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A Season of Self-Regard.

SHOW PEOPLE HAVE always romanticized what they do, and from Show Boat forward, we've had musicals about musical entertainers. Tick them off quickly in your head and you come up with some of the musical theater's brightest gems. Babes in Arms. Gypsy. Funny Girl. A Chorus Line. But with the last official opening of the 2000-2001 season, 42nd Street, the year as a whole clicked into focus: It was Broadway at its most self-celebratory. * And the most self-indulgently navel-gazing show of them all is, of course, 42nd Street itself, which has nothing--nothing--on its mind beyond dazzling audiences with extravagantly showy musical numbers. Randy Skinner's reconstructions and augmentations of the original 1980 choreography by Gower Champion make 42nd Street the dancingest show on Broadway. But the book, by Michael Stewart \and Mark Bramble, provides only the scantest link between one vintage song and the next. * "Think of musical comedy !" roars Michael Cumpsty, wonderful as the crusty director of 42nd Street's show-within-a-show, in his pep talk to the ingenue played by Kate Levering. "The most glorious words in the English language!" Well, there have been no arguments coming from the theater district, where The Producers is convulsing audiences with the no-holds-barred humor of Mel Brooks and the canny direction of Susan Stroman. Where the Roundabout Theatre has brought back to Broadway the variety musicals of the 1920s and the concept musicals of the '70s by reviving Stephen Sondheim's Follies. Where six guys in their skivvies have been giving grinning audiences The Full Monty since September. Where the lyricist of A Chorus Line, Ed Kleban, is the main character in A Class Act, the musical created after his death from the manuscripts he left behind. And where George Gershwin is the only character in a one-man show celebrating his life and work, George Gershwin Alone.

Of the season's remaining musicals, another three are at least peripherally concerned with show business. The male protagonist of Bells Are Ringing is a playwright stuck for an idea for his next show. The Rocky Horror Show is nothing if not a tribute to the movie that was made of the original 1975 musical. And if Blast!, the strung-together collection of marching-band numbers, can be said to have a subject, it is the marching band itself.

Then there are the many long-running hits tied to entertainment: Annie Get Your Gun (Annie saves Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show); Cabaret (the nightclub as a microcosm of Weimar Germany); Chicago (vaudeville comes to the jail-house); Fosse (his life and work as a dancing man); Kiss Me, Kate (the taming of a musical-comedy shrew); and Phantom of the Opera (the taming of an opera monster). Why, even some of the kids in Rent are putting on a show! You could easily come to the conclusion that the Broadway musical has given up trying to consider any other subject. Can it be an accident that the three musicals with the least staying power this season, Jane Eyre, Seussical, and Tom Sawyer, were all based on books?

That's probably a coincidence, like the fact that those three shows were also the ones with the least persuasive dance segments. Jane Eyre was really more of a sung play than a conventional Broadway musical, and the heroines of nineteenth-century Gothic romances weren't known for their prowess in the kick line. But Tom Sawyer and Seussical seemed to offer plenty of opportunities for rousing dance numbers that never quite happened.

Blast!, on the other hand, was long on choreographic energy but short on content. That didn't stop the Tony Award administrators from giving it a special prize--a discouraging development to those of us who think that a parade, no matter how cleverly packaged, should take place in the street and be free for all, while the stage should be reserved for shows with substance.

But once you begin asking whether a musical has enough substance to be stage-worthy, you find yourself on a slippery slope indeed. For all its oomph as a dance event, 42nd Street is as intellectually and emotionally empty as Blast! And it's hardly the only hit in Broadway history that would disintegrate at a breath. It would be difficult to defend, say, Hair or The Phantom of the Opera, on the basis of content. And don't look too closely at Hello Dolly! or Miss Saigon, either.

AS A MATTER of fact, start analyzing the phenomenon of the season and perhaps the decade, The Producers, and you find a show with many of the same basic elements as 42nd Street. They are both about the hatching of a musical, and make lavish use of the numbers from the fictional musical in the actual one. Their only agenda is to be entertaining, and they boast terrific dance sequences and catchy tunes (though of course those from 42nd Street were caught many, many years ago). So why is The Producers so much more satisfying than 42nd Street?

You could start by citing its all-star cast, headed by Nathan Lane at his zaniest and Matthew Broderick at his sniveling best. You could mention the manic jokes that seem to come at you from twelve directions at once. But it seems likely that even with big stars and a funnier book, 42nd Street would still feel synthetic, and that down the road, when the jokes have worn thin from repetition and complete unknowns are playing Bialystock and Bloom, The Producers will still be wondrously effective. The masons have to do with the most mysterious, intangible, and irreplaceable element in a musical: direction.

It's not a question of experience. Mark Bramble has been directing productions of 42nd Street ever since Gower Champion's death on the day the show opened on Broadway. And Stroman is still something of a newcomer to the Broadway directing ranks, though she has of course been a choreographer for years. Could she have sparked 42nd Street? Could Bramble have flattened The Producers? What would The Full Monty look like if someone other than Jack O'Brien had directed it? These questions don't have answers, and anyway, it's time to move on: Here comes the 2001-2002 season.

Sylviane Gold has written about theater for the Boston Phoenix, the Wall Street Journal, Newsday, The New York Times, and other publications.
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Title Annotation:musicals about show business
Author:Gold, Sylviane
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2001
Words:1042
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