ShentonSTAGE Daily for MONDAY DECEMBER 12

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, live from New York.

Broadway’s determined effort to offer a more diverse template of shows has been dealt two bitter blows this last week, with early closings announced for two of this season’s entries.

First, K-POP closed yesterday at CIrcle in the Square, after 44 preview performances and 17 regular performances.

It broke new ground in introducing an under-served constituency of Asian talent — the company featured 18 Broadway debuts, and the songs were written by the first female Asian composer on Broadway, Helen Park.

This new musical was originally staged as an immersive show off-Broadway in 2017 (at Ars Nova, in association with Ma-Yi Theater and Woodshed Collective) that took its spectators on a journey, across two floors of a building in Hell’s Kitchen, through different behind-the-scenes environments of a Korean K-pop record label to show how it creates its stars and product; that commodification is, of course, precisely what the show itself has undergone to become an Broadway entertainment, but its edges appear to have been blunted in the process. 

The producers — and some cast members — of the transfer took aim at Jesse Green, chief theatre critic, for his largely negative review, writing to the paper’s publisher and theatre editor to demand a public apology for it (their letter was re-printed in full by Playbill here):

“…we are writing to ask that you issue an apology to the cast and creators of our show for the insensitive and, frankly, offensive review written by Jesse Green.

To be clear, we respect Mr. Green’s right to be critical of the show. What we are asking you to address is the cultural insensitivity, underlying ignorance of and distaste for K-pop as a genre, and what comes across as casual racism in his review… Starting with the headline, “(too) cute,” Mr. Green‘s choice of words to critique a work created primarily by API artists plays to harmful stereotypes and the historic infantilization of Asian people in media, immediately devaluing and diminishing them. Using “squint-inducing” to describe the work of a Korean lighting designer, whatever the author’s intent, is a particularly egregious example.”

The New York Times didn’t ignore the criticism; instead, in a reply to the producers, they stated, “We saw the open letter written about The Times’s review of KPOP and quickly convened a discussion among editors and members of our standards department. This group was in agreement that Jesse’s review was fair. More importantly, we wholly disagree with the argument that Jesse’s criticism is somehow racist. We always welcome feedback and reaction to our journalism, and have conveyed a similar reply to the producers who wrote the open letter.”

Of course, the New York Times no longer has the power it once did to simply close a show overnight; there are many other factors behind the show’s failure, though it is a convenient scapegoat. In a feature in the LA Times last week, co-producer Joey Parnes at least acknowledged some of the other challenges that the show faced:

“Business in this postpandemic environment is not behaving remotely like it did before the pandemic. I think some people have decided they’re not going to go to the theater anymore, or as often as they used to, and they’re choosing things they’re certain of, not that they’re going to take a chance on. So yes, The Music Man is doing $3 million a week, Hamilton is doing over $2 million a week, but the shows doing business at the top of the grosses list all have one thing in common: They are familiar, they’ve been playing a long time, or they’re about somebody that everyone in the universe knows and loves. The shows at the bottom half of that list, almost every single one of them is new or difficult material. We were at the bottom of that list for most of our short run, but we’re not alone. There are other shows that are struggling — maybe not quite as much as we did, but still pretty hard. That’s something that was not predictable when we said we were going to do this, and we had not anticipated it being quite as difficult as it turned out to be. We’ve been hoping for a turnaround, and we looked for additional revenue so that we could run a little longer and develop that audience.”

I saw the show during early previews last month, and predicted it would be a huge hit — regardless of what critics said — because the performance I saw generated such heartfelt enthusiasm from the audience I saw it with.

Arriving in New York on Thursday — the day after the sudden closure was announced — I saw it again that night, amongst a fully charged (in every sense), sold out crowd, pictured above (with standing room tickets being sold). And once again, the audience were enraptured; the heartbroken company gave their all and some, but then its star stepped forward to make an impassioned curtain speech, committing the company to going out with a bang in their remaining four performances. 

It is, of course, devastating for the company to find themselves suddenly unemployed, especially so close to Christmas, and to have their dreams so cruelly shattered; but Broadway is one of the toughest market places in the theatrical world, both in terms of the extraordinarily high costs of staging and running a show, and the competition to find and sustain audiences.

The same challenges also defeated AIN’T NO MO’, another transfer from a successful Off-Broadway run, in this case at the Public Theater where it premiered in 2019. It will close this coming weekend on December 18, after 22 preview performances and 21 regular performances. The play is written by and stars the 27-year-old Jordan E. Cooper (pictured above), who posted on Instagram:

“Now they’ve posted an eviction notice, we ‘must close’ December 18th. But thank God Black people are immune to eviction notices… People are coming, loving the show and calling it the best theatrical experience of their life, but traditional Broadway marketing doesn’t work for this kind of show. We’re doing something new on Broadway but is Broadway ready? I believe great things happen in this world when the world ain’t ready.”

In a curtain speech at Friday evening’s performance, he spoke to the audience, and said: “It’s a hard time for shows of color on Broadway right now, We ask that you please help us change what Broadway looks like.”

