ShentonSTAGE Daily for FRI FEBRUARY 11

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily,which I’m sending from back in the UK, where I landed this morning from New York.

So no, I wasn’t at THE MUSIC MAN’s Broadway opening last night, to which (some) critics were invited instead of the advance critics previews that are now standard practice. But I *have* seen it…. Read on!

TROUBLE IN RIVER CITY

Scott Rudin, the producer who originally put the show together creatively, had long ago stepped aside from the lead producer position, the day-to-day running of which has been ceded to Kate Horton, former executive director of the Royal Court and deputy executive director at the National, joined by financial lead partners Barry DIller and David Geffen over the title.

But Rudin’s footprint is still all over the show, not just in its vast and meticulous production values, but also in the vastly inflated dynamic ticketing prices, too.

It’s also in the gauntlet thrown down to critics, the leading ones of whom were invited to attend last night and file their reviews as fast as they could after the curtain last night. (Other critics have been invited to choose from one of four performances being offered to see it next week). Of course critics are ENTIRELY superfluous to requirements on this show, which is already heavily sold and will continue to attract audiences, whatever the reviews say, because it features Broadway’s single most bankable male star, Hugh Jackman in the title role.

As I’m not in New York next week, obviously, and suffering a bad case of FOMO, I bought a ticket for the matinee on Wednesday, the day before the opening; it was a side orchestra seat for $227 (£166), including the inevitable rack of booking and “convenience” fees. And this was the view I got:

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A better seat would have cost me up to $600 (£440); these are not scalper rates, but through the box office itself!)

There are also cheaper tickets available; day of sale “rush seats” are being offered for $45, on sale from the box office from 10am. A friend queued last Saturday from 7am and got a pair; a woman I ran into in a coffee shop near the theatre who was also seeing yesterday’s matinee had secured hers at 9.30am. So it IS possible to get in cheaper, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

But is it all worth the effort, and/or the high cost?

Certainly, it’s lavishly and lovingly produced, but nothing can disguise what an old-fashioned, clunky piece of musical writing this 1957 musical is, with book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson, about an inveterate con-man who peddles his wares (and his ‘charms’, such as they are) to the local residents and young women of the towns he visits. Both of which they willingly buy. They want to believe.

And so does Broadway, or rather did, in Rudin. He’s the man who for many years packaged revivals like this, of both plays and musicals, with stars and shows that Broadway audiences wanted to buy, from Daniel Craig, Denzel Washington and Nathan Lane to Bette Midler, Helen Mirren and  Scarlett Johnasson, amongst many, many more.  (The stars this time are Broadway’s currently reigning musical theatre royalty: Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, pictured above). He also offered bold new work, too, proving that he (mostly) had great taste and an eye for popular success. 

But then came the revelations of his serial and serious bullying of his underling staff (many suffering serious mental health problems as a result, including one former assistant comitting suicide) — and throwing his weight, sometimes literally so, around in his negotiatiing power, too, that saw him get BEETLEJUICE thrown out of the Winter Garden Theatre to make way for this revival of THE MUSIC MAN (though BEETLEJUICE has now managed to find a new home, the Marquis, and will re-open there from April 8).

He duly stepped back from active producing, though there are signs that he’s still very active pulling the strings from behind-the-curtains.

Now I’ve enjoyed many of Rudin’s Broadway shows, and his footprint remains all over town on both Broadway and in the West End, where THE BOOK OF MORMON is still an ongoing success, and a new stage version of Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (currently on hiatus on Broadway before it moves to a new address, and about to open at London’s Gielgud Theatre next month). His London shows were represented on the ground here by Sonia Friedman, who continues to do so.

But it could be that as well as giving New York theatregoers a regular stream of hits, he has also damaged Broadway, possibly irretrievably: he has single-handedly removed any idea of a price threshold to Broadway tickets, and it’s now a free-for-all of dynamic pricing in which the market sets the price. I suppose it’s capitalism in action — and when supply is necessarily limited, as it is on Broadway by seating capacities, producers are entitled to get the most they possibly can, for both themselves and their investors, which will in turn help finance future productions.

It is, however, also uniquely depressing that this kind of theatre makes it become exclusively the preserve of the one-percenters (or once a year) theatregoers for whom cost is no issue. (Or at least it does in the best seats). But it fails to accommodate either the fans or the future theatregoer, who need to be cultivated.

Well, the fans CAN go — if they put some work into it, as described above, wth rush tickets. And yesterday The Music Man announced that 10,000 tickets at just $20 each are to be offered to New York City students, their families, and their teachers “to help foster a love and appreciation for the arts by making Broadway more accessible”.

According to the press release,  “This broad effort, created and spearheaded by The Music Man’s Black Theatre Coalition fellow, Amy Marie Haven, is built around partnerships with the New York City Department of Education and a dozen local youth non-profits, including Artists Striving to End Poverty,  Art Start,, Arts For All, Arthur Miller Foundation, On Broadway Performing Arts Training Program, Young People’s Chorus of NYC, Education Through Music, Rosie’s Theatre Kids, R Evolucion Latina, and Broadway Bridges. The extensive effort will be accompanied by curated initiatives designed to engage with the community.”

In the press statement, Horton is quoted saying: “As a long-term advocate of accessible ticketing and arts access schemes I’m delighted to be launching our Audience Development Initiative, particularly given the struggles and difficulties faced by school communities over the past two years. Live events have a unique power to heal, and it is both our responsibility and privilege to provide access in this moment in particular, when it is so badly needed.”
This initiative also helps offset the criticisms of the ludicrous pricing.

