The economic crisis of 2008 has affected everybody. It hit Broadway particularly hard and it might have been inevitable that productions of less than stellar quality made it to the stages. Audiences shrunk, fewer and fewer Broadway regulars and tourists were willing to pay for tickets, and inflexible agreements with unions will have contributed as well to the downturn. Traditionally lavish Broadway shows shrunk both in set, orchestra, and more often than not in cast as well as cast quality. This, coupled with the phenomenon of the contraction of some pertinent sectors of loyal theater fans seems to shape Broadway's present and future.
But Broadway's experienced and at times shrewd producers do not resign themselves to this new state of affairs. They started to look into creative ways to attract new crowds. One of the most visible new approaches is the casting of Hollywood talent to star on New York's stages. And so we have seen Denzel Washington in Fences, Jude Law in Hamlet, Scarlet Johansson and Liev Schreiber in A View from the Bridge and Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury in A Little Night Music. No wonder that the Tony Awards this year resembled an Oscar ceremony, with many of the pertinent Broadway stars being absent.
To state this fact is not at all to argue that Hollywood stars should not display their talent to Broadway. Angela Lansbury in an unforgettable performance, as well as Catherine Zeta-Jones, who also won the Tony for her performance as Desiree, have proven to justify their excellence not only on the big and small screens but also in a challenging Stephen Sondheim musical. And indeed, the audience recognized excellence and flocked to the Walter Kerr Theater and filled it to the last seat night after night.
What is most striking about the recent perfected revival of A Little Night Music is what followed the end of Zeta-Jones/Lansbury engagement. In early June, after the Tony and much acclaim the producers decided to extend the running of the show and were looking for a powerful duo to replace the successful original team. Rumor has it that Bernadette Peters, even though considered to be a Sondheim 'queen,' was not inclined to take the offer. After all, a star of her caliber is used to open musicals of the highest standards, but not to replace an outgoing star. And Elaine Stritch's participation was in doubt because of the challenges and physical requirements. But there was a happy end and both agreed to join.
Those who were lucky enough to get tickets and watch A Little Night Music starring the Peters-Stritch duo have witnessed what a mega powerful casting can accomplish. Peters was in her element as she did what comes to her almost naturally, as if she was born Desiree Amfeld. And Stritch certainly stole the show: She was nothing but phenomenal, forgetting some of the lines and all.
But it is not just the new cast that makes or breaks a show. There is something magical about this production that makes it stand out. I suspect that the secret is in its modesty, which would make much sense when speaking about an already complicated and profound Sondheim masterpiece. Trevor Nunn's sensitive interpretation of the text combined with a keen understanding of the music is so powerful that a minimal set, a simple choreography and intimately staged scenes are the ingredients of the successful show. The combination with a carefully assembled cast leaves the audience mesmerized. Now/Later/Soon.
And so, what starts off as A Little Night Music ends up as nothing less than a Grand one. A rarity on Broadway in these tough times.