little more than a revue of the composer's songs, but managed to be more moving and inherently musical than most of the season's other cobbled-together shows, but Barbara Cook's Broadway, a flat-out concert, was better still, catapulted into the stratosphere by its incandescent star.

It must also be mentioned that the City Center Encores! series continued its mission of presenting unfamiliar, underappreciated shows with their weekends of the seldom-heard Can-Can and the seldom-produced Bye Bye Birdie. (Okay, okay, and the highly entertaining - and truly neglected - Pardon My English.) Glen Roven's Singular Sensations series lasted only three weeks, and we only got to see a few of the stars he'd arranged to speak (and sing) of their life stories, but Carol Channing, Donna McKechnie, and Florence Henderson can still put on great shows. And if you missed any of Scott Siegel's Broadway by the Year concerts, you missed some of the best-performed and most affecting tributes to the show tunes of yesteryear.

Assassins Stephen Sondheim's only Broadway entry this year was the Roundabout's revival of Assassins, which boasted a few strong performances, but a production that didn't know how to support them. Still, the much-revered composer made headlines when his new musical Bounce stalled after Washington, D.C. and a planned Actors' Fund concert of the show was scuttled at the last minute. If you didn't see it, you didn't miss much, and you probably can't count on a New York mounting any time soon. The experience of Bounce can easily be approximated, though: listen to 20 random tracks from CDs of Follies, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along, and Assassins, and play Sweeney Todd's "By the Sea" once at the beginning, once in the middle, and once at the end. (Sure, you can also listen to the Bounce cast recording, but the music's better this way.)

Wicked The exact nadir of the season is difficult to pinpoint, but two of the strongest candidates both opened in late 2003, one on Broadway and one Off-Broadway. Wicked, a feckless, substance-free adaptation of Gregory Maguire's atmospheric riff on L. Frank Baum's Oz stories, boasted a barely listenable score by the once-reliable Stephen Schwartz, with music lacking melody and lyrics lacking depth, and a book (by Winnie Holzman) that panders to the lowest common denominator in a way even the creators of Mamma Mia! must envy. Of course, this was the season's runaway hit. Even worse was the Off-Broadway The Musical of Musicals -- The Musical: creators Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart took a rich comic idea about spoofing the writing styles of Golden-Age composers and crafted a two-hour series of jokes as deficient in wit, humor, and insight as the accompanying music was in parodistic creativity. Perhaps the most unbearable show of the year, its inexplicable success is leading to a full season of York Theatre Company in shows in 2004-2005, and anything that fosters the creation of three new musicals can't be all bad. The Musical of Musicals, however, came frighteningly close.

In Memoriam

No accounting of the season would be complete without a tribute to a few of the people that passed away during the year. While by no means a complete list, among those who made significant contributions to the world of theatre and died during the course of the 2003-2004 season are: Dame Wendy Hiller, Rachel Kempson, Martha Scott, Gregory Peck, Hume Cronyn, Joseph Chaikin, Katharine Hepburn, Buddy Hackett, Buddy Ebsen, Elisabeth Welch, Eileen Rodgers, Mike Salinas, Elliot Norton, Bob Hope, Luther Henderson, Gregory Hines, William Roy, John Ritter, Herb Gardner, Elia Kazan, Rex Robbins, Donald O'Connor, Florence Stanley, Janice Rule, Art Carney, Dorothy Loudon, Lewis M. Allen, Alan Bates, Isabelle Stevenson, Gerald Gutierrez, Earl Hindman, Uta Hagen, Ann Miller, Charles Brown, Jason Raize, Spalding Gray, Ray Stark, Mary Bryant, Carl Anderson, John Randolph, Jerome Lawrence, Paul Winfield, Mercedes McCambridge, Victor Argo, and Peter Ustinov.

Conclusion

In what was successful and what wasn't, in what ran and what didn't, and in the countless surprises and plot twists that seemed to mount with every passing week, it seems as though the year that just ended was an unexpected bounty for those who deeply care about, participate in, or simply follow the wild, wacky world of New York theatre. So, it would seem that only one word capable of adequately defining the 2003-2004 season is "theatrical." I'm not sure I could think of a better compliment.


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