As Broadway clambered back to life late last summer the Broadway League, in a break from custom, didn’t release the grosses of individual shows. But the boxoffice news regarding the revivals of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man and Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite was too good not to share. With Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster singing and dancing in the former and the long-married Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker as two pairs of long-marrieds (and a third couple) in the latter dramedy the power of stardom, diminished elsewhere, shines bright along the Great White Way.
(…which is enduring another COVID surge as I write, with Plaza Suite halting performances waiting for the afflicted stars to get the all-clear and several others on and Off Broadway sidelined, but the shows will go on as the wildly unpredictable 2021-2022 season nears its end.)
Let’s start with Broadway’s top ticket, The Music Man. People are clamoring to get tickets. Me? I’ve seen it…twice. Once in my official capacity, and once as a paying civilian. I bought tickets (bought tickets, unthinkable) for my family of four, my sister, and my nephew on Thanksgiving 2019, expecting to see it December 2020. (The kidney I did not donate for this Christmas gift is doing fine, thanks.) We made it to the Winter Garden late last month, about two-and-a-half-years later. Covid!
By then, my sister Courtney and I had already seen it, right after it opened in February. The Music Man, the 1962 film adaptation, has been her thing since childhood, when she never missed an airing on HBO or Cinemax. (Flash Gordon was my obsession, so Ted made me feel seen; we both shared a passion for Tommy.) I’ve never quite understood how a fashion-conscious style maven could love something as square as The Music Man, but she has good taste. It’s perfect of its type, and retains Robert Preston’s Tony-winning performance as that lovable rapscallion Professor Harold Hill.
But Preston casts a long shadow over the property. Craig Bierko was a smirky non-entity in the part in the last, 2000 revival, which I also twice, with Robert Sean Leonard trying endearingly hard the second time. The role would seem a perfect fit for Jackman, and this revival has accommodated his dancing prowess, highlighted by Warrem Carlyle’s splendidly choregraphed kinetic romp in the River City library. But he was somewhat low energy the first time we saw it, maybe because the mixed reviews had come in, and maybe because the audience was full of second-string critics with their knives bared, like me. It was a more effortful performance than I might have imagined; what Preston incarnated, in his cons and barnstorming and unflappable good cheer, Jackman sells.
Bierko and Leonard were bailed out by their estimable Marian, the late Rebecca Luker, whose warm soprano bathed the theater. Foster (for whom The Mary Tyler Moore Story should be made an immediate priority) is more of a belter, socking her way through standards like “Till There Was You,” and her rowdy acting isn’t the best fit for the character. I will say that when I saw it a few weeks later with my family both had relaxed in their roles, less strained; that said, they also made each other break at a key dramatic moment, blunting its impact. Not great for the show.
With nothing to replace them nor are some cuts to what Mayor Shinn might call the “phraseology” of the production, not that anyone who’s come to stargaze will notice. In other words, not a triumph, like director Jerry Zaks’ revival of Hello, Dolly! five seasons back. But: it does make effective use of an enormous ensemble that spans the massive Winter Garden stage, and the supporting cast is overflowing with matchless talent happy to spend a year or so with Hugh and Sutton: Jefferson Mays at Shinn, Jayne Houdyshell stealing the show with her array of hats and costumes (by Santo Loquasto) as his wife Eulalie, Jackman’s BFF Shuler Hensley as his comrade in larceny Marcellus, and Marie Mullen as Marian’s mother. The kids are excellent, charming mine, and everyone in my house loved the perfectly mimed “Rock Island” train ride of the traveling salesmen that gets The Music Man off to a fast start. It’s bumpy after that, for two unexpected reasons, but still a good if never great production.
Neil Simon’s stellar playwriting career earned him an eponymous theater, and The Odd Couple will endure in the culture as one of the great 20th century comedies. Four years after his death, however, in much changed times the brand has lost its luster. Revivals of most of his shows, so wedded to their time and place and attitude, are an iffy proposition, and Plaza Suite doesn’t make much of a case for trying. Thanks to John Lee Beatty’s gorgeously upholstered set, a room in New York’s fabled Plaza Hotel, and the costumes of Jane Greenwood, lights by Brian MacDevitt, and sound by Scott Lehrer it’s a first-class presentation papering over some noticeable cracks.
The show consists of three playlets, all featuring Broderick and Parker. In “Visitor from Mamaroneck” they’re a couple married so long they can’t remember quite how long they’ve been married, and the union unravels in the most dramatic of the vignettes. “Visitor from Hollywood” casts Broderick as an unhappy producer putting the make on his married-with-children high school girlfriend, only to find she’s more interested in movie star gossip than him. The slapstick closer “Visitor from Forest Hills,” the highlight of the 1971 film version when Walter Matthau and Lee Grant played it, has the pair desperately trying to extract their frightened daughter from the bathroom on her wedding day.
The great character leads George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton portrayed all the couples in the original 1968 production, and you can see how they might have trooped through it under the direction of Mike Nichols. Broderick and Parker were quite winning when the latter joined him in a revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1996, a year before their marriage. But they’re a mismatch here. Parker is often quite inspired, wringing pathos from the first story and the laughs still to be had in the material from the other two. It’s too often a lonely struggle, however. I don’t know what’s happened to Broderick as a stage actor. At 21 he won his first Tony for Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, and he’s still a reliable TV and film performer. (Well, not in a 2003 TV version of The Music Man, another victim of the Preston curse.) How to Succeed… fetched him his second but since his nominated turn as Leo Bloom in The Producers he’s basically just repeated the same nasal shtick–there’s no difference between most of his work here and in Broadway’s last, lazy Odd Couple revival. The exception is the second, throwaway scene, where he loosens up as the egotistical producer brought up short by his old flame, and with their flaky Sixties-era costumes he and Parker harmonize. She’s doing too much of the work, though, and can’t bring the full funny on her own. As a director stage veteran John Benjamin Hickey is a fine actor, unable to light much of a fire under half of his cast. Plaza Suite, not Simon’s best work under the best of circumstances, wasn’t meant to be a room for one.