April 30, 2022

Four New Shows Try to Answer the Question "What Kind of Show Belongs on Broadway?"

Seventeen shows opened or reopened on Broadway this month and as I bounced from one to the other, I found myself asking what exactly is a Broadway show. The simplest answer to that question is, of course, any show that’s on Broadway. But as the four shows below demonstrate, it isn’t always that simple. 

THE LITTLE PRINCE found that out the hard way. This adaptation of Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry's beloved 1943 novella uses music, dance, fanciful costumes and Cirque du Soleil-style aerial acrobatics to tell the story of the titular character’s metaphysical travels to various planets in search of love and friendship. It’s been a hit in Europe, Australia and the Middle East and was supposed to enjoy a four-month run at the Broadway Theatre as part of its world tour. But the lack of dialog, the heavy reliance on videos and the confusing narrative seemed out of place on Broadway. Critics panned the show and theatergoers didn’t seem to know what to make of it either (about a fifth of the audience left at intermission the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show). So this week,  just two weeks after its April 11 opening, the show’s producers announced that it would close early on May 8.   

On the other hand, some shows seem tailor-made for Broadway. MRS. DOUBTFIRE, a staged version of the 1993 movie that starred Robin Williams as a divorced dad so desperate to be with his kids that he masquerades as a female nanny, fits right into the trend of popular films that have become Broadway shows. Directed by musical-comedy maestro Jerry Zaks, it’s funny and colorful, filled with witty songs by the brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick (click here to read more about them) and features a bravura performance by Rob McClure. The Outer Critics Circle, of which I’m proud to be a member, liked it too and this week we awarded it six nominations (click here to see all of them), including one for Catherine Zuber’s terrific costumes, which allow McClure to quick change from his male to female personas right in front of the audience. This is an old-fashioned show, the kind that used to advertise itself as one the whole family could enjoy.  And I think they actually would.  
A STRANGE LOOP might seem an odd candidate for a Broadway run but this musical about a young would-be musical maker who is black, queer, somewhat overweight and totally insecure has drawn some of the best reviews of the season. The show, whose semi-autobiographical book, score and lyrics were all written by Michael R. Jackson, also won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming only the 10th musical to be awarded that honor (South Pacific, Rent and Hamilton are among the others). The show boasts a bunch of ear-wormy songs, a narrative that is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking and a slew of terrific performances including one by 23-year-old Jaquel Spivey who just graduated from college last spring and lends the main character a winning vulnerability (click here to learn more about him).  But A Strange Loop also has graphic depictions of sex, some blasphemous representations of religion and lots of profanity, including the n-word. I was a fan when the show played off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons back in 2019 (click here to read my review) but I worry that this is the kind of offbeat show that despite being embraced by the theater cognoscenti might have a harder time drawing in the civilians on whom Broadway depends and is eager to woo back after the long pandemic pause. So I’m curious to see whether it will stick its Broadway landing.

Star vehicles have always found a home on Broadway and Billy Crystal’s MR. SATURDAY NIGHT could be the epitome of that genre. This new musical is based on Crystal’s 1992 movie about a once-famous comic trying to make a comeback. His protagonist Buddy Young Jr. was a big shot in the era of 1950s variety shows but 40 years later, finds himself unhappily doing gigs in nursing homes until he’s given one last shot at the big time. The movie portrayed Buddy as an egoist who mistreated his brother, wife and daughter as he climbed to the top. But Crystal, who grew up in a showbiz family, has long revered those Golden Age comics and he shares their appetite for Borscht Belt humor and their hunger for applause and so he and his collaborators—the Hollywood screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell who worked with him on the book and the Broadway vets Jason Robert Brown and Amanda Green who do the score—have softened the character, allowing Crystal to woo the audience. I had thought his shtick might be outdated and have limited appeal but, if the the two 14-year-old boys sitting next to me who kept doubling over with laughter are any indication, Mr. Saturday Night could play for many nights to come. 

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