[sixties-l] Off, Off and Away: 40 Years of Off-Broadway

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: 01/14/01

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    Friday December 15
    Off, Off and Away: 40 Years of Off-Broadway
    1960, the year of Back Stage's birth, was also a seminal year for the 
    Off-Broadway movement. Previous to the start of this decade, the smaller 
    stages far from Times Square concentrated on mounting revivals of neglected 
    serious Broadway fare which deserved a second look (like Tennessee 
    Williams' "Summer and Smoke," Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," and 
    Brecht and Weill's "The Threepenny Opera"), or entertaining yet silly 
    musicals like "The Boy Friend," "Leave It to Jane," and "Little Mary Sunshine."
    In the first year of the '60s, Off-Broadway began to foster its own 
    playwrights and original productions.
    Actually, the first long-running new American Off-Broadway hit had opened 
    the year before. "The Connection" by Jack Gelber opened July 15, 1959, 
    directed by Judith Malina, who co-founded the revolutionary Living Theatre 
    with her husband, Julian Beck. The show was a breakthrough in many ways. 
    While its controversial subject matter (drug addiction) had been tackled on 
    Broadway before (1955's "A Hatful of Rain"), "The Connection" brought the 
    topic right into the laps of the audience. The fourth wall was broken. 
    Characters spoke to the audience. There was no plot-junkies discussed their 
    condition while waiting for their connection to deliver needed drugs. Most 
    mainstream critics ignored the play, but Jerry Tallmer of the Village Voice 
    praised it, building up a following and forcing uptown reviewers to take 
    new Off-Broadway shows seriously.
    In 1960, three important shows marked the beginnings of several trends. A 
    double bill at the Provincetown Playhouse of Samuel Beckett's "Krapp's Last 
    Tape" and Edward Albee's "The Zoo Story" heralded the interest in the 
    former playwright and the establishment of the latter as an important new 
    voice in American drama. Jean Genet's "The Balcony" at the Circle in the 
    Square gave rise to an invasion of French authors and opened the way for 
    audience acceptance of avant-garde, non-representational theatre. "The 
    Fantasticks," a charming, music box of a show, began its legendary 
    engagement at the Sullivan Street Theatre, where it still reigns today as 
    the longest-running musical on or Off-Broadway, or anywhere in the world, 
    for that matter.
    The political unrest and social upheaval of the decade were reflected 
    Off-Broadway as boundaries and taboos were broken. Race relations were 
    savagely ripped apart in Genet's "The Blacks," which featured a cast of 
    future star performers, including Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones, 
    Cicely Tyson, Louis Gossett, Godfrey Cambridge, and Maya Angelou. 
    Homosexuality burst out of the closet in Mart Crowley's "The Boys in the 
    Band." America's involvement in Southeast Asia was given the musical satire 
    treatment in Megan Terry's "Viet Rock." Sexual liberation and full-frontal 
    nudity were elemental in the erotic revue "Oh! Calcutta!," which later 
    transferred to Broadway and became the third-longest running show in Main 
    Stem history. All of these hot-button topics were pushed in the "hippie" 
    musical "Hair. " Subtitled "The American Tribal Love Rock Musical," this 
    free-form work, by actors Gerome Ragni and James Rado and composer Galt 
    MacDermot, exposed the youth movement in more ways than one. A few seconds 
    of nudity at the close of the first act was only one of several risky 
    themes. Drugs, the Vietnam War, air pollution, sex, and interracial love 
    were all sung about. The show was also the first hit rock musical employing 
    the sounds that America's youth were actually listening to rather than the 
    Rodgers-and-Hammerstein-style tunes their parents loved. "Hair" was the 
    first production of Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival at the 
    Public Theatre, the former site of the Astor Public Library.
    While "Hair" moved on to Broadway, the Public became one of the most 
    important theatres in the country. Producer Papp began his theatre in 1954 
    with a group of actors performing-for free-scenes from Shakespeare at the 
    Emmanuel Church in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Starting in 1956, the group 
    toured the five boroughs with a flatbed truck as a stage, presenting their 
    shows in the city's parks. In 1962, the company then called the Shakespeare 
    Workshop was renamed the New York Shakespeare Festival. The same year, 
    Robert Moses, the city's Commissioner of Parks, launched a court battle to 
    keep the company off his greenery. Moses lost. The city and George 
    Delacorte put up $400,000 to build a permanent summer home for the Festival 
    in Central Park. That first 1962 production was "The Merchant of Venice" 
    starring George C. Scott as Shylock.