K-pop co-producer Tim Forbes made a similar point to the LA Times:

“There were 18 Broadway debuts in our show. There’s a wave of talent that has been seasoned here, who will be contributing to the American theater for decades to come. It will change how Broadway looks, both in front of the stage, and behind the stage. So that’s a good thing.”

SOME LIKE IT NOT…. (BUT MOST DO)

Broadway has always been big on recycling, whether its old pop repertoires of pop stars like Neil Diamond (who has just joined the Broadway line-up with the bio-musical A BEAUTIFUL NOISE at the Broadhurst), or old film titles, like SOME LIKE IT HOT, which opened next door to Neil Diamond at the Shubert Theatre just last night.

This isn’t the first time the 1959 Billy Wilder film classic SOME LIKE IT HOT — long designated one of the greatest film comedies ever made in public and critics’ polls alike — has been adapted for the musical stage; in 1972, the composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill scored a version that was titled SUGAR that was directed and choreographed by the now-legendary Gower Champion (it came to the West End under its original film title in 1992, starring Tommy Steele in the Tony Curtis role of Joe/Josephine, about whom THE TIMES said in its review at the time, “His Joe is essentially the same boy-next-door all his Joes and Johns have been since Half a Sixpence in 1963”).

Now one of Champion’s modern-day successors Casey Nicholaw, similarly serving double duty as both director and choreographer, has brought it back to Broadway in an entirely newly-written version, with a book by Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin, and music and lyrics by the Hairspray team of Marc  Shaiman and Scott Wittman (who have also recycled a song, Let’s Be Bad, from their score from the 2012 television series SMASH, where it was performed by Megan Hilty in an impersonation of Marilyn Monroe — coincidentally the ingenue in the film of SOME LIKE IT HOT; in it, she sings, “Who needs plays and O’Neill dramas, Gershwin is the cat’s pajamas, I’m the queen of the red-hot mamas”). 

The result is slick and polished, and the certain escapist Broadway hit of the new season. It even avoids the major trap, which TOOTSIE and the now London-bound MRS DOUBTFIRE recently fell into, of appearing to disrespect trans women, by rewriting Jerry as someone who ‘finds’ their true identity when they take on a new name, Daphne, and find they wear it very comfortably.

As played by J. Harrison Ghee (pictured above right, with Christian Borle, who plays Joe/Josephine), there’s more than an accidental re-naming  occurring: as Jesse Green describes it in his review for the New York Times, the actor — who is non-binary — “carefully traces Jerry’s transformation into Daphne, and then the merging of the two identities into a third that takes us into territory that’s far more complex than jokey drag. All the while, Jerry maintains a sense of wonder about the changes happening within him that makes the journey feel welcoming for those of us watching.” (In a less welcoming review in the New York Post, Johnny Oleksinski puts a more cynical spin on it: “The revised ending, in which a character questions their gender identity, feels neither honest nor natural, but as if it’s been exhaustively focus-grouped to avoid Twitter backlash. (And, after the Tootsie fracas back in 2018, it probably was.)”

Green’s review, however, nails a more positive impact: “Ultimately, it’s the epiphanies and insights that make it possible to enjoy, without too much guilt, the flat-out entertainment of Some Like It Hot, including its groaners, overemphasis and old-school gags. How smart it is, for instance, to have Daphne demonstrate the spectrum of gender by singing, simply, ‘I crossed a border.’ (Smart too, to have it sung in the scene set in Mexico.)”

The musical may be an old-fashioned throwback, but it has freshness and vivacity, too. Just as the defiantly non-PC THE PRODUCERS ushered in a new age for Broadway musical comedy in 2001, this re-run of a classic film comedy adds a lot of its own polish and sheen to give a 63-year-old story new punch and point. And generous helpings of sheer entertainment value.

& JULIET

Just a few weeks ago, the Broadway transfer of & JULIET from the West End also makes clever use of representing different shades of queer identity, as it maps a back story to Shakespeare’s writing a new version of ROMEO AND JULIET and grafts in a bunch of pop hits from Swedish hit producer Max Martin into its glitzy fabric.

The show is on its final weeks at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London (where it will make way for MRS DOUBTFIRE to transfer to), but it looks like it will settle in for a long run at Broadway’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre (where coincidentally MRS DOUBTFIRE received its Broadway premiere). Though Sondheim may be turning in his grave that a recycled pop musical is playing at the theatre that bears his name, it’s a fun and funny spectacle, and it’s particularly lovely to see Melanie La Barrie making her Broadway debut to reprise her West End performance as Juliet’s sassy West Indian nurse.

FUTURE SHOWS IN LONDON AND BEYOND

My regularly updated feature on shows in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway is here: http://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-december-12/

Newly added entries include a revival of Willy Russell’s SHIRLEY VALENTINE, with Sheridan Smith in the title role at the Duke of York’s), Cheryl Cole (!) making her West End stage debut in 2:22 A GHOST STORY (pictured above,moving to its fifth West End address, the Lyric), and the verbatim play VARDY v ROONEY: THE WAGATHA CHRISTIE TRIAL getting an extended West End run at the Ambassadors.

See you on Thursday

I will be back here on Thursday,reporting on more shows from New York, including the Off-Broadway production of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (opening tonight at New York Theatre Workshop) and a one-night gala performance of CHESS that I’m seeing tonight.

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