Culture / Essays

I’m Just a Broadway Baby


On a sweaty Saturday afternoon in late August 2012, I am in New York City with my father. We head down three flights of stairs to see a show The New York Times has recommended. Its run has been extended twice, and the cast has changed since the review. The small, subterranean theatre is full. The show’s terrible. The tiny cast can’t hit the right notes, and the jokes fall flat. Twenty minutes in a man with a satchel slung over one shoulder edges out of his row and escapes through the door — which is directly to the left of the stage. There can’t be a person in the room who didn’t see him go.

At interval, having managed to fend off the worst bouts of boredom-sleep we emerge blinking into the foyer.

“What do you think?” My father asks tentatively. I am momentarily at a loss for the right words. People around us are queuing for drinks.

We dive for the lift, and are followed in by a forthright New Yorker in a cloud of flowery perfume and pearls. Her hair is immaculate; her dress, brocade.

“It’s awful. I’m really tired. I think maybe I’m jetlagged,” I say. I had arrived in the United States the day before.

“Let’s go.” My father says, with the certainty of a man who’s done this kind of runner many times before. We dive for the lift, and are followed in by a forthright New Yorker in a cloud of flowery perfume and pearls. Her hair is immaculate; her dress, brocade. The lift doors close and as we start to ascend she looks my father in the eye and says: “Couldn’t get out fast enough either?”

He laughs for the first time that afternoon.

“I’m going home now to listen to the original cast recording, to remind me how good the music is,” she says as we part on the street.

Perhaps the shortest run a show ever had on Broadway was the 1965 one-night wonderKelly based on the life of a 19th century daredevil who claimed to have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and survived. The show was not so lucky. It lost $650,000. Nobody recommended it. Mel Brooks’s crooked producer Max Bialystock should have chosen it for his scam. The longest running, is of course The Phantom of the Opera, which started on Broadway in 1988 and still runs today.

Yes, I know, the musical-theatre genre is considered by many to be kitsch and overblown. But it can be magic.

In March 2001 on my first trip to New York City I saw The Producers while it was still in previews. Just 17, and fresh from my first international flight, I had seen almost every musical theatre production staged in Brisbane since the mid-1980s, with more on interstate trips for good measure. I had played in the wings of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre and napped as a five-year-old in the dress circle. I’d sneakily drunk too many champagnes at the opening night party for Chicago. But I’d never seen anything like The Producers.

There’s a song in Act One — When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It — when Cady Huffman (as the breathy, ditzy Ulla) took the audience’s breath away. As she belted out her lines the entire room visibly inhaled, drawing back as one in a thrilled gasp. It was Oscar night, and Matthew Broderick had a sore throat, so he wasn’t on. But Nathan Lane’s Bialystock was perfect. Mel Brooks — who had a writing credit on the failed Kelly of 1965, was Broadway’s darling. His movie-turned-musical would again turn into a movie (sadly, without the wonderful Huffman). The show won 12 Tony awards and ran for six years.

A few days after our unsuccessful trip to the theatre we are waiting for the train to take us into New York from the picturesque New Jersey town where we are staying with friends. A woman on the platform has caught my father’s attention. “Sarah,” he tugs my sleeve, “that’s Danielle Ferland”. He does this, my father. He’s constantly recognising obscure people and expecting me to know who they are. “She played Little Red Riding Hood in the original Broadway production of Into the Woods.” Well, I think to myself, of course she did.

At the end of the train ride as we’re all crushing onto an escalator at Penn Station he seizes his moment and tells Ferland he thinks she is wonderful. They talk for five minutes about Into the Woods (she’s just done a Baltimore production of the show, playing a different role) and we go our separate ways.

That went well, I think.

In 2001, maybe two nights after we’d seen The Producers we’re back on Broadway to see Follies (also Sondheim) with the wonderful Blythe Danner. As we walk into the stalls my father stops dead in his tracks and wheels around to point something out to me. “Look, Mel Brooks!” he says, excited and not paying attention to where he is walking.

“Excuse me!” bellows a forceful American woman he has walked into in the process.

