Celebrities, Revivals and What to Live For:

Ben Brantley Looks at the Upcoming NY Theatre Season


Published: August 28, 2008 

The upcoming theatre season in New York will include a 50th anniversary revival of “West Side Story,” the opening of a new musical by Stephen Sondheim, and the Broadway debuts of Dolly Parton, Dan Radcliffe and even the lovable, green ogre Shrek. Just back from his London theatre marathon, New York Times chief theatre critic Ben Brantley shared his thoughts with The Observer, via e-mail, about this new theatre season and what he is most looking forward to on (and off) the Great White Way.

Observer: There’s a lot of excitement surrounding this fall’s opening of the revival of Peter Schaffer’s “Equus” because it stars “Harry Potter” phenomenon Daniel Radcliffe. Also slated to star on Broadway is Katie Holmes, who makes her debut in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” Do productions of important works like these become overshadowed by celebrity casting? Or does Broadway need a jolt of Hollywood every now and then to attract new kinds of audiences to theatre?

Ben Brantley: Increasingly, Broadway has become a sort of transformation chamber for movie stars who want to jump start the next act of their careers or acquire “respectability.” I’m all for it if it generates more interest in the theatre, especially during a recession when ticket sales are sure to slump. Whether the stars help or hurt the production itself depends on how well cast they are and how solid their stage chops are. Did Julia Roberts do any favors for Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain?” Well, her discomfort in the two parts she played didn’t help in making a case for the play’s virtues; on the other hand, it would probably never have been staged on Broadway otherwise. I didn’t see Radcliffe in London but I gather he was fine. As for Ms. Holmes, who knows? I try to enter these things without preconceptions. In a celebrity-driven culture, stars are a necessary evil in selling pretty much everything. Theatre, for better or worse, is no exception.

Observer: In the past few seasons you’ve been disappointed with musicals based on somewhat mediocre, though popular, movies such as “Legally Blonde” and “The Wedding Singer.” There is a new crop of movies being translated for the stage this fall—“9 to 5” and “Shrek” most notably. What expectations do you have for these new projects?

BB: Broadway producers keep plying that formula of movies-into-musicals—I guess it’s about the brand-name value of a known title with fond associations—though more often than not it doesn’t work. Again, I don’t predict about specific productions. Would I ever have thought “The Producers” would be as good as it was as a singing show, or “Young Frankenstein” (after “The Producers” from the same creative team) as bad? Cartoons into musicals? Same thing. Just look at Disney’s track record since the estimable “Lion King.”

Observer: This fall, “Bounce,” the first new musical by Stephen Sondheim in 18 years, will have its New York premiere at the Public Theatre. “Bounce” has had a long, disastrous workshop/production history over the course of nearly a decade. Is there something about this production or the evolution of the material itself that might make it more likely to succeed this time around?

BB: I saw “Bounce” in an earlier incarnation in Washington, D.C., and it didn’t yet have the sharpness I expect from Sondheim. The Public version is promisingly cast, though, and I look forward to seeing what’s been done to the show. Sondheim, it goes without saying, is the reigning genius of the musical theatre, and whatever he comes up with warrants serious attention.

Observer: Looking a bit further ahead, Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original book of “West Side Story,” is directing a 50th anniversary revival of this musical that will open this winter. He has said that he plans to make the script bilingual (including rewriting a portion of Sondheim’s lyrics), and make the gangs more “realistic”—less likeable and more violent. Many successful recent revivals have re-imagined classic musicals—“Cabaret,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” for example. What do you think the impulses might be behind doing “West Side Story” in this new way? What is the value of revivals in general? And is there a point at which a work can be changed so much that it is no longer the same work?

BB: There were three great musical revivals last season that demonstrated the value of continuing to resurrect shows you might have thought were low on tread to the point of baldness: “Sunday in the Park with George,” “South Pacific” and the endlessly re-exhumed “Gypsy.” Each of these productions found depths in musicals that had always been there but hadn’t necessarily been evident before—and without imposing from without but digging from within. “South Pacific,” in particular, was a welcome surprise, since no one expected it to seem like other than a period piece. But the director Bartlett Sher uncovered a streak of fear and anxiety that made it seem freshly poignant; the same might be said of the current revival of “Hair” in Central Park, another show that would have appeared to be inextricably locked in its own period. Given Laurents’s work on “Gypsy” this season, I’m looking forward to his “West Side Story.” I can’t imagine that, as its original librettist, he’s going to violate the essence of it or turn bilingualism into a mere gimmick. The impulse behind it? Mr. Laurents is 90 and I think wants to stamp his signature personally, once again, on the benchmark musicals he was involved with. Can shows be distorted to the point that they break? Sure. Shakespeare, in particular, has been twisted into so many assumed postures of topical relevance that you wonder he’s survived them all. More and more, the revivals I’ve been most impressed with (musical and non-musical) are those that avoid high concepts yet managed to make classic material feel freshly minted.

Observer: What do you find most disheartening about theatre today?

BB: What I find most disheartening about the theatre today is its limited appeal to a wide audience. For most Americans—even  most New Yorkers—theatre is only a some time thing, if that. And for the most part, people seem willing to shell out a lot of money (and New York theatre is prohibitively expensive for even middle-class theatregoers) only for shows that have some kind of brand-name familiarity, either through the presence of a star known to them through movies or television, or a title that they know from film or television or top 40 lists.

Observer: Is there a trend that you see on or off-Broadway today that seems encouraging?

BB: I think it’s encouraging—to go back to an earlier question—that actors from film and television, including big names used to making bigger money than the theatre can ever guarantee, want to appear in the theatre, that it lends a cachet of coolness. For better or worse, where stars go the public follows these days. And I’m all for anything (or almost anything) that brings the public into theatres and helps re-establish theatregoing as a cultural habit.

Observer: Who do you think are the most underrated actors in theatre right now?

BB: There are a lot of actors who have never translated all that well onto the screen but glow irresistibly on stage, and communicate a rare complexity. But because theatre doesn’t grab headlines the way other parts of the entertainment industry does they tend not to be household names. (It’s different in the U.K.) Among them: Jan Maxwell, Linda Emond (who should have played the part Vanessa Redgrave had in “Year of Magical Thinking”), Richard Easton, Brian d’Arcy James [star of the upcoming musical “Shrek] (though “Shrek”—gulp—may change that…). These are not necessarily the most underrated, just some of the representative many who come immediately to mind.

Observer: What show are you looking forward to most on Broadway this fall? Off-Broadway?

BB: I’m thrilled to have the chance to see Ian Rickson’s “Seagull,” with Kristin-Scott Thomas, again. I saw it at the Royal Court in London, and it was probably the most affecting Chekhov I had ever experienced. I’ll be interested in seeing how “Billy Elliot” translates into American theatre. (I was very high on it in London.) Peter Brook’s “Grand Inquisitor” is an event automatically. And I’ll be interested to see what Nicky Silver has come up with, and Frank Pugliese—two dramatists I haven’t heard from in a while. Then there’s Sam Mendes and the Bridge Project at Brooklyn Academy of Music, with the incredible Simon Russell-Beale. I’d say there are things to live for, wouldn’t you?