    Once the Public Theatre opened, the company had a year-round home for 
    indoor productions. Its biggest early dramatic hit was Charles Gordone's 
    "No Place to Be Somebody," the first play by an African-American and the 
    first Off-Broadway production to win the Pulitzer Prize. The following 
    year, Paul Zindel's "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" 
    also took the Prize, along with the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. 
    Broadway was no longer the only home for serious American drama.
           Papp on Top
    As the 1970s progressed, Papp began to rival Broadway's David Merrick as 
    the top purveyor of theatrical fare on Broadway. More and more Public shows 
    made the trip uptown from Lafayette Street and downtown from Central Park. 
    "Two Gentlemen of Verona," a rock-musical update of Shakespeare's comedy by 
    Galt MacDermot of "Hair" fame and John Guare, moved from the Delacorte to 
    Broadway in 1971. That same season, David Rabe's "Sticks and Bones" made 
    the journey from the Public to the Main Stem. The controversial 
    anti-Vietnam drama was a hit with critics, but not the public. The profits 
    from "Gentlemen" were plowed into "Sticks" to keep it running. Papp would 
    later employ the same tactic, taking proceeds from the immensely popular "A 
    Chorus Line" to support less profitable Public plays and musicals. At the 
    end of the season, "Gentlemen" and "Sticks" triumphed at the Tonys, winning 
    awards for Best Musical and Play. The next year, Papp was all-powerful 
    again, transferring Jason Miller's "That Championship Season" to Broadway 
    from downtown and taking the triple crown of the Tony, Pulitzer, and New 
    York Drama Critics Circle Awards.
    Subsequent prominent Public productions to have transferred to commercial 
    runs on or Off-Broadway included "A Chorus Line" (the second-longest 
    running show in Broadway history), Ntozake Shange's "for colored girls who 
    have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf," Elizabeth Swados' 
    "Runaways," a revival of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance," 
    Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart," David Hare's "Plenty," and Rupert 
    Holmes' "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."
    Even wilder and more cutting-edge than the Public was the Off-Off-Broadway 
    movement. As fewer new
    American plays were produced on Broadway, and Off-Broadway began to feel 
    the pinch of economic
    necessity, this loose amalgamation of theatres-usually former lofts, 
    garages, and churches-provided a space for the experimental and the 
    untried. Through the 1960s and ^A'70s, playwrights and theatres had the 
    freedom to fail without fear of losing their shirts. Companies like Caffe 
    Cino, Judson Poets' Theatre, Cafe142; La Mama, The Open Theatre, The 
    American Place Theatre, and the Negro Ensemble Company presented 
    startlingly different works by such radical new authors as Sam Shepard, 
    Jean-Claude van Italie, Marie Irene Fornes, Adrienne Kennedy, Rosalyn 
    Drexler, Rochelle Owens, Leroi Jones, Ed Bullins, and Lanford Wilson. The 
    last-named later joined forced with director Marshall W. Mason, and actors 
    Tanya Berezin and Robert Thirkield, to form the Circle Repertory Company, 
    which had its first full season in 1969-70.
    Circle's first big hit was Wilson's "The Hot L Baltimore," a touching 
    comedy-drama about a group of misfits gathered in the lobby of a hotel 
    about to be demolished. The production opened at Circle's tiny theatre on 
    the Upper West Side. Audience and critical response was so strong it moved 
    to Circle in the Square Downtown in Greenwich Village in 1973, becoming the 
    first play to transfer from Off-Off-Broadway to Off-Broadway. The same 
    year, Circle transferred two more of its shows, Edward J. Moore's "The Sea 
    Horse" and Mark Medoff's "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?" The company 
    moved to a somewhat larger theatre on Sheridan Square in 1974.
    Circle's basic tenet of providing a home for playwrights has survived the 
    group, which disbanded in the 1990s.
    Thriving Off-Broadway companies dedicated to authors include Manhattan 
    Theatre Club, Playwrights
    Horizons, Manhattan Class Company, WPA Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, 
    and Lincoln Center
    Theater. During the 1970s, ^A'80s, and ^A'90s, dramatists like David Mamet, 
    Terrence McNally, Wendy
    Wasserstein, Christopher Durang, and A.R. Gurney benefited from the 
    nurturing they received from these and other groups. Mamet even went on to 
    found a group-the Atlantic Theatre Company.
