Just as war breaks out between blockbusters in Hollywood, so the home of American theatre is in the grip of a competitiveness previously unknown. Robert Cushman reports from New York
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The Independent Culture
Within the last month no fewer than six new musicals have opened on Broadway. Two of them have titles firmly tied to their sources and subject-matter: Jekyll & Hyde and - a subject that raised a lot of eyebrows and many giggles when it was first announced - Titanic. The other names - Steel Pier, The Life, Dream, Play On - give less away, though on inspection all is revealed: Steel Pier is about a 1930s dance marathon in Atlantic City, The Life refers to prostitution and allied trades, and Dream and Play On are animated song-recitals. Another new show, Juan Darien, opened and closed earlier in the season. As a total, that hardly compares to the glory days of the 1920s or even the 1960s, but it's certainly an advance on three seasons ago, when Sunset Boulevard won all the Tony awards for which it was eligible because there was, literally, no competition.

The Tonys - Broadway's equivalent of the Oscars - are a vital factor here. Titanic, the subject also of the ill-omened Hollywood blockbuster of the same name, cost between 10 and 14 million dollars to mount. (Figures vary, but in these circumstances it's usually safe to believe the biggest one). Steel Pier cost seven million. The Life, a relatively small show, came in at around five or six . Revivals of older musicals are a vital part of the Broadway economy these days, and there have been four of them: Chicago (the season's biggest hit), Annie, Once Upon a Mattress, and - the most recent arrival - a lavish production of Leonard Bernstein's Candide, which at $4m looks a comparative bargain. Sums like these are not easily recouped, and producers understandably seek insurance; in the words of Variety, "a Tony win has traditionally translated into a surge at the box office". Besides which, the telecasting of the awards offers all the nominated shows, winners or losers, an unequalled shop window.

Over the years, despite a few eccentric or spiteful decisions, the recipient of the best musical prize has generally been easy to predict. It can have been no surprise to anyone when Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof and A Chorus Line swept the board in their respective years. Those of course were the (moderately) good old days when openings were decently spaced out over the season, critical and popular opinion had time to crystallise, and the Tony merely figured as official confirmation that you had a hit. (This is still the case with straight plays, where both costs and possible profits are lower.) But as budgets have inflated, producers, anxious to waste as little time and money as possible, have pushed their openings closer and closer to the wire. This year five musicals opened within a week of the deadline. It seemed the curtain had hardly fallen on the last first night before the nominations were out. The contestants - there seems no other word - now sit back and try to look benign until the awards ceremony next Sunday. No sane theatre should be dependent on prizes to this extent, and this year's race represents a desperate attempt to rationalise an irrational situation.

There are, except in times of severe drought, four nominations in each category. The Best Musical contenders this year are Steel Pier, Titanic, The Life and the departed Juan Darien, which may be there because the nominators couldn't bear the thought of honouring Jekyll & Hyde. Billed as a "carnival mass", Darien was a dance-and-puppet piece with lyrics in Latin. It's just possible, though, that its being so out out-of-sync with Broadway conventions may net it the award: it could serve as a rebuke to the more orthodox shows which, even when competent, have not been great. No new shows have caught the limelight as the rock musical Rent or the aggressive tap show Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk did in 1996.

The bookies' favourite is The Life, which has received more nominations - in performance, design and other categories - than any other show. And, taken all round, it is probably the best. It has a score by Cy Coleman, who for 35 years now has written the catchiest and jazziest music to be heard on Broadway and who gets down to the New York street-world of the 1980s, before the city's much-vaunted clean-up. The line of hookers here recalls the parade of dance-hall hostesses in Coleman's earlier show Sweet Charity - the ones who sang "Big Spender" - but with the pretences dropped. One of them, Lillias White, brings the house down with a sardonically aimed tribute called "The Oldest Profession" (lyric by Ira Gasman). White, who is black, ornaments the song with the soulful vocal fills that always titillate theatre audiences and that usually bore the hell out of me, but she never lets them obscure the words or the thoughts. Michael Blakemore, who directed Coleman's City of Angels, does this one too; a gentlemanly British director may seem an odd choice for such a show, but Blakemore has always been attuned to American sleaze (remember The Front Page at the National Theatre in 1972) and though his work here is physically unobtrusive he is admirable at keeping the actors focused. The genre pictures are good, acrid fun; it's when the story takes over - a convoluted affair involving one street walker's efforts to get her man off drugs and herself off the streets, while evading the clutches of the meanest pimp on the block - that melodrama strikes, even infecting Coleman's music. The good numbers predominate, though. The Life seems a good bet for best score and supporting performance, a reasonable one for best direction.

