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Musical chairs

How much should Broadway matter to Atlantans?



From our vantage here in Atlanta, does it matter that the toasts of Broadway are movie funnymen Mel Brooks and John Waters? Currently Hairspray, the musical adaptation of Waters' 1988 film, is being hailed as "the new Producers," the musical adaptation of Brooks' 1967 film.
Broadway remains nearly the exclusive source of America's musical theater, with most successful musicals requiring the imprimatur of a New York run. But Broadway seems to be entering a reactionary phase, deriving its source material from other forms of pop culture, like movies or hit singles: The musical Mamma Mia! is structured around the ABBA songbook, for instance.

Such cultural cross-breeds aren't always critical and commercial hits, with The Sweet Smell of Success and the non-musical The Graduate coming to mind. Still, The Producers' phenomenal popularity should set the tone for the musicals that get Broadway tryouts. (I envision a stage version of a John Hughes teen flick like Sixteen Candles, replete with early '80s new wave tunes.)

Atlanta, like other major cities, has a trickle-down relationship with New York theater, getting the touring versions of the major plays. We won't see The Producers here until the summer of 2003 at the earliest, and instead of getting the show's initial marquee names, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, we'll be lucky if we don't get third-string celebrities -- say George Wendt and Scott Baio -- as the headliners. At least we get Mamma Mia! starting Sept. 24 at the Fox Theatre's Atlanta Broadway series.

It may be sad to see Broadway relying so heavily on second-hand sources, but the trend could be worse -- and has been. Who wouldn't rather see an enthusiastically campy work with genuine showmanship -- which Hairspray and The Producers reportedly have -- than self-important pieces of inadvertent kitsch like the spectacles of Andrew Lloyd Webber?

Fortunately, New York doesn't hold the only options, with a third way suggested by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The center has been hosting a thorough, summer-long retrospective of Stephen Sondheim musicals, and it's fitting that the nation's capital should salute a composer and lyricist who's a national treasure.

Perhaps inspired by the Kennedy Center, Atlanta's upcoming theater season itself offers a kind of mini-celebration of Sondheim. Actor's Express stages Gypsy, the backstage drama of the life of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, beginning Sept. 12. The New American Shakespeare Company presents the knockabout Roman farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (a surprising omission from the Kennedy Center's lineup) in January. And in May, the Alliance Theatre stages Sondheim's lesser-known Pacific Overtures, which offers nothing less than the modern history of Japan.

None of these are new shows, with Overtures, which originally opened in 1976, being the most recent. But part of the genius of the 72-year-old composer is that even when his subject matter is dated, his shows feel fresh. Actor's Express had a hit last season with Sondheim's Company, and though its perspective on dating and relationships reflected the views of the 1970s, its core concerns proved universal.

Old Sondheim, paradoxically, can feel newer than new musicals based on familiar films. And Sondheim's virtues -- intricate lyrics, thoughtful melodies, diversity of subject matter -- set an example for the musicals yet to be written in the 21st century, in Atlanta and the rest of the nation. New York needn't even enter into the equation.

Angel in Atlanta One of next season's biggest non-musical theatrical events will be Horizon Theatre's production of Homebody/Kabul, Tony Kushner's most significant play since Angels in America. Written before Sept. 11, the play proves astoundingly prescient, as it involves an English housewife who disappears in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Horizon nearly passed on the opportunity to stage Homebody/Kabul. It's a costly production with a huge cast -- the New York show ran nearly four hours -- and artistic director Lisa Adler says the playhouse had trouble justifying the expense. But one of the theater's board members offered to anonymously cover the costs of the play, which will open March 28, thanks to Horizon's guardian angel.

A Creative Stretch Dad's Garage Theatre is postponing its October production of Owl Stretching Time, an assortment of works by members of Monty Python, at the request of the English comedy troupe. Ex-Python Terry Jones e-mailed the theater requesting they put off the show's Southeastern premiere so newly discovered Python sketches can be included.


Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.

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