Magazine article Out

Emotional Rescue

Magazine article Out

Emotional Rescue

Article excerpt

An unhealthy addiction to celebrity casting and mega budgets is threatening tríe soul or the Broadway musical. Luckily, help is on the way.

HOW DO you solve a problem like Broadway? The most expensive musical ever is this year's $50-million Broadway gamble, SpiderMan: Turn Off the Dark, whose March opening has been delayed until November. Its inexperienced lead producer, David Garfinkle, was the type of creative mind who might peddle Spider-Man pajamas or Spider-Man cereal, the kind of person who sees Broadway as a platform for brand extension. Garfinkle is out, and financial rescue is now coming from a familiar white knight for Broadway: Disney.

The burden of blockbusters is just one example of what ails Broadway and is symptomatic of the larger problem: a pervasive sense that theater and marketing are interchangeable. It's the same mind-set that goes for celebrity casting in shows or the reliance on derivative material. Thankfully, though, there's a contingent of folks giving Broadway the antidote it needs. But will it take its medicine?

Even ignoring derivative adaptations and revivals, stunt casting has run amok. Last year saw two runs of Hamlet; The New York Times called one a "perfect portrayal"; the other starred Jude Law "gesturing and enunciating violently." It's tough to say how many people who waited in the rain last summer for Anne Hathaway's Shakespeare in the Park run knew that they were in line for Twelfth Night. But it's safe to say all of them knew Hathaway was starring. How many people bought tickets to Daniel Radcliffe's penis and happened to catch a performance of Equus as well? Stunt casting has become normal - even expected.

Since its 1996 revival, Chicago has cast George Hamilton, Marilù Henner, Jasmine Guy, Sandy Duncan, Jennifer HoIliday, Sharon Lawrence, Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson, both Dukes of Hazzard (John Schneider and Tom Wopat), Alan Thicke, Robert Urich, Billy Zane, Paige Davis, Wayne Brady, Melanie Griffith, Joey Lawrence, Huey Lewis, Brian McKnight, Gretchen MoI, Usher, Brooke Shields, Ashlee Simpson-Wentz, Jerry Springer, Patrick Swayze, Chandra Wilson, Rita Wilson, Harry Hamlin and Lisa Rinna, John O'Hurley, Robin Givens, and - for five days in February 2002 - Louis Gossett Jr. Many of them were Broadway debuts.

Jody Shelton is no stranger to celebrity castings. In 1997, he lost the role of Mark in an L.A. production of Reni to Neil Patrick Harris. So he moved to Chicago and became the musical director of the touring company for the Second City, one of the nation's premier comedy collectives. He's now in New York City, in a troupe called Baby Wants Candy, a possible remedy to all those Broadway woes.

Baby performs hour-long improvised musical comedies - a full story arc, subplots, running gags, a full band, highbrow camp, and lots of jokes. But no set design. No costumes. No big-name celebrities. No rehearsals. "Broadway is now a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox," Shelton says. "If you know the intermission is coming, the show's not drawing you in. We're unafraid of Broadway taboos. We're able to be, because it's not real; it's imaginary, improvised. You rip off your improvised shirt, pull down your improvised pants. It's improvised kissingand improvised butt sex."

Baby shows typically feature just five of the troupe's 13 regular players. They include Jack McBrayer (Kenneth of NBC's 30 Rock) and Peter Gwinn, an Emmy-winning writer for The Colbert Report. One actor, Thomas Middleditch, does improvised Shakespeare (rhyming iambic pentameter and all). They've performed thousands of one-night-only musicals in their 13-year run, including Puke and Rally, Hannukah Bloody Hannukah, Fm the Only Black Person in This Room, Love on the F Train, and John Wilkes Booth and His Magical Talking Tooth.

"People think improvised means slapdash, but it's not," says Stuart Ranson, a Baby member. "We're just not commercial in the way that most theater, unfortunately, is. …

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