Broadway’s Magic BoxBy Lavina Melwani • Feb 26th, 2010 • Category: Travel
It entailed a helicopter ride from Washington, secret service personnel and caused traffic jams in New York but in spite of all these hassles, the most powerful man in the world, President Barack Obama, still made it to a Broadway show, ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’, right in the heart of Times Square. As he told reporters, “I am taking my wife to New York City because I promised her during the campaign that I would take her to a Broadway show after it was all finished.”
Such is the lure of Broadway, that all-American icon of theater!
The glitter and brashness of New York, the optimism, vitality and sheer energy of America – nothing captures these elements quite like the Broadway show. For 130 years, creative talents – producers, directors, librettists, lyricists, composers, choreographers, singers, dancers and actors – have been collectively spinning an enticing silken web of song, dance and story and presenting it on Broadway – entertainment’s most famous avenue, from which it derives its name.
In fact, Broadway is the epicenter of dreams and dollars, business and bravado, stardom and success. It is also about extreme risk taking, about relentless striving, and often, about failure. Yet, when the stars are aligned just right, it is about the highest aspiration in human effort, be it in music, dance or histrionics. Everything here is at such a high octane level that it is little wonder that travelers from all over the world gravitate to this neon-lit avenue to see the best show on earth.
One of the biggest success stories of Broadway has been Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ which opened at the Majestic Theater on January 9, 1988 and week after week, month after month it continues to dazzle theater-goers, becoming the longest running show on Broadway. In January 2010 it will complete 22 years of a continuous run! The show has played in many cities across the world and it is estimated that it has been seen by 100 million people in 14 languages.
I saw ‘Phantom’ last week, almost 22 years after it opened on Broadway, and it was amazing to see the long lines of theatergoers waiting to get in – as if it was opening night! They all come driven by word of mouth, by the anticipation of seeing the ill-fated Phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House, of seeing the huge chandelier which weighs a ton come crashing down almost on the heads of the audience. They come to see the mysterious underground lake which leads to the phantom’s candlelit lair. But mostly they come for the haunting love story, of a disfigured phantom, shunned by all, hopelessly in love with a beautiful young soprano.
Putting on such a grand show is no easy task: the phantom’s make-up alone takes two hours to put on. There are 130 cast, crew and orchestra members involved in each performance which also uses 230 costumes, 281 candles, 250 kilos of dry ice and 10 fog and smoke machines. When the show travels, 27 lorries are needed to transport all the sets. Nor do Broadway shows come cheap, with plays on average costing $2 to $ 5 million while large musicals can cost anything from $12 million to $20 million.
Whether it is a dramatic spectacle like ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, ‘Les Miserables’ or ‘Sunset Boulevard’ or something simple yet unique which touches the heart like ‘Rent’, ‘Hair’ or the 2009 Tony award winner, ‘God of Carnage’, Broadway shows have the power to draw crowds.
Often you also have Hollywood names crossing over to Broadway: Antonio Banderas in ‘Nine’, Sean P. Diddy Combs in ‘A Raisin in the Sun’, Julia Roberts in ‘Three Days of Rain’, Kevin Spacey in ‘A Moon for the Misbegotten’, Laurence Fishburne in ‘Thurgood’, and Katie Holmes in ‘All My Sons’ are just some of the big screen names. Currently playing on Broadway are the two noted Hollywood actresses Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh wheeler’s ‘A Little Night Music.’
For New York, Broadway Inc. is a multi billion dollar business, which keeps the city moving and working. In fact, Broadway contributes $5.1 billion to the economy of New York City, apart from ticket sales and supports 44,000 local jobs. Each Broadway show provides livelihood for actors, artists, set makers, musicians and backstage staff.
Stroll down Broadway and you see the thousands thronging the theaters and the ticket office in Times Square, almost like pilgrims waiting for the viewing. Before each show begins, the line waiting to get in snakes down the street, some in jackets and jeans, others in their dressy best for the solemn occasion of seeing a Broadway show.
The tickets don’t come cheap – they range from $66.50 to $116.50 while the premium tickets can go from $251.50 to $377 for certain shows. And yet they come, avid fans who even buy standing room only tickets at $26, which are available on the day itself, if the show is sold out.
America might be going through a recession but Broadway, which suffered with show closings and empty seats in the initial period, has swung back with spirit. “We are now seeing increases,” says Charlotte St. Martin, Executive Director of The Broadway League, the trade association for the industry: “Broadway is proving that if you put a great show on, even in tough economic times people will come. I think that’s probably because it’s especially in hard times that we all need our spirits to be lifted or to escape from what’s going on in the world, and there’s nothing like live entertainment to do that.”
Broadway shows sold 12.27 million tickets in the 2007-2008 season, grossing $937.5 million. Tourists purchase 65% of the almost 12.3 million tickets sold to Broadway shows in New York City. As you sit for a performance to begin, you are surrounded by many nationalities, many tongues, a virtual United Nations. All of them understand ‘Broadway.’.
