By Richard Morgan
How do you solve a problem like Broadway? The most expensive musical ever is this year's $50-million Broadway gamble, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, whose March opening has been delayed until November. Its inexperienced lead producer, David Garfinkle, was the type of creative mind who might peddle Spider-Man pajamas or Spider-Man cereal, the kind of person who sees Broadway as a platform for brand extension. Garfinkle is out, and financial rescue is now coming from a familiar white knight for Broadway: Disney.
The burden of blockbusters is just one example of what ails Broadway and is symptomatic of the larger problem: a pervasive sense that theater and marketing are interchangeable. It's the same mind-set that goes for celebrity casting in shows or the reliance on derivative material. Thankfully, though, there's a contingent of folks giving Broadway the antidote it needs. But will it take its medicine?
Even ignoring derivative adaptations and revivals, stunt casting has run amok. Last year saw two runs of Hamlet; The New York Times called one a 'perfect portrayal'; the other starred Jude Law 'gesturing and enunciating violently.' It's tough to say how many people who waited in the rain last summer for Anne Hathaway's Shakespeare in the Park run knew that they were in line for Twelfth Night. But it's safe to say all of them knew Hathaway was starring. How many people bought tickets to Daniel Radcliffe's penis and happened to catch a performance of Equus as well? Stunt casting has become normal-- even expected.
Since its 1996 revival, Chicago has cast George Hamilton, Marilu Henner, Jasmine Guy, Sandy Duncan, Jennifer Holliday, Sharon Lawrence, Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson, both Dukes of Hazzard (John Schneider and Tom Wopat), Alan Thicke, Robert Urich, Billy Zane, Paige Davis, Wayne Brady, Melanie Griffith, Joey Lawrence, Huey Lewis, Brian McKnight, Gretchen Mol, Usher, Brooke Shields, Ashlee Simpson-Wentz, Jerry Springer, Patrick Swayze, Chandra Wilson, Rita Wilson, Harry Hamlin and Lisa Rinna, John O'Hurley, Robin Givens, and -- for five days in February 2002 -- Louis Gossett Jr. Many of them were Broadway debuts.
Jody Shelton is no stranger to celebrity castings. In 1997, he lost the role of Mark in an L.A. production of Rent to Neil Patrick Harris. So he moved to Chicago and became the musical director of the touring company for the Second City, one of the nation's premier comedy collectives. He's now in New York City, in a troupe called Baby Wants Candy, a possible remedy to all those Broadway woes.
Baby performs hour-long improvised musical comedies -- a full story arc, subplots, running gags, a full band, highbrow camp, and lots of jokes. But no set design. No costumes. No big-name celebrities. No rehearsals. 'Broadway is now a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox,' Shelton says. 'If you know the intermission is coming, the show's not drawing you in. We're unafraid of Broadway taboos. We're able to be, because it's not real; it's imaginary, improvised. You rip off your improvised shirt, pull down your improvised pants. It's improvised kissing and improvised butt sex.'
Baby shows typically feature just five of the troupe's 13 regular players. They include Jack McBrayer (Kenneth of NBC's 30 Rock) and Peter Gwinn, an Emmy-winning writer for The Colbert Report. One actor, Thomas Middleditch, does improvised Shakespeare (rhyming iambic pentameter and all). They've performed thousands of one-night-only musicals in their 13-year run, including Puke and Rally, Hannukah Bloody Hannukah, I'm the Only Black Person in This Room, Love on the F Train, and John Wilkes Booth and His Magical Talking Tooth.
'People think improvised means slapdash, but it's not,' says Stuart Ranson, a Baby member. 'We're just not commercial in the way that most theater, unfortunately, is.' If Baby went to Broadway, it'd end up being something like Urinetown or Xanadu (but then, of course, something totally different the next night). 'We're nothing like, for example, The Little Mermaid,' Ranson explains. 'How did they ruin that? How did they take an amazing score and story and crank out something so lifeless?'
Answer: Because Disney's long-running musical The Lion King has been a creative and commercial juggernaut, seen by more than 50 million people since its 1997 debut. Disney figured lightning would strike as much as they wanted it to. But that's rarely the case. After their success with the Billy Joel musical, Movin' Out, choreographer Twyla Tharp and star dancer John Selya put on an infamous Bob Dylan musical called The Times They Are A-Changin'. It lasted only 35 previews and 28 performances before its run ended, which was announced by Playbill with the brutal headline 'Circus Leaves Town.' Tharp is now gearing up for Come Fly With Me, otherwise known as 'this time it's Frank Sinatra's music.'