So, apart from that Mrs Lincoln, how was the show? Of course I enjoyed it — it’s done with such skill and undeniable finesse, how could you not? But it also struck me as over-dressed, over-danced and essentially unnecessary.

This 1957 musical is very, very old-fashioned and quite clunky — yes, director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle polish it to within an inch of its life, but it’s also essentially unnecessary. The last Broadway revival in 2000/2001, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, made a more effervescent case for the show (and had an utterly enchanting Marian in the late, great Rebecca Luker). This one felt laboured and strenuous by comparison.

Not that this will make a single bit of difference to anyone who wants to see it and will have a swell time when they do. But FOMO? No, you needn’t fear it. This is a revival you could easily miss.

MORE REVIEWS OF THE MUSIC MAN

There’s a full round-up of the major reviews here.

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  • New York Times (by Jesse Green): “There comes a moment in the latest Broadway production of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man when high spirits, terrific dancing and big stars align in an extended marvel of showbiz salesmanship. Unfortunately, that moment is the curtain call. Until then, the musical, which opened on Thursday night at the Winter Garden Theater, only intermittently offers the joys we expect from a classic revival starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster — especially one so obviously patterned on the success of another classic revival, Hello, Dolly!, a few seasons back. The frenzy of love unleashed in that show  by Bette Midler, supported by substantially the same creative team — including the director Jerry Zaks, the choreographer Warren Carlyle and the set and costume designer Santo Loquasto — has gone missing here, despite all the deluxe trimmings and 42 people onstage. Instead we get an extremely neat, generally perky, overly cautious take on a musical that, being about the con game of love and music, needs more danger in the telling.”
  • Associated Press (by Mark Kennedy):  “Hugh Jackman is playing one of musical theater’s greatest con men on Broadway these days but he’s not fooling anyone: He’s the real deal. As Harold Hill in a glorious and exuberant new revival of The Music Man Jackman is like a coiled spring, effortlessly leaping onto desks, two-stepping with kids, tossing books into the air and pounding out a rhythm on his thighs. He’s even magnetic in a romantic clinch.“That man is a spellbinder,” someone notes and you’ll have no argument here. “I’m in rare form these days,” Jackman’s Hill at one point boasts. Again, no argument. But Jackman is but just one astonishing part of the subtly reworked Meredith Willson musical that opened Thursday night at the Winter Garden Theatre. It overflows with talent, clever ideas and a hard-working multicultural cast.”
  • New York Post (by Johnny Oleksinski): “The meteoric hype surrounding The Music Man, which opened Thursday night on Broadway, has been building now for — somehow — three years…. The Music Man, I’m sorry to say, does not live up to our oversize expectations. Quite unexpectedly, you leave not raving about Jackman, one of Broadway’s hottest sellers, but the music woman — Sutton Foster, who plays Marian “The Librarian” Paroo. She’s a wonder and the main reason to buy a ticket…. When the actress sublimely sings Meredith Willson’s “Till There Was You,” it’s a victory — for her, for Marian, for us and for a production of an American classic that, up until then, struggles to find an assured identity.”
  • Time Out (by Adam Feldman): “For a revival of musical theater’s most famous portrait of a con artist, the new Broadway production of The Music Man seems oddly lacking in confidence. Meredith Willson’s 1957 classic should sweep you up in a happy spell of suspended disbelief—much as its reformable-rascal hero, the fast-talking traveling mountebank who calls himself Professor Harold Hill, does to the easily misled citizens of a small town in 1912 Iowa. Yet while this Music Man is a solid and professional piece of work, and includes many incidental pleasures, the hoped-for enchantment never arrives…. The vehicle is polished; what it lacks is drive…. Are audiences being slightly conned, in effect if not intent, by a production that overpromises and underdelivers? The show is fine; it hits its marks. But at these prices, the marks might be us. “
  • Hollywood Reporter (by Frank Scheck): “For many theatergoers, this review will merely seem superfluous after the above headline. Two of Broadway’s most beloved stars appearing in a great American musical comedy to relieve us of our COVID doldrums. The revival of The Music Man was planned long before the pandemic, but its years-delayed arrival only serves to make it seem more essential for a badly battered Broadway sorely in need of spirit-lifting. The production seems not so much a theatrical enterprise as a public service, if you redefine public service to mean having to pay hundreds of dollars for a seat… Unlike, say, the daringly iconoclastic revival of  Oklahoma! that played Broadway a few years back, this production of Meredith Willson’s classic musical proudly revels in its old-fashionedness. Why mess with something that isn’t broken, it seems to be asking, especially since we’ve got our stars as our ace in the hole… There’s nothing revelatory about this Music Man, and that’s probably just as well. In its determined effort to evoke the musical comedy Broadway of yore and make us feel happy simply to be in a theater again, the show ironically feels urgently timely.”
  • Deadline (by Jeremy Gerard): “Hard-hit and laid-up just weeks ago by Omicron, The Music Man, which opened Thursday at a celebrity-packed Winter Garden Theatre, certainly seems to have made a full recovery, at least if cheerful enthusiasm is any indication. (And for the record, producers Diller and Geffen displayed little indication of over-concern about Broadway protocol, sitting maskless in the audience throughout much of the evening)… At this point, Jackman, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, doesn’t need to prove his song-and-dance chops to anyone – he did that ages ago in The Boy from Oz (2003) and Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway (2011). But no mind – he does it again.”

SEE YOU ON MONDAY

You can also find regular updates on ShentonSTAGE LIVE, a rolling theatre blog that appears on my website, updated throughout the day as necessary, to reflect news updates and other observations and commentary as they occur. The landing page for this is here: http://shentonstage.com/shentonstage-live/
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