Times Square and its surroundings may be a frenetic neon-lit boulevard but to walk there is to realize its rich past. All the shows are in historic theaters, many of them landmarks, which have a colorful history behind them. The Broadway musical dates back to 130 years, and Hollis Alpert’s book, ‘Broadway!’ is a fascinating look at how the American musical evolved.
One of the famous chains is The Shubert Organization which owns 17 Broadway theaters, and to look at the Shubert Theater, built in 1913, is to realize how colorful is the history of these architectural gems, with opulent, over the top interiors. This is the theater where Lionel Barrymore performed in 1918 in ‘The Copperhead’ and where Katherine Hepburn starred in ‘The Philadelphia Story’. In 1943 Paul Robeson, Uta Hagen and Jose Ferrer performed in ‘Othello’. In 1948 Rex Harrison made his Broadway debut in ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’. In 1956 Judy Holliday and Sydney Chaplin won Tonys for their performance in ‘The Bells are Ringing.’
There are many highlights through the years, such as Edward Albee’s highly acclaimed dramas which did not get big audiences. ‘Seascape’ which starred Deborah Kerr, Barry Nelson and Frank Langella closed after just 65 performances, but won a Pulitzer Prize, and a Tony for Langella.
And that’s the thing about Broadway – booms and busts. But the show must go on. At Shubert Theater, the biggest success story was ‘A Chorus Line’. It started in 1975 and kept going and going and going till 1990, winning an armful of Tony awards. Talk of dancing like there’s no tomorrow!
Broadway still has legs and is certainly kicking them up even today. I went to the Shubert to see ‘Chicago’ the wondrous song and dance saga of women inmates in prison and to see how a sparse set can be transformed by the energy and dancing charisma of its performers is what makes Broadway so exciting. Not one false move, just electrifying dancing and the singing of angels.
“Broadway is not a cookie cutter business,” says St. Martin. “There’s no formula for what makes a successful show. It’s a great performance and the audience has to love it. You may put what you think is a a great script and great stars – and it may not make it. .And you can take an unknown playwright and unknown stars and there’s something special about the play, it could be a Tony award winning show.” Last year ‘In the Heights’, you had a 27 year old who had never done a play on Broadway before and a cast full of unknowns – and it went on to become the surprise hit of the season.
For those who can’t make it to Broadway, Broadway travels to them, the touring shows going to 240 countries across the US and Canada, to an audience of 30 million people. In fact, productions travel to many countries. Currently the search is on for the lead in ‘Billy Elliot’ in Korea, a young boy who can act, dance – and sing in Korean!
Certain scenes from musicals are as familiar to audiences in many parts of the world as their Do Re Me is a Sound of Music, Nurse Nellie Forbush shampooing that man right out of her hair in ‘South Pacific’; the Jets and the Sharks, rival street gangs, locked in the dance of death in ‘West Side Story’; Eliza Dolittle struggling valiantly with the rain in Spain in ‘My Fair Lady’, and of course, Anna, hoop skirt and all, dancing a vigorous polka with the King of Siam in ‘The King and I’. All originated on Broadway, created sometimes from books and plays, sometimes from just the mere kernel of a thought, an idea. The sparkling scores and the catchy, very hummable lyrics are all the gifts of Broadway.
Nor are children forgotten on Broadway, and Disney has stepped in with shows like ‘The Lion King’ which won six 1998 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Mary Poppins’. Recently that popular green ogre Shrek also took a bow on Broadway with his own musical. Catching them young seems to be the strategy.
For actors, dancers and musicians, the ultimate is to have one’s name up on Broadway’s marquee lights – and go on to win the approval of that hard-to-please audience. When a musical possesses that magic something which strikes a chord within the hearts of theatre-goers, the rewards can be tremendous.
Some of the current hot shows include ‘Mama Mia’, ‘Jersey Boys’, ‘Next to Normal’, ‘In the Heights’ and ‘Memphis’. As Broadway continues to evolve, we can expect a rich mix, with upcoming shows ranging from Milton’s Paradise Lost to the cartoon character Betty Boop. There may also be more of India in the cards, if Andrew Lloyd Weber’s ‘Bombay Dreams’ is any indication. In fact, Mira Nair’s ‘Monsoon Wedding’ is being readied for Broadway even as we speak!
The Tony award winner for best musical, ‘Billy Elliot’, shows what Broadway at its best is all about. Set against the grim backdrop of the coal miners’ strike in Thatcher’s England, the musical transports you with its seamless singing, dancing and spirit to a higher place.
Indeed, what Broadway celebrates is the ingenuity of the human mind, its rich creativity and its penchant for weaving tales. Broadway is a place for losing yourself – and sometimes, even finding yourself.
© Lavina Melwani