Its raunchiness, and periodic dives into a sour sentimentality, may work against it, though, and stir support for Steel Pier, which is sordid but wholesomely so. It even has a leading man who has returned from the dead to redeem the heroine, though this is so coyly stated that I was dumb enough not to get it until the last moment. Corrupt dance contests, extending false hope to victims of the Depression, sound like a wonderful subject for a musical, with built-in period style and instant choreography, but this one plays like a poor man's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? The result seems alternately predictable and arbitrary, with a below-par score by John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman) and leading players who vary from competent-but-unappealing to terminally bland. Still, two of them have Tony nominations. Debra Monk, who plays a smaller role, is wonderful. She has two numbers - one blowsy, one wistful - and sings each to its limits; she probes beyond those limits to show the thoughts and feelings underneath - which is what musical-theatre acting should be about. If there were no Lillias White, Monk would be a cinch for best supporting actress.

Most ambitious of all the shows is Titanic and there are times when its reach matches its grasp. Its problem - with audiences, with critics, and I confess with me - is that it has never shaken off the aura of ludicrousness which has surrounded it ever since it was first announced. Most musicals are disasters, so what can you expect of a musical about a disaster? Music can speed a story along, but can also slow it down; why are the passengers lining up and singing when they should be fighting their way into the lifeboats? Prosaic questions like these are forced upon us by Maury Yeston's lyrics, the painstakingly literal kind that generally attach themselves to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber or Claude-Michel Schonberg. Here the music is by Yeston himself: sometimes schmaltzy, but complex in texture and interestingly dotted with recurring motifs. The script does a decent job of following a cross-section of passengers and crew from cheerful embarkation to icy doom, dutifully pointing up the class-distinctions inherent in the story. Richard Jones, another British director, fights oddly shy of either full-hearted spectacle or suggestive spareness, and ends up being half-heartedly literal. A look-out is dangled over the auditorium in a crow's nest (and he sings about "sailing on", which is strange considering he's on a steamer) but the moment at which he actually spots the iceberg goes strangely unmarked. Steward Laing's set, stolidly rising and falling between decks, has its moments, but we never see it sink, though all the logic of a big musical makes us want to. The cast is good - no stars, no nominations - and the show is sometimes (but how could it not be?) very moving.

The best thing about the spurned Jekyll & Hyde is that, though it has the deafening air of a pop opera, it isn't through-sung. This means that we get some relief from Frank Wildhorn's turgid music and Leslie Bricusse's mail-order lyrics ("This is the moment,"screams Jekyll, to ecstatic Pavlovian applause, when about to take the potion - or, in this timidly trendy version, the needle) and that Bricusse as librettist can do a reasonable job of unfolding the plot. He gives us a Jekyll who, when he turns into Hyde, conducts an avenging campaign against Victorian hypocrisy, rather like Stephen Sondheim's version of Sweeney Todd. Robert Cuccioli, who plays the dual role, gets to do one song together, so to speak: as Jekyll he stands up straight and sings at the ceiling while as Hyde he crouches and sings at the floor. Presumably he can't stand to look at himself. There is an equally peculiar sequence called "Murder! Murder!" in which Hyde enacts most of his career as a serial killer while the chorus look on and then start wondering who done it. Love-interest consists of the regulation pure-and-patient fiancee and an equally standard doomed harlot, the latter roof-shakingly sung by Linda Eder. This is a score in which the sensitivity of Las Vegas mates with the creativity of Europop. It also has a story everybody knows. Second-hand though it is in every department, it may turn out to have more audience appeal - which, after the first couple of months, has to mean tourist appeal - than any of its nobler competitors.

