2009 was an incredible year on Broadway across all mediums. Just watching the Tony Awards opening number was enough to confirm that a lot happened during this season – from big budget transfers to flop revivals and some more tactful celebrity casting. The most sensational new show of the year came from writers Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt and was a surprise hit. Next to Normal the rock musical concerns a mother who suffers from worsening bi-polar disorder as she struggles to bring up and look after her family in suburban America. After a run Off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre in 2008 the musical transferred to the Booth Theatre with an official opening on April 15. Alice Ripley starred as the mother and Brian d’Arcy James was replaced by J. Robert Spencer due to the former’s commitment to Shrek at the Broadway Theatre. The powerful show was met favourably by critics who found the subject matter brave and the effect of the show ‘breathtaking’. It took one year for Broadway investors to recoup their initial $4million for the show, which ran for 733 performances, closing in January 2011. The show was a sensation amongst fans and went on to win a host of awards including Tony Awards for Best Original Score, Best Orchestrations and Best Actress for Ripley.
Over at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre a somewhat lighter alternative opened to a different crowd. Rock of Ages, a jukebox musical using classic songs from the 1980s found a home on Broadway after originally opening in LA in 2006. The show offered a tongue in cheek approach to the musical genre, with songs such as ‘I Can’t Fight This Feeling’, ‘The Final Countdown’ and ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ bringing down the house each night. Critics were initially sceptical of the show, but audiences were encouraged by the ridiculous nature and flocked to support the show, going so far as supporting the show in getting the Guinness World Record for the Largest Air Guitar ensemble after a matinee performance. The show’s success sparked film interest and it was revealed that Warner Brothers would release the film in 2012.
Dolly Parton’s musical 9 to 5 opened in the same month at the Marquis Theatre as part of the 2009 Broadway Season. Using the 1980 movie ‘Nine to Five’ as the basis, the show was developed by Parton and book writer Patricia Resnick into a full scale musical. Joe Mantello directed the production, which featured choreography by Andy Blakenbuehler and design by Scott Pask. Stephanie J Block headed the original cast alongside Megan Hilty and Marc Kudisch. Described by the New York Times as an ‘overinflated whoopee cushion’ the show was critically savaged, with the best reviews describing it as mindless entertainment. The show failed to excite audiences, staggering through the summer and closing on September 6 after 148 performances.
The first revivals of the season came from two classic musicals which have enjoyed success all over the world. Guys and Dolls opened at the Nederlander Theatre on March 1 starring Oliver Platt, Lauren Graham and Craig Bierko in a new production by director Des McAnuff. Despite being one of the most popular musicals of the 20th century, this revival was described as being flat and uninspired, featuring a distinctly average cast. The critics hated the show, praising the material but finding numerous faults with the production. Producers allowed the show to try and find an audience, but on June 14 the plug was pulled on the show after only 113 performances. Over at the Palace Theatre the Arthur Laurents directed revival of West Side Story was met with more praise, thanks to the fresh lens the writer put on the show. Opening on March 19 after a preview period in Washington the show featured a bi-lingual libretto, incorporating the Sharks’ native Spanish language into the show. Laurents drew on the experience of Lin-Manuel Miranda, author of In the Heights who helped transform Sondheim’s lyrics into their Spanish alternatives: “Un Hombre Asi” (A Boy Like That) and “Me Siento Hermosa” (I Feel Pretty). Many criticised the move but Laurents defended it saying that in this modern age it was appropriate to see the Sharks communicate in their native language which would ultimately bring a new life to the relationship between Tony and Maria. Despite winning a Grammy Award for Best Show Album, the creative team replaced the Spanish lyrics with the original English ones in August 2009. Karen Olivo starred as the feisty Anita, winning the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress, alongside unknown Josefina Scaglione as Maria. The production rattled up 748 performances, selling over a million tickets before closing in January 2011.
The most successful plays of the season were also revivals. Noel Coward’s classic play Blithe Spirit opened in March at the Schubert Theatre starring Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati alongside Christine Ebersole and Rupert Everett. The production was praised mainly due to Lansbury’s interpretation of the role and she won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a play. Studio 54 presented a production of Waiting for Godot that ran between April and July starring Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, receiving rave reviews and played to sell out audiences. Friedrich Schiller’s play Mary Stuart played at the Broadhurst Theatre from April to August with a brand new production directed by Phyllida Lloyd. The play is a thrilling account of the relationship between Elizabeth I and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots and their battle for England’s Throne. Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer brought both characters to life, playing for a sell out run. The Roundabout Theatre Company brought a revival of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler to the American Airlines Theatre at the beginning of the year, starring Michael Cerveris and Mary-Louise Parker as the ill-fated Tesman couple. The production, directed by Ian Rickson, received mainly positive reviews, although many felt that Parker’s portrayal of the tragic heroine was far from definitive.
Short lived revivals of Bye Bye Birdie and Finian’s Rainbow filled the fall gap on Broadway but failed to inspire much audience reaction, closing at a loss after only a couple of months. The biggest victim was the beautiful revival of Ragtime which transferred from Washington to the Neil Simon Theatre, playing from November – January 2010. The production featured a spectacular 28 piece orchestra along with an energetic cast of 40, resulting in high running costs across the run. Unlike the London production, the show was a full spectacle with beautiful scenic design by Derek McLane. Despite fans of the show fighting to keep it alive the demand was not met, and the show closed prematurely, despite wide critical appeal.
Two West End transfers managed to create their mark on Broadway in different ways. The first was The Norman Conquests trilogy which had previously played at London’s Old Vic. The full cycle was presented at the Circle in the Square from April to July to rave reviews for Alan Ayckbourn’s comedic masterpiece. The Menier Chocolate Factory struck gold again as its production of Sondheim classic A Little Night Music found a home on Broadway. Directed by Trevor Nunn the show transferred with many of the West End cast including Alexander Hanson. British actress Catherine Zeta Jones headed the new production as Desiree Armfeldt, opening at the Walter Kerr in December, alongside Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt. This was the first revival of the 70s musical on Broadway, and Nunn’s Chekhovian inspired production ran into 2011, with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch joining the cast after the show closed for a brief hiatus.
The biggest new show of the year opened in October at the Schubert Theatre. Memphis the musical by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro is based on the Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, who was one of the first white DJ’s to play black music in the 1950s. This powerful show features a superb score of musical hits charting the birth of Rock and Roll in America. The production was directed by Christopher Ashley and went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2010.