Mortified he wheels around to apologise. “I’m so sorry” he says in a choked, embarrassed way. She melts away and he turns back to me red faced. “That’s Anne Bancroft. I just walked into Anne Bancroft.”

Poor Dad. It took him a while to recover from walking into the Mrs Robinson, who was Mel Brooks’ wife (Bancroft died in 2005). Not every encounter can hit the high notes.

Danielle Ferland, my father tells me later, got her break in another of Stephen Sondheim’s shows, Sunday in the Park with George. Australians have not had the opportunity to see that much in the way of Sondheim over the years. West Side Story, for which he wrote the lyrics, has toured here very successfully. But many of his works have never been staged professionally. That is changing slowly, with a Melbourne season of Sondheim’s ancient Roman farce A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum opening in October and a Victorian Opera production of Sunday in the Park with George planned for 2013. As is often the case with Australian productions of lesser-known musicals,Forum was announced with much fanfare; Geoffrey Rush will play Pseudolus, the comic lead. That’s because it’s hard to convince backers to invest, unless they know tickets will be sold.

Australian producer John Frost, whose company has overseen most musical theatre successes to tour Australia in recent years, told Fairfax in 2011 it costs $6 million to get a show to opening night, and $600,000 a week to sustain it.

So productions are often crowd-pleasers with big draw-cards: because they can’t afford to fail. (Behold, the shiny-haired bounce of Legally Blonde, buoyed by ‘Millsy’ and a series of hit films.) That’s not to say those shows can’t be outstanding, but they are always safe.

We get more risky fare in the short runs of the theatre-company seasons, critical hits like Next to NormalUrinetown and Into the Woods are brought to Australia for six or eight week seasons as part of the yearly calendar. Backed up by season subscriptions, philanthropy and government grants, some of these shows that have thrived, won awards and accolades, will only get a limited run (Forum, for example, won’t tour and runs for just a few weeks).

All of which is a very good excuse for a holiday. Not long after my father moved to London a few years ago we were talking and I asked how he liked living there. “Do you know,” he said quite breathlessly, “I worked it out. If I go to a show every day, and matinees too, I STILL won’t see everything.”

Of course, Australian investors are not the only ones to seek security and certainty — there are as many revivals as new shows in the West End and on Broadway. But the element of risk-taking is greater. More unknowns will be cast, more new writers and directors will get their chance. And you’ve got to take the good with the badly acted, poorly cast dog’s breakfasts.

I head into Manhattan alone to attend the very-off-Broadway ‘Sleep No More’, an interactive, almost silent take on Macbeth, that culminates in a powerful, crowded sensory feast.

On this trip to New York, I wanted to get to The Book of Mormon — the Tony-winning mega-hit from South Park’s creators, but the tickets were sold out, available only from scalpers at $400 a pop. Instead, I head into Manhattan alone one night to attend the very-off-Broadway (and very much not a musical) Sleep No More, an interactive, almost silent, movement-focused take on Macbeth, that culminates in a powerful, crowded sensory feast.

The venue is The McKittrick Hotel, a rundown space bought and converted by Punchdrunk, the company whose vision this is. It’s a long way from the throbbing mess of Broadway; instead it’s tucked away in the far west of Manhattan, on 27th Street. Across the road is Scores, the ‘gentleman’s club’ where Kevin Rudd found his inner red-blooded Aussie man.

I wait in a line outside, it’s drizzling a little and I’m the only one by myself. Before I came here I met some friends for a drink. One has been to Sleep No More — twice. “Try and be last in the elevator,” he’d told me. And so I do.

We don commedia dell’arte masks and shuffle into the lift vestibule, waiting.

“No more talking. Touch, explore, linger — but do not talk,” our host instructs. The lift opens. I hang back, determined to be last in. We rise. The door opens. “All out,” he instructs and I step confidently forward. It takes a split second to realise I am completely alone and the lift door has closed, with everyone else still inside. In front of me is a room full of dirty bathtubs.

“Well,” I think to myself, “this is already better than that last thing I saw”.

This post first appeared on The Global Mail, you can read it here.


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