BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
A curious phenomenon in recent weeks is that acquaintances and relations who never before have shown the slightest interest in Broadway — or the theater in any respect — have been asking me about "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark."
Whether it's the spectacular nature of the $65 million attraction or, as I suspect, more probably the general public's rubber-necking fascination with disaster, the travails of the accident-plagued musical-still-in-the-making has roused more interest in Broadway than I have ever known in my 30 years of writing about it.
Unless the show turns into a blood sport like bullfighting, my guess is that whenever director Julie Taymor and her collaborators finally solve their technical issues and officially premiere "Spider-Man" for better or worse (the latest opening date is Feb. 7), the public's attention soon will drift back towards "Jersey Shore" and cheaper expressions of popular culture than Broadway entertainment.
In the meantime, many thousands of fresh customers may well be tempted to sample a Broadway attraction and let's hope that "Spider-Man" or whatever show they see will keep them coming back for more.
So sight unseen and its excellence yet to be assessed (at least by me), "Spider-Man" nonetheless is the most significant New York theater event of 2010.
Otherwise, Broadway drama proved reasonably satisfying if none too thrilling this year, with starry revivals making a greater impression than new works. Al Pacino's seedy Shylock and Lily Rabe's luminous Portia illuminate a somberly-shaded staging of "The Merchant of Venice," while earlier in 2010 Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson drove a solid interpretation of "A View From the Bridge" to success and Denzel Washington and Viola Davis did beautifully by "Fences." Similarly, the iconic combination of James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave propelled the current "Driving Miss Daisy" all the way to the bank.
It was an off year for Broadway musicals both old and new. Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth made the charming most of a "Promises, Promises" designed to capitalize on the Swinging ‘60s nostalgia boom generated by "Mad Men." The rambunctious "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" chaotically mixed a comic book approach to 1820s American history with a throbbing emo-rock score and brought a charismatic Benjamin Walker to the fore among hot, new performers. Far more serious fare was "The Scottsboro Boys," which daringly told a shamefully true story of 1930s racism within the format of a minstrel show and through a typically ambitious Kander & Ebb score: Unfortunately, audiences were not interested. Much as I enjoyed "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" as a splashy, silly entertainment decorated with a yummy David Yazbek score and juicy turns by Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti, most of my colleagues were not so amused and evidently neither were audiences since the show ends its limited engagement this Sunday some three weeks earlier than planned.
Fortunately for lovers of Broadway musicals, 2010 marked the 80th birthday of the ever-brilliant Stephen Sondheim with many a celebration, including a splendid Encores! concert staging of his short-lived 1964 "Anyone Can Whistle" that once again proved Donna Murphy is a marvel. Roundabout's "Sondheim on Sondheim" retrospective turned out to be more interesting to aficionados than the general public, but a moody revival of "A Little Night Music" that opened late in 2009 was boosted by star replacements (and Sondheim experts) Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, whose performances are something to be treasured. Topping it all off, the master himself brought forth his indispensable "Finishing the Hat" anthology of his 1954-1981 works, complete with fascinating notes on their creation and many a snarky observation regarding the craftsmanship of earlier lyricists like Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin.
As usual, the off-Broadway scene offered some of the best theater in town at less-expensive prices. For me, the high point was the Elevator Repair Service troupe's "Gatz," which magically conjured up the Roaring ‘20s glamour and tragedy of "The Great Gatsby" within a dreary office. Will Eno's "Middletown" was a latter-day "Our Town" with many a poignant thought about our place in the universal scheme. David Ives' intimate two-hander "Venus In Fur" began humorously and then turned kinky while giving newcomer actress Nina Arianda a marvelous showcase. Bill Cain's imaginative "Equivocation" offered a dark, witty study on how Shakespeare came to write "Macbeth." Another thoughtful spin on a classic work was Bruce Norris' "Clybourne Park," which used "A Raisin in the Sun" to contemplate social change over the last 50 years. Leslye Headland's "Bachelorette" provided a corrosively funny look at some mean girls drunkenly making trouble for a frenemy.
Frankly, I could easily mention a dozen more instances of off-Broadway excellence during 2010 — but no, you really want to learn more about "Spider-Man," don't you? Well, as soon as I see it, I'll let you know. In the meantime, here's wishing you happy theatergoing in 2011.