Recent Broadway plays, musicals echo tough times

NEW YORK

Art has been imitating life on Broadway and other New York stages, as some of the biggest new shows this season reflect hard times. • Billy Elliot, a much anticipated musical from London, with a score composed by Elton John, is about an 11-year-old boy who aspires to be a ballet dancer amid the economic gloom of the 1984-85 coal miners' strike in northern England. • Road Show, the latest musical from Stephen Sondheim, is about the Mizner brothers, a pair of con men who wound up in Florida in the 1920s and went bankrupt in the real estate crash of the Great Depression. • And a third play that portrays American capitalism at its most basic, David Mamet's American Buffalo, tells of three small-time crooks who cook up a scheme to steal a rare coin and sell it, starring John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment (who, about a decade ago, was the boy who could "see dead people'' in the movie The Sixth Sense). • However, in another theatrical trend, American Buffalo closed less than a week after opening in November, one of many new and long-running productions that have become casualties of the recession.

'Billy Elliot'

Broadway theaters are booked far in advance, so the arrival of a show like Billy Elliot, with its downbeat economic theme, doesn't reflect any particular prescience by producers. In fact, its transfer from London, where it continues to play three years after opening, was delayed, in part, because of concern that American audiences wouldn't know anything about the miners' strike.

There is something to that concern, since the musical, adapted from a 2000 movie, fairly bristles with working-class hatred of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose drive to bust the miners' union was ultimately successful. One of the big numbers, featuring a giant puppet of the British prime minister, goes:

Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher

We all celebrate today

Cos it's one day closer to your death.

Such harsh sentiment comes as a shock in a musical. After all, for many Americans — especially those likely to spend $100 and more on a Broadway theater ticket — Thatcher is a kind of hero, the British counterpart to Ronald Reagan. But the political stakes are high in this drama, with the coal miners clearly bound for obsolescence, as they disappear down into the earth after the strike is broken.

Billy Elliot is not the first hit musical made from a film about jobless English workers. In the somewhat similar (but much funnier) The Full Monty, the movie's unemployed steelworkers from Sheffield, England, were transplanted to Buffalo, N.Y., by the musical's American creators.

No such sugarcoating takes place in Billy Elliot, whose characters speak in sometimes impenetrable "Geordie'' accents. The playbill even includes a glossary and history of the British coal mining industry. "In 1984 more than 300,000 men worked in the mining industry; today there are less than 1,000,'' the history reads. "More than 98 percent of the coal used for British energy is now imported from abroad.'' It's impossible not to wonder if, 25 years from now, there might be a musical about American autoworkers struggling to hold onto their livelihoods in Dearborn or Flint, Mich.

Yet for all the industrial grimness, Billy Elliot is exhilarating because of its story of a boy discovering his passion for ballet and pursuing it against the fierce opposition of his miner father and brother. Kiril Kulish, 14, an accomplished ballet dancer, was terrific as Billy in the performance I saw, and he rotates in the role with David Alvarez, 14, and Trent Kowalik, 13.

The juxtaposition of dance and gritty social realism is powerfully effective in such numbers as the Angry Dance, in which Billy hurls himself against a line of police riot shields, and Solidarity, a witty piece of choreography (by Peter Darling) that brings together coal miners, cops and the girls in Billy's ballet class. Haydn Gwynne, the gangly British actor playing the chain-smoking ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, gives a brilliant performance as a woman stuck in a backwater but still capable of recognizing and encouraging talent.

Billy's determination to become a dancer in the face of rampant homophobia is a major part of the show. Even he has his doubts, saying that "'ballet guys are all poofs'' to one of the adorable little girls in his class. "Not necessarily,'' she replies. "What about that Rudolf Nureyev? He's not a poof.'' Actually, Nureyev, who died of AIDS, was homosexual, and Billy Elliot revels in some flamboyant gay moments, like the cross-dressing extravaganza Expressing Yourself, whose effects include enormous dancing dresses.

What struck me most about the musical, directed by Stephen Daldry (who also directed the movie), is the dark, somber depiction of the adults' reality of financial desperation and futility, while the kids' inner lives are represented in visions of fantasy and color. This reaches an apex in Billy's dreamy pas de deux with his older self (danced by former New York City Ballet principal Stephen Hanna), with Billy flying (he's on a wire) over the fog-filled stage. It's no knock on John, whose surprisingly modest, workmanlike pop and folk score serves the story well, to say that Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake here is the best music in the show.

