When I started covering the theater industry a decade ago, the Roundabout Theatre Company was in its prime. The theater company was still basking in the glow of its Cabaret triumph and was just about to open the American Airlines Theatre. It was the non-profit theater company that most other non-profit theater companies wanted to be. Companies like Manhattan Theatre Club were chasing it. It was obvious. On my early tour of the American Airlines, Roundabout Artistic Director Todd Haimes told us that the theater had more bathrooms per seat than any other Broadway theater. A few years later, when it was time for MTC to open the Biltmore, we were told that the Biltmore had the second most bathrooms per seat. But that was all the way back in 2003. Times change.
This week, many in the industry have been asking around to get an idea of how Sondheim on Sondheim rehearsals are going. That is because Roundabout cannot afford another failure. This is after all the season in which the company launched its third Broadway house, the Henry Miller's Theatre, with a revival of Bye Bye Birdie that was thought to be "can't miss" until, well, it started. After seeing it, the lyrics in the heads of theater fans may have been "I wanna see you out that door. Baby, bye, bye, bye," lyrics made famous by 'N Sync, not Charles Strouse and Lee Adams. (Though, "I'll try Birdie, to forget somehow..." might have been a secret chant for fans of the movie version.) I won't discuss in detail After Miss Julie, Present Laughter or The Understudy, but, overall, this has not been a season of hits for Roundabout. Wishful Drinking may have been the most successful entry and that wasn't really a Roundabout show.
Manhattan Theatre Club on the other hand is looking pretty good. While reviews for their off-Broadway offerings this season (Nightingale and Equivocation) have been mixed, the company scored big with their shows at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (né the Biltmore), The Royal Family and Time Stands Still. While MTC's previous season on the Great White Way was sort of a struggle--Nick Whitby's To Be Or Not To Be may go down in my mind as one of the most puzzling mountings ever--off-Broadway in 2008-2009 MTC presented Ruined. Ruined was so great that any previous MTC sins, including To Be Or Not To Be and last season's detestable off-Broadway opener Romantic Poetry, faded. Sort of at least. I still remember that MTC opened the Biltmore with the unnecessary The Violet Hour and then brought to Broadway the soggy Drowning Crow. And The Royal Family wasn't exactly in keeping with the theater's mission statement. All that said, MTC is riding extremely high compared to Roundabout.
So the pressure is on for Sondheim on Sondheim and Lips Together, Teeth Apart (a former MTC show), the forthcoming Broadway entries from Roundabout. The former will get the majority of the attention, as it is Sondheim, it is a musical and it will be considered purely a Roundabout creation (despite the previous involvement of another non-profit and producing team). But if either is a huge hit, it would help Roundabout tremendously. After all, things change quickly in this industry. A couple of years ago many sane theatergoers would have thought Playwrights Horizons' Artistic Director Tim Sanford should be forcibly removed from New York City. Now that Playwrights' last three offerings--Circle Mirror Transformation, This and Clybourne Park--were hits, he is suddenly seen as someone with taste again.
This explains the intent focus on Sondheim on Sondheim--it could be Roundabout's turnaround show. The economy combined with the non-profit's high overhead and the increasing competition out there (Second Stage enters the Broadway game shortly) means that, without a huge hit, next season will necessarily be marred by cost cutting measures. I hope that does not happen--I could live without a season filled with one person plays. So I am looking forward to writing in this space how much I loved Sondheim on Sondheim. In the meantime, I am refusing to answer emails about how rehearsals are going. Stop sending them. Only time will tell if the show is more Follies than Frogs.