Does it warm your heart to know that certain deep-pocketed theatergoers were willing to cough up $499 a ticket – up to $1,600, scalped – to see Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mike Nichols’ loving recreation of Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman? It does mine, because (a) I’m certain they got their money’s worth, and (b) the financial feedback serves as solid proof that, whatever smoke and mirrors happen to be swirling about Broadway during any given season, quality will ultimately win out.
The 2011-2012 season proved a follow-up banner year in terms of both attendance and revenues, holding steady at the previous year's record-setting 12.3 million viewers served, while garnering $1 billion and change.
Among the 40 shows that opened (15 have since closed), classic excellence – exemplified by Salesman and the disputatious but undeniably powerful Porgy and Bess – shared the spotlight with youthful exuberance. Newsies, not exactly a box office smash in its filmic form, leapt to exhilarating life, thanks in large part to Christopher Gatteli’s obstreperous choreography. The book by Harvey Fierstein, with its timely message of solidarity among the 99 percent, won over audiences of all ages with its humor and bite, and Jeremy Jordan – who also shone in the short-lived Bonnie & Clyde (a pity one could see the ending a mile away) – emerged as a bona fide Gen Y matinee idol.
Once is the Gen X equivalent – a bit syrupy (and bland) for some tastes; still, a welcome opportunity to see the winsome Cristin Milioti work her magic.
Also deserving of the youth vote: Daniel Goldstein’s rambunctious in-the-round revival of Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell (Gatteli claims choreo credit again), which requires no Christian predisposition, just awe-struck admiration for the abundantly talented cast. In contrast, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar is showing its age (an epicene Herod, how outré!), as is the surprisingly pallid second coming of Evita.
Follies, fortunately, resurfaced in all its full-feathered glory, as if the past 30 years had been but a blink; Sondheim is writing for the ages, and Jan Maxwell et al. brittly broke hearts. (Also inspired: the choice of feisty Jane Houdyshell to sing “Broadway Baby.”)
Despite a sterling cast and Gore Vidal’s perdurably witty script, The Best Man reads as creaky, as does The Columnist, David Auburn’s newly penned portrait of 60s right-winger (and closet case) Joseph Alsop: If John Lithgow can’t elicit our empathy on his behalf, no one can.
Theresa Rebeck’s The Seminar, in too brief a run, gave us a new pundit to love to hate, a withering creative writing guru played to supercilious perfection by Alan Rickman. David Henry Hwang’s even more evanescent Chinglish had plenty of smarts on display, mainly the machinations of a cleverly seductive, manipulative politico (Jennifer Lim).
An all-African-American cast brings rich nuance – and laugh-out-loud humor - to Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire. Nicole Ari Parker renders a riveting Blanche, at once coldly calculating and circling the abyss.
British imports include Tracie Bennett fiercely channeling another soon-to-be-lost soul, Judy Garland, in the rather plodding bio-play End of the Rainbow (Michael Cumpsty is touching as her co-suffering accompanist). Whether you love farce may well hinge on which of two contenders you see: the rollicking One Man Two Guvnors (Goldoni goes Mod, starring the irresistibly jolly James Corden) or the mechanical sexual shenanigans of Marc Camoletti’s Don’t Dress for Dinner, which even the dry wit of Spencer Kayden proves powerless to salvage.
The season also saw a healthy infusion of transfers: a half-dozen shows whose legs carried them to bigger houses (where not all thrived). Among the more heartwarming leaps: Rick Elice’s scrappy, inventive Peter Pan prequel, Peter and the Starcatcher. Co-directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers catapult the strictures of low-budget panto into a stratosphere of high hilarity – hugely abetted by Christian Borle as Black Stache, a dastardly, poeticizing poseur of a pirate
Perhaps the most remarkable upgrade – because its psychological complexities resonate just as strongly despite a massive shift in scale – is David Ives’s study of female power, Venus in Fur, starring a restrained Hugh Dancy as a director who doesn’t begin to know his own mind, and the volcanic Nina Arianda as an ageless force to be reckoned with.