'Road Show'

If Billy Elliot mainly connects with our troubled economy through its portrayal of a town whose workers are on the brink of redundancy, Road Show is a more direct assault on the sort of get-rich-quick schemes that have led to financial meltdown today.

Sondheim's musical about the Mizners has had four different titles through the years: Wise Guys, Gold!, Bounce and now Road Show. Whatever the title, the show has never quite worked, but it continues to draw interest because it is the first Sondheim score since Passion in 1994 and could be the last from the 78-year-old composer-lyricist of classics such as Sweeney Todd, Company and Into the Woods. The latest incarnation, which just finished its limited run at the Public Theater, was directed by John Doyle and featured a superb cast, starring Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani.

Road Show (with a book by John Weidman ) chronicles the odyssey that took Addison and Wilson Mizner from the Alaska gold rush to the Florida land bust. Addison was an architect who designed the great Mediterranean mansions of Palm Beach and Boca Raton, while his ne'er-do-well brother was a drug addict and gambler.

The songs in the Florida section of the show are eerily relevant. Although Sondheim has wanted to write a show on the Mizners since the 1950s, some of his lyrics could be a direct response to the subprime mortgage debacle and other financial misdeeds of our time. Addison's promotion of Boca Raton ("shining Shangri-La of the new world'') is an ode to real estate flipping, done in the style of a bouncy ad jingle:

Buy it now,

Sell it later

And get rich quick!

Bound to make a bundle!

Sure thing!

A fundamental lack of seriousness rules the brothers' approach to business. "One week up, the next week down,'' Wilson sings. "The whole thing's nothing more than a game.'' Is there a better description of the absurd gyrations of today's stock market? Once again, Sondheim has got it right.

'American Buffalo'

The revival of American Buffalo didn't last long, done in by the strangely underpowered performance of its starry cast, except for Leguizamo's typically nervy Teach, a motormouthed sociopath. Cedric the Entertainer and Osment, both making Broadway debuts, seemed lost in Robert Falls' listless direction.

Mamet's play — his first to make a splash, premiering on Broadway in 1977 — remains a potent commentary on ambition and money. Teach is like the Warren Buffett of pawnshops and used car lots across America, a fount of pungent aphorisms on how to get ahead.

At the heart of the play are arguments over the valuation of the rare coin that Teach and his cronies plan to steal. These exchanges wouldn't be out of place in today's bank bailouts as negotiators try to determine the worth (or worthlessness) of various assets.

Teach demands that Don (played by Cedric) estimate the price of a 1929 S Lincoln head penny. Don hems and haws but finally says he thinks it's worth about $18.

No, Teach says, triumphantly quoting the price from the bluebook for coins: "Twenty (expletive) cents,'' he says.

In other words, these guys basically don't know what they're talking about. They're just scam artists and thieves.

For all its critique of business, American Buffalo is probably most distinguished by its relentless profanity. Even the pre-performance speech for the short-lived Broadway production asked audience members to "turn off your (expletive) cell phones.''

Opportunity still lurks

American Buffalo folded in a week that saw another new production, 13, a musical with an all-teenage cast and band, announce it was closing. The new musical A Tale of Two Cities had earlier gotten the ax. A host of other shows — Spring Awakening, Gypsy, Spamalot, Hairspray, Grease, Young Frankenstein and Boeing-Boeing — are closing this month, as Broadway heads into its traditionally slow winter season.

Probably the last time the economy felt this bad was during the Great Depression, when Brother Can You Spare a Dime? was first heard in the musical Americana and Actors Equity appealed to the Federal Reserve for a bailout of Broadway producers. But even with bread lines in Times Square, things weren't all bad. Jessica Tandy, Orson Welles, Henry Fonda and Danny Kaye all made Broadway debuts in the '30s. The Gershwin brothers cranked out a stream of great shows, including Of Thee I Sing, the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Porgy and Bess had its premiere. Ethel Merman got her big break in Cole Porter's Anything Goes.

So all may not be totally lost. Despite dark-hued shows like Billy Elliot, Broadway is still Broadway, home of the glitzy musical comedy without a serious thought in its head. That might be more important than ever in these hard times, and a show about cartoon characters, belching and farting could be just what this woeful economy needs. Shrek the Musical recently opened.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

Recent Broadway plays, musicals echo tough times 01/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 3, 2009 3:31am]

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