    Many later-famous actors also got their first exposure Off-Broadway during 
    this period. Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Judd Hirsch, 
    Christopher Reeve, Christopher Walken, Patti LuPone, William Hurt, Swoosie 
    Kurtz, Mary Beth Hurt, and Holly Hunter all played important roles and 
    received recognition for their OB work. Most have subsequently abandoned 
    the stage for the more lucrative fields of film and television.
    Meanwhile, the classics are preserved in productions by companies like 
    Theatre for a New Audience, the Jean Cocteau Repertory, and the Pearl 
    Theatre Company. Second Stage has dedicated itself to recent plays that 
    deserve another look. Jewish themes are explored by the Jewish Repertory 
    Theatre and American Jewish Theatre. African-American authors are given 
    voice by the New Federal Theatre and still-vital Negro Ensemble Company.
           Chicago Style and Ridiculous Antics
    During the 1980s, another theatre company heavily influenced Off-Broadway 
    and, by extension, all of
    American theatre. But this group wasn't even based in New York. Chicago's 
    Steppenwolf Theatre brought an intense, angry immediacy to all of its 
    productions. A few of them made the trip from the Windy City to the Big 
    Apple, launching many careers in the process. The first Steppenwolf show to 
    kick New York's theatrical ass was a revival of Sam Shepard's "True West," 
    the story of two dissimilar brothers-a screenwriter and a petty 
    thief-switching identities while trying to write a western. The original 
    NYSF production had been an unmitigated disaster, with the playwright and 
    director disavowing it. The Steppenwolf staging, which opened at the Cherry 
    Lane Theatre in 1982, featured an animalistic, Brando-breakthrough 
    performance by John Malkovich as the desert-dwelling sibling Lee. The 
    production was directed by Gary Sinise, who also played the milder brother 
    Austin. It ran for 762 performances and made stars out of Malkovich and 
    Sinise. Coincidentally, another play of Shepard's-"Fool for Love," produced 
    by Circle Repertory-began a long run Off-Broadway the same season and 
    helped the careers of stars Ed Harris and Kathy Whitton Baker.
    To further add to this synergistic chain, Steppenwolf and Circle Rep 
    collaborated on a production of Lanford Wilson's "Balm in Gilead" in 1984. 
    This production was directed by Malkovitch and featured standout 
    performances by Terry Kinney, Glenne Hedley, and Laurie Metcalfe, all of 
    who went on to prominent film and TV careers. Earlier the same season, 
    Steppenwolf's production of "...And a Nightingale Sang" opened at Lincoln 
    Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre and provided a springboard to stardom for 
    future Tony winner and Oscar nominee Joan Allen.
    Another hit 1984 production was Charles Ludlam's "The Mystery of Irma Vep," 
    a two-character comic
    tour-de-farce with Ludlam and his life-partner Everett Quinton making 
    astonishing quick changes in a satirical "penny dreadful." Since 1967, 
    Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company had developed a devoted cult 
    following for its campy parodies of pop genre entertainment. Ludlam 
    directed, wrote, made the costumes for, and usually played the leading lady 
    in drag in such Ridiculous hits as "Bluebeard," "Stage Blood," "Camille," 
    "The Ventriloquists' Wife," "Reverse Psychology," "Le Bourgeois 
    Avant-Garde," and "Gallas." But "Vep" was the company's biggest hit, 
    resulting in offers from Broadway, film, opera, and television. Tragically, 
    Ludlam died of AIDS just three years later. Quinton carried on with the 
    Ridiculous into the 1990s, but the company folded at the end of that 
    decade. A commercial revival of "Vep" starring Quinton and Stephen DeRosa 
    had a successful run the Westside Theatre in 1998.
    Ludlam's legacy of lunacy has been carried on by two comic creative 
    dynamos-Charles Busch and Gerard Alessandrini. Busch is most closely 
    aligned with Ludlam, since he writes and often stars in drag in his own 
    vehicles, most of which are satiric take-offs on antiquated styles of films 
    and plays. His first big hit was "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," a devastating 
    parody of every show-biz clich&#142; from biblical epics to Las Vegas 
    floorshows. On a budget of $36, "Vampires" opened at the Limbo Lounge and 
    became an instant hit. It later transferred to the Provincetown Playhouse 
    and drew crowds attracted to its salacious title. "Vampires" went on to run 
    over 2,000 performances and currently holds the title of second-longest 
    running Off-Broadway play (if you don't count "Tony 'n' Tina" as a play, 
    but more on them later). Based on the success of "Vampires," Busch and his 
    cast formed their own company, Theatre-in-Limbo, and continued, sometimes 
    with other theatres, to lampoon popular culture and classical literature 
    with "Times Square Angel," "Psycho Beach Party," "The Lady in Question," 
    and "Red Scare on Sunset." Busch is currently represented on stage with his 
    first Broadway play (and his first play in which he does not appear), "The 
    Tale of the Allergist's Wife."
