After the last column on Spectacles I was flooded with e-mail with all kinds of questions and comments about the beginning of that era of the Broadway Mega-musical. And yes, I'm old enough to have seen Cats with Betty Buckley. Actually, I'm older than I ever intended to be.
Back in the early 1980's Broadway was in a dismal state. A Chorus Line was still playing at the Shubert after five years or so and I had seen it countless times. After that opened in 1975, the rest of the decade produced very few good musicals. Chicago, of course, was great and I'm not from the school that thought it was ahead of its time. Back then, it was every much a sensation as the revival is today. Sweeney Todd was named Best Musical in 1979 and the following year Evita snatched the Tony. Even Sandy Duncan's Peter Pan packed them in with her glowing portayal of the boy who won't grow up. It was the first production since Mary Martin's 1954 original.
Tickets for shows were topped at, perhaps, $30. and because the TKTS booth opened in Duffy Square offering half price plus a buck seats, well, one went to the theater quite often. I saw Sweeney Todd so many times that I'm embarrassed to admit the number. I'm sure the 271 investors loved me. And A Chorus Line was just fun to go to even if it was to sit in the balcony and be in awe of the lighting.
And then the Eighties came upon us.
Fluff like Barnum opened the decade, or burlesque nonsense like Sugar Babies was about as good as it got. This was followed the next year with 42nd Street, the Broadway version of the film. Woman of the Year, Nine and Dreamgirls were all produced in the first few years of the decade. Some better than others, but nothing brilliant for sure.
In the 1980-81 season there were 67 productions on Broadway. The following year that number dwindled to 53, and then 49, then 36 in 1983-84 followed by 31 the next year and the decade ends with 29, an all time low. In one year alone, 1982, Broadway had lost almost 25% of its audience. It was also the the very first year in the history of Broadway that not one single production recouped its investment in one season. Something clearly was happening here. Of course, Broadway has been dying since 1927 when 264 productions opened in that season, the century's record, but the economics of the 1920's were a far cry from the 1980's and today, well, forget about it.
When Cats opened on Oct. 7, 1982, theater-goers were starved for something new and on the day the box office opened the musical had a six million dollar advance with receipts in excess of $200,00 in one day, all with a new top ticket price of $40.00. That was big bucks for a musical that one critic said if you blink your eyes just once you may miss the plot. Anyhow, that one day record was nothing in comparison to Les Miserables a few years later selling $450,000 on it's opening day at the box office. All of this was followed by The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon and not much else has happened since, until this year.
The nineties were not fairing so well as Broadway tried to redefine itself. The Will Rogers Follies, Crazy For You, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Passion and Sunset Boulevard all won Tony Awards for Best Musical in this decade and all of them are gone, but yet, the Mega-Musical of the 1980's lives on. Even Miss Saigon which never received that coveted award in 1990 is alive and well.
Last season at this time we saw five new musicals open in the same month. Dream and Steel Pier bit the dust quickly, Jekyl & Hyde and The Life continue today even though Titanic, with its leaks, snatched the Tony Award. Because of the success of the film, who knows how long Titanic will run?
This season is another mess. Side Show, despite good reviews, closed. Triumph of Love, even with Betty Buckley, bit the dust. And the Capeman lost a cool eleven million. Fortunately, we do have Ragtime and The Lion King which brings us around full circle.
Have we learned from the Brits? For what is Beauty and the Beast, Ragtime and The Lion King with huge casts, splendiferous sets, costumes and yes, even special effects? My God, I think it's called Spectacle! However, unlike Cats, spectacle with substance, which makes Broadway the Cats Meow! Perhaps, at $75.00, spectacle is what audiences demand today?
Tidbits: Michael Crawford is booked for his concert at Radio City Music Hall for 2 nights, June 30th and July 1st. Catch the original Phantom! Tickets on sale now, TicketMaster.
...if Troy Donahue can be a movie star. The 60's film hearthrob will be starring in Bye, Bye Birdie at Chicago's North Shore Center for the Performing Arts on March 28th. (773) 327-3830 for info.
Wizard of Oz tix now on sale at Madison Square Garden. The musical starts Mickey Rooney and Eartha Kitt and will be playing from May 1st to 31st. Also in the cast is Bob Dorian, the host from AMC movie classics.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo is now in its second year on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theater. Make room for another comedy as The Chairs, now in previews, opens Wednesday at the Golden.
Not only is Cabaret waiting to see the outcome of the voting by the Tony committee to see whether it will be eligible for Tony nominations, so is John Leguizamo's one man show, Freak. There will be intense lobbying to have the show eligible for the Best Play and Best Actor categories. Tony committee meets on April 9th. Stay tuned.
High Society, the Cole Porter musical, previews on Tuesday at the St. James Theater. Many changes with the creative team, cast, script and musical numbers recently. Uh-oh!
Jekyll & Hyde two year national tour is in the works and announcements should be made shortly. The tour will begin in March of 1999 in Seattle for two weeks and then continue throughout major cities until the summer of 2000.
This week on Talkin' Broadway we'll have a new installment of Broadway Bound; Christina's World visits The Sound of Music and we have a few other things in the works.
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