Woman takes Flight

Woman in White' is dressed for success—the early line on next year's Tony contenders.
LA Times by Tom O’Neil

In recent years, if you walked by the Majestic Theater in New York, you could hear an ironic song echoing out into the Broadway night: "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again." It's almost as if the "Phantom of the Opera" performers were calling out to their creator, Andrew Lloyd Webber, imploring him to return to the Great White Way. Now, with "The Woman in White," it seems Lord Andrew has finally heeded their call. Webber's new show is a more modest confection than his earlier hits--including the likes of "Phantom," "Cats" and "Evita"--but it was been a hot ticket in London, which suggests it will probably be successful here, too. Indeed, the audience cheered its official premiere last Friday. And in an early survey of leading contenders for next year's Tony Awards, which take place June 1, "The Woman in White" emerges as Webber's best chance in a decade to reclaim a spot as one of Broadway's brightest lights. Lord Andrew once ruled the Great White Way, and in some respects, he still does. In January, "Phantom" will become the longest-running musical in Broadway history, surpassing "Cats," which ran for 7,485 performances. But his career has been a setting sun since "Sunset Boulevard" in 1995, the last time he won Best Musical at the Tonys. (He'd won the award previously with "Cats," "Evita" and "Phantom.") In the last 10 years, two Webber shows died en route to Broadway ("Whistle Down the Wind" and "Beautiful Games") while another, "By Jeeves," made it to New York, only to close after 73 performances and no Tony nominations. What made such failures especially stinging was how Webber's misfortune delighted Broadway hipsters. Among pop culture vultures, it's officially uncool to like Webber. Even Tony voters never fully gave the maestro his due. Consider "Phantom." When the show won the Tony for best musical in 1989, Webber was beaten in the race for best musical composition by Stephen Sondheim ("Into the Woods"). Overall, Sondheim has won six composing Tonys -- twice as many as Webber.

One reason: In a cynical age, Webber has the gall to write music that's unabashedly romantic. And worse, he writes it for tourists in a theater town governed by an elite corps of purists. "The Woman in White," like the most successful Webber productions, is a confection tourists are likely to gobble up. But the show also managed to stave off slaughter by critics, most of whom hovered with long knives throughout rehearsals and preview performances. Yes, the New York Times plunged its weapon. But that was expected, since lead theater critic Ben Brantley had slashed away at the show when he saw it in London months ago. The Associated Press called the show "a little dull around the edges," and Variety said it "feels sadly hollow," but that was the worst of it. Some critics even dared to like it! The New York Daily News called it a "breathtaking piece of musical theater" and the New York Post declared it to be "a must-see," hailing it as "a thrilling musical with a weirdly engrossing tale full of artiface and spine-chiller twists." At this point, "The Woman in White" seems all but certain to garner a best musical nominaton for next year's Tonys, and who knows where it could go from there. There's not much competition looming. "Lestat," which opens in April, looks promising because it's based on Anne Rice's popular, sexy vampire, but its score is by Elton John, whose "Aida" wasn't nominated in 2001. Disney's got "Tarzan" coming in May, with music written by Phil Collins, but Backstage managing editor David Sheward says, "I've heard mixed things about it." Two jukebox tuners have a shot, but they pick up old music -- "Jersey Boys" (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) and "Ring of Fire" (Johnny Cash). Good buzz surrounds the Oprah Winfrey-produced "The Color Purple," which opens Dec. 1, but there are no superstars in the cast and "Purple" has lousy luck at showbiz awards. The Steven Spielberg movie is tied with "The Turning Point" as the biggest loser in Oscar history (11 defeats). Some crazy producers are turning Adam Sandler's movie, "The Wedding Singer," into a musical opening in April, but Tony voters will probably laugh it off the stage. There are whisperings of musicals coming to Broadway based upon "Lord of the Rings" and "Catch Me If You Can," too, but so far they're not scheduled.

"The Woman in White" also seems sure to reap a Tony nomination for its star, Maria Friedman, who invoked the sacred Broadway credo of "the show must go on" even though she was diagnosed with breast cancer on Oct. 31. Friedman underwent emergency surgery five days later and returned to the footlights in a week. The veteran London stage trouper was greeted with wild cheers from audiences, and even curmudgeonly critic Brantley noted that she made "an impeccably professional Broadway debut." Another factor in favor of the production is that it was nommed for Best Musical at the Olivier Awards, London's equivalent to the Tonys. "The Woman in White" lost to "The Producers" over there, but every show does that. "The Producers," let's recall, holds the record for most wins in Tonys history (12). Speaking of "The Producers," it's a fair guess that stars Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane will not be returning to this year's Tonys as stars of "The Odd Couple." Its entire run up to April 2 is sold out -- with a record $21.5 million in advance ticket sales -- but the production received the kind of reviews usually reserved for Andrew Lloyd Webber. In its review of "The Odd Couple," Variety called the show "a moneymaking enterprise without creative justification" and lambasted Broderick for creating an "emotional hole" in the center of the play by barely taking the Felix character "beyond whiny and annoying." The one show guaranteed a top nomination is the update of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." "It's got the Tony for Best Revival locked up," insists Sheward. Not only is the production reaping praise from critics, but "it marks the big comeback of a Broadway baby," notes theater journalist Paul Sheehan. "It's Patti Lupone's first musical on Broadway since the revival of 'Anything Goes' 18 years ago at Lincoln Center. Everybody's always pulling for her because she's a great stage star who seldom gets her due. She proved she can carry a show as Andrew Lloyd Webber's original Broadway Evita, but he didn't let her do 'Sunset Boulevard' even though she originated the role in London." Webber wanted more starpower for "Sunset" -- that role went to Glenn Close, who had scored so well with the role in Los Angeles, then proved herself by winning Tony and Drama Desk Awards. Among upcoming plays, two are highly anticipated. "Well," an Off-Broadway show written by and starring Lisa Kron, moves to Broadway after a successful long run downtown. And "The History Boys" is a British import "that could become the 'Doubt' of this season," says Sheward, referring to the sold-out play that swept the last Tonys. Among superstars on Broadway, expect recognition for Julia Roberts in "Three Days of Rain." "She'll get a token nomination," Sheward believes. One superstar unlikely to shine on Tony night, though, is Britney Spears. There's scuttlebutt that the past "winner" of Razzie Awards for Worst Film Actress might replace Christina Applegate in "Sweet Charity." Next year the Tonys are adding a category for performers who replace a production's original stars. But Sheehan expects that race to be a runaway for longtime Tony fave Harvey Fierstein.

Thanks to Doris for finding and sharing

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