Road to Broadway is like obstacle course

November 27, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

"Sunset Boulevard" and "Show Boat" were embroiled in controversies before arriving on Broadway this fall.

The much-publicized brouhaha surrounding "Sunset Boulevard" began during the show's initial production in London, which starred Patti LuPone.

She was originally set to re-create her portrayal of silver screen diva Norma Desmond on Broadway. In February, however, Andrew Lloyd Webber announced that Glenn Close, who was playing the role in Los Angeles at the time, would be New York's Norma. Lloyd Webber and LuPone settled their differences for an undisclosed amount, but the actress had said it would take more than $1 million to buy out her contract.

The troubles didn't end there. Back in Los Angeles, Faye Dunaway was hired to take over for Close. Instead, she was fired before she went on, and the production closed after Close's final performance in June. Dunaway, whom Lloyd Webber said was not up to the vocal demands of the role, has brought a $6 million lawsuit in which she alleges that he was eager to close the show, which was facing box office losses.

Meanwhile, Betty Buckley, who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Grizabella in Lloyd Webber's "Cats," has replaced LuPone in London and received rave reviews. She has been temporarily sidelined by an emergency appendectomy, and last week Elaine Paige took over as the London Norma.

So is Norma Desmond really such a tough role to cast? "I think it's as difficult as Billy Wilder [director of the 1950 film] found it," says "Sunset Boulevard" director Trevor Nunn. "He started by asking Mae West, and then he asked about 10 other screen goddesses, and eventually he ended up with Gloria Swanson. She was very, very far down his list and not at all the way he originally thought of doing the part."

"Show Boat" faced problems of a different nature. The production, which opened in Toronto a year ago, was greeted by pickets and protests from a group called the Coalition to Stop "Show Boat." Although the musical depicts the cruelty of racism, the protesters labeled it racist. Some black activists blamed Jews, including director Harold Prince and producer Garth Drabinsky, as well as the show's deceased creators, composer Jerome Kern and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II.

Prince, whose staging accentuates the musical's denunciation of racism, says: "I was offended by [the protesters], and I was hurt, which sounds so mewling. I was hurt. I was really upset because I did go up and tell everyone what we were doing."

Prince doesn't know if any of the protesters actually attended the production, but he says the protest "just evaporated, as it should have."

And there's more. The same week "Show Boat" opened in New York, Drabinsky took legal action against the Ontario government, contending that the Anti-Racism Secretariat, a division of the Ministry of Citizenship, had given $148,000 to the Coalition to Stop "Show Boat."

Calling this a "scandal," Prince says, "It raises the question of would any of this really have happened without government money?"

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