I wonder if this just-ended Broadway season will go down in history as The Year of the Celebrity. It’s not the first time I’ve thought this, but, again, the economics of The Street seem beholden to The Big Name.
In a sense, I realize, this is classic sour grapes. We No-Names who toil away for years, perfecting our pieces, are apt to turn green when a Familiar Face pens a musical in her spare time and suddenly it’s on a rocket headed for The Main Stem. I’m referring of course to Kathie Lee Gifford, who is famous for… I don’t know what, exactly; being married to Frank Gifford? Her day job, as a personable interviewer of fellow celebrities, yields her some quantity of fans. Enough of these people had enough faith in her writing to invest in Scandalous, a musical biography of Aimee Semple McPherson. But the Giffordettes were too scarce to fill the theatre for very long; it bombed last fall.
The historically-minded (both of you) might have noted that Tim Rice was a chat show host before Jesus Christ Superstar came out. It took him years of effort to get his first musical produced, and that only happened after a studio album of the score topped the pop charts. Is it a better world now that notoriety greases the wheels for the ride to Broadway?
I think it was about fourteen years ago, at an early reading of Avenue Q, when I heard jokes about Phish, a popular rock band I hadn’t previously been aware of. Phish tunesmith Trey Anastasio collaborated with Amanda Green on the score to Hands on a Hardbody, an intentionally static little show that failed to find an audience on The Big Street. This was one of many shows I had my eye on when they opened outside of New York. I was curious about the reception, what the critics said. Correctly or not (I’ve never seen the show), people weren’t saying “This is so good, it ought to go to Broadway!” So why did it? There were plenty of other shows around the country (and world!) greeted with far more enthusiasm. The difference here, I suspect, is that Anastasio is well-known in the rock world. I like to think Amanda Green’s well-known because of her New York musical theatre performance debut in my revue, On the Brink. Don’t shatter my illusions, please: let me persist in believing I made her famous. It would be positively churlish to point out that her father was the masterful lyricist and librettist Adolph Green and her mother’s the delightful actress Phyllis Newman. That can’t account for anything. Or can we agree to disagree and attribute her notoriety to her two previous Broadway musicals? Some good songwriting can be found in those.
Look, I don’t write these essays with a view towards making you like me. If I did, I might think back on whose essays I ever read and, with every line, I loved the author more and more. Which would bring Nora Ephron to mind. Daughter of famous Hollywood screenwriters, she acquired considerable fame from activities beyond dramatic writing. First, she married Carl Bernstein, of the eminent investigative journalist team of Woodward and Bernstein, which broke the Watergate story. Many years later, Ephron became the top director of romantic comedies, such as Sleepless In Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. She died about a year ago, alas, but this season saw her second Broadway play arrive and boy, did it sell a lot of tickets. I’ve been unable to snag one, so I don’t know if Lucky Guy deserves its Tony nomination for Best Play. When last I mentioned this year’s Tonys, I took a knock at Douglas Carter Beane, but here, concerning Best Play nods, I’ve sympathy for the fact that all the reviews I’ve read far preferred his writing (The Nance, not nominated) to Ephron’s. Would Lucky Guy have made it to Broadway if Nora were unknown? Well, it wasn’t very likely to get a movie star, Tom Hanks, star of those RomComs I mentioned she did, in the lead role. Of course that’s a name that sells a lot of tickets.
Somewhere, some obscure party has written a brilliant show and no star will sign on to do it, no producer will corral her angels to produce it, and ticket-buyers won’t beat a path to the box office. Because in this day and age, it’s more important to be famous than it is to be brilliant.
But I don’t wish to leave you on such a bleak note, because then you won’t like me. What if a person of considerable fame is given the chance to write a musical and they actually do a good enough job that critics and audiences dub it a smash? Surely, that’s something to celebrate – celebrities doing well in their debut stage efforts. And this season we have not one but two examples. For Kinky Boots, based on a relatively obscure 2005 film, 1980s pop diva Cyndi Lauper wrote a score, teamed with veteran librettist Harvey Fierstein, who has more than a little fame in his own right. Success! A hit! Congratulate them! Over in Great Britain, there’s a comedian named Tim Minchin whose act primarily consists of hysterical and sometimes scabrous songs he’s written. London’s most important theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company, gave him the task of writing music and lyrics to an adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel, and Matilda is this Broadway season’s biggest hit musical, both in terms of reviews and ticket sales. If we’re going to have to have a theatre where the celebs get the plum assignments, it’s good when they’re good, you know?