Of the two songfests: Play On takes its title from the first line of Twelfth Night, and updates that play to a mythical 1940s Harlem by appropriating a bunch of standard Duke Ellington songs. This shouldn't work but somehow does. The show has an amateur air, but that may actually help. Malvolio (now called The Rev) becomes thoroughly sympathetic; an uptight club manager tricked into posing as a hepcat. He even gets Olivia. Tonya Pinkins, who plays the lady, is on the Tony list: largely, I suspect, through her ability to distend her body and the notes of a song simultaneously. I much preferred the cute (and unnominated) Viola of Cheryl Freeman. Andree de Sheilds, one of the original stars of Ain't Misbehavin', has aged into a shamelessly crowd-pleasing Feste; I loved him. He is up for a best supporting Tony, and though nobody takes the show seriously enough for him to win, I'd like him to. Dream tries to make an evening out of the wonderful but undramatic oeuvre of Johnny Mercer, greatest of all pop lyricists. It's an impossible endeavour, but it still comes out worse than necessary.

There's nothing wrong with honouring America's musical past. I wouldn't claim that this is the motive for Broadway's stream of revivals, but it's a pleasant by-product. Of this season's quartet, all duly nominated for best musical revival, the return of Annie attracted the least notice, perhaps because nobody realised it had ever gone away. Once Upon a Mattress, a delightful comedy musical from the 1960s, has been generally scorned, largely because its leading lady, Sarah Jessica Parker, though personally delightful, is no clown.

Candide, too, has been underappeciated. It's a revival of a revival. A satirical comic opera, based on Voltaire, it flopped at its premier in 1956. In 1973 it was successfully re-imagined by director Harold Prince as a post-hippie, audience-involving pocket extravaganza. His new staging expands on his old, puts it back behind the proscenium arch in resplendent mock-baroque sets and costumes, and restores the style and substance of the music, much of which has gone missing in his first attempt. Some problems remain insoluble, chiefly that of getting a book to match Bernstein's munificent score. The present version (originally by the late Hugh Wheeler but much revised since his death) is exaggeratedly inconsequential. But Prince, in his most genial mood, keeps the stage endearing and alive, and the singing is superb. Leading comics Jim Dale and Andrea Martin are up for Tonies but the show has been generally damned as over-the-top. It's actually the best-staged musical of the season.

Chicago is the guaranteed winner for best revival, and the only show, new or old, with the assured aura of a hit. This is partly because it avoided the Gadarene rush at the end of the season; it opened early and has had time to establish itself. It started as a concert performance and was moved to Broadway pretty much unchanged, except of course that the actors learned their lines. There has been an exaggerated reaction on Broadway against "spectacle"(pointless, too, since not even cheap shows come cheap), leading to the understaging of Titanic and the under-rating of Candide. Chicago, with the orchestra taking up most of the stage, has been judged "brilliantly minimalist"; actually it looks cramped. But the performers are terrific, except for one who is magnificent: this is Bebe Neuwirth, a singer-dancer-comedienne with an endlessly eloquent body. In Chita Rivera's old role of a 1920s murderess aching to parlay her notoriety into a stage career, she renders "I Just Can't Do It Alone" with the devastating assurance of one who knows she can. One hopes that her co-star Ann Reinking, who has to sit and watch her do it eight times a week, is a generous person.

Reinking plays another murderess (Gwen Verdon's old role), and is also the choreographer, borrowing liberally and with acknowledgement from the work of her former lover and the show's original begetter, the late Bob Fosse. Fosse's original 1976 production was largely about his love- hate affair with his own talent for "Razzle Dazzle"(title of one of the best songs); with that element gone, the show - despite many pious pronouncements about its relevance in the wake of the O J Simpson trial and the new cynical mood of the 1990s - is both less exciting and more palatable. It's another musical about the delicious fun of sleaze. Like everything else, Chicago lost to A Chorus Line in `76, but the Kander and Ebb score still sounds fine, and it's perfectly possible that the goodwill it's earned them may win sympathy votes for their new show, Steel Pier. Let no one say that Broadway forgets. !