Postcard from New York: Giving new regard to Broadway

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IN THE 1920s, a theatre opening was about as big an event as happened socially in Manhattan, apart from debutante balls, Prohibition gang slayings, and meetings of the Algonquin Round Table. New Yorkers would polish the Rolls, dust off the silver fox stole, shake out the top hat and speed off to the gilded premiere, where they would be greeted by respectful photographers. This must be true, because one sees it in the movies. But ever since the talkies came lisping out of Hollywood, prompting Broadway talent to cut town and head for the Hollywood Hills, New York's thespian star has been on the wane. By the Thirties, farm girls no longer dreamt of being hoofers on 42nd Street; they longed to be discovered at Schwab's Drug Store. By the Forties, people who wanted their names in lights wanted those lights on a movie marquee, if you please, not on a tired old theatre bill. All this left New York decidedly out of the picture.

Gradually, relentlessly, California became the repository of theatrical glamour, while New York had to make do with Woody Allen's neurosis and Robert DeNiro's psychopathic taxi driving. Still, the show had to go on, if only to keep the restaurant and tourist businesses afloat, and thus, the New York stage slowly evolved into a geriatric nursery - a holding pen for busloads of easily-amused tourists and ageing rich couples who could think of nothing better to do. Musicals like Cats and A Chorus Line chugged off the conveyor belt, and if they managed to drag on for years, it was largely because nobody noticed they hadn't given up yet. Sometimes, someone would make a cast take off their clothes or do drugs on stage, which excited attention for a while and, in a pinch, anything British would improve local morale.

More recently, though, as hardened audiences became enured to nudity, psychedelia, and nostalgia, directors hurled themselves into special effects, making sliding, colliding, multi-tiered sets, and dropping helicopters on stage. They tried to combat viewer apathy by making plays really, really loud, so that deafened audiences would have to concede that they had survived a spectacle more jarring, if not more satisfying, than film. The culmination of that tactic was an off-Broadway show called Stomp!, in which men bang trash can lids for a couple of hours. Apart from a freak appearance by Madonna in a David Mamet play a decade ago, the native acting elites steered clear of Broadway until a play had the good fortune to be made into a film.

But a few years ago, all of this changed. Glenn Close unleashed her soprano in Sunset Boulevard on Broadway, and at about the same time, a chorus of screen names began a slow migration East. There was Marisa Tomei and Ethan Hawke, then Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, then TV talk show hostess Rosie O'Donnell, then Alan Alda, and before long, so many camera stars had legged it to the footlights that it began to seem as if actors were angling for movie roles only to get a chance at the Great White Way. A general impression spread that there was something at the theatre worth watching, and at dinner parties, the universal fallback topic - recent films - experienced a seismic shift. "Did you see that Strike Up the Band revival?" someone would say, offhand, and everyone else would scramble to come up with a comparable au fait reference. "No, but what did you think of June Moon, someone would rally, and round the table, the upmanship would skid. At the end of this month, Quentin Tarantino (an actual film director!) will mark the apotheosis of the stage revival by acting on Broadway, splattering the established film fantasy hierarchy on the wall like a brain in Pulp Fiction.

These days, when a new play opens here, a hundred friends of the slumming film actor who stars in it must show up at the premiere or lose bi-coastal clout. This means they need to polish the Rolls and dust the silver fox - which means a business bonanza for New York. At the recent premiere for the hip-hop biographical play Freak, for example, Rupert Everett, Isabella Rossellini, Grace Jones, Spike Lee, Diana Ross, Rosie Perez and scores of other People turned up for the cameras. At performances of the European import Art, applause for the actors begins before they even speak a word - a show of adulation from a humble audience that recognises the privilege of having the real-live film actors Alan Alda and Victor Garber (the doleful architect in Titanic) condescend to act for them in the flesh.

In part, the pollination return to grace of the New York theatre simply marks a step toward a new, hyper-cooperative East Coast-West Coast actors' buzz factory: call it cross-pollination. As an example of how the process works, the quick-paced, acid comedy, As Bees in Honey Drown, had only been playing for a couple of months when it flew into the movie studios, optioned by the actress Nicole Kidman. A film version is already in the works. In this new golden age of drama, if Hollywood and New York want to share the wealth, they will have to share the stage as well.

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