    Alessandrini has been aiming darts at the theatrical scene since 1982 with 
    his wicked "Forbidden Broadway" series of revues. Taking the songs of 
    current Broadway shows and adding his own sharp lyrics, Alessandrini is the 
    theatre's favorite in-house critic. The shows have run at various 
    Off-Broadway theatres; the current edition, "Forbidden Broadway 2001: A 
    Spoof Odyssey," is at the Stardust Theatre.
    The 1980s also saw the beginning of another trend, one that preceded a 
    similar phenomenon that swept the television industry. Long before 
    "Survivor," "Big Brother," and other programs wherein "real" people are the 
    stars, "reality" and interactive theatre began Off-Broadway. "Tamara," 
    described as "a living movie," opened at the Park Avenue Armory in 1987. 
    Audience members followed cast members around the building, which was 
    decorated to present a 10-room villa. At intermission, they received a 
    champagne buffet from the four-star restaurant Le Cirque. Ticket prices 
    ranged from $75-$125, but the show ran for over 1,000 performances.
    The following year, "Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding" went even further, with 
    theatregoers becoming guests at the titular nuptials and following 
    reception. "T ^A'n' T" is still playing after almost 12 years, and was 
    followed by the similar likes of "Grandma Sylvia's Funeral" and "Late Nite 
    Catechism," as well as various theatrical Irish wakes, Mafia weddings, and 
    Jewish bar mitzvahs.
    This season, "Game Show" and the recently departed "Lifegame" continue the 
    genre, with audience members competing for prizes and having their life 
    stories told.
    1987 saw the opening of "Perfect Crime," a complicated thriller that, 
    thanks to its low production costs and loyal following, became the 
    longest-running play in Off-Broadway history. Apart from a few brief 
    vacations, Catherine Russell has been playing the lead since the beginning.
    In 1991, the Off-Broadway community and theatre in general suffered a 
    devastating blow with the death of Joseph Papp. Just before his death, he 
    appointed JoAnne Akalaitis his successor as producer of the New York 
    Shakespeare Festival. Akalaitis, a director with a bizarre, avant-garde 
    sensibility formerly associated with Mabou Mines, began her reign in 
    controversy, presenting a slew of visually stunning yet emotionally cold 
    productions. Her own 1992 staging of John Ford's Jacobean tragedy "Tis Pity 
    She's a Whore" won a slew of awards and nominations, but her schedule as a 
    whole was considered a financial failure. Soon thereafter, the Festival's 
    board of directors summarily fired her and replaced her with 
    playwright-director George C. Wolfe, whose production of Tony Kushner's 
    "Angels in America" was a hit on Broadway. Wolfe's track record has been 
    mixed, including one big hit for the Festival ("Bring in 'Da Noise/Bring in 
    'Da Funk") and two expensive flops ("The Wild Party" and a revival of "On 
    the Town").
    The final decade of the millennium saw a decrease in the number of young 
    audiences as film, television, nightlife, and rock concerts became the 
    staple of entertainment diets among the under-50 crowd. Grey heads began to 
    dominate audiences both on and Off-Broadway, particularly at theatres with 
    a heavy subscription base.
    To reclaim youthful theatregoers, producers have bet on unique, unusual 
    events rather than traditional plays and musicals. Performance artists Blue 
    Man Group, the percussive musicians Stomp, the acrobatics of "De La 
    Guarda," and the disco party "Donkey Show" are the long-running hits of 
    this era.
    But a serious work with a message can still achieve commercial success in 
    this market. Donald Margulies' Dinner with Friends," a searing drama of 
    divorce and lost friendship, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize and, without major 
    stars, is still turning a profit at the Variety Arts. Edward Albee, who 
    first made his name Off-Broadway 40 years ago, returned to his roots in 
    1994 with "Three Tall Women," achieving critical acclaim, a third Pulitzer, 
    and commercial success.
    As we begin a new century and millennium, Off-Broadway continues to provide 
    the much-needed alternative to boom-or-bust Broadway. Yes, there is a space 
    crunch on right now and the beautiful Theatre Row spaces have been 
    demolished. But new stages are being erected in their place and the number 
    of companies in the OB and OOB world continues to grow.
    -- David Sheward 

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