Another op'nin', another show," sings the cast at the start of Kiss Me, Kate, but the Broadway revival was another show a-closin' in the days that followed Sept. 11. Even after the unions agreed to a 25% pay cut to keep ailing Broadway shows alive, Kate's producers still couldn't see a way to continue. Then a stagehand came up with a hey-kids-let's-save-the-show idea: if the cast and crew would voluntarily give up another 25% of their pay for four weeks and use the money to buy tickets for fire fighters and other rescue workers, the show could stay afloat.
Applause, curtain call, happy ending, right? Wait -there may be an Act III. True, Kiss Me, Kate and most other Broadway shows have bounced back smartly since that plunge in attendance following the World Trade Center attacks. One of the four shows that closed, The Rocky Horror Show, is reopening. The Lion King and The Producers are selling out again. And even such gloomy dramas as Strindberg's Dance of Death are doing strong business. Marty Richards, whose musical The Sweet Smell of Success is coming to Broadway in March, is just one producer feeling that show-must-go-on adrenaline: "We're going full steam ahead. I don't think anything is going to kill Broadway."
But full recovery is by no means assured. Tourists have not returned, which has left long-running hits like The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables in danger of closing. Advance ticket sales are way off; people are going to the theater, but they are not planning ahead-a potentially fatal blow to shows that depend on hefty forward sales to get through the slow months. And the outlook for future productions is dicey. "What investors are asking themselves," says Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, "is, If Broadway is already at the high-risk end of the investment scale, do I really want to introduce a new show into an uncertain environment? We may be seeing the effects one, two, three years down the road."
If ever a show were designed to make Broadway forget its troubles, it is Mamma Mia! The frothy musical, built around the songs of the hugely popular (and critically patronized) '70s Swedish pop group ABBA, was created to bring happiness wherever it goes-and so far it has. The show has been a sellout in London for 21½ years and broken box-office records almost everywhere else it has played, including Toronto, Los Angeles and Melbourne. Despite the hard times, Mamma Mia! opened last month on Broadway with a $27 million advance sale, reportedly the second highest in history.
Even in the pre-Sept. 11 world, this silly confection, about a 20-year-old bride-to-be who invites three of her mother's ex-boyfriends to her wedding on a Greek island so she can find out which one is her father, was an escapist trifle. And the production hardly disguises the frivolousness of what is onstage: the choreography is unremarkable; the costumes (a mix of disco-glitz and suburban soccer mum, with an odd preponderance of swimwear) are ho-hum; and the cast, headed by Louise Pitre as the free-spirited mum, is short on big names and big voices.
Still, Mamma Mia! is a kitschy kick. Writer Catherine Johnson and director Phyllida Lloyd have wedged ABBA hits like Dancing Queen, Take a Chance on Me and Money, Money, Money into every nook of the story with a wink and a grin. They, like us, know the show is little more than an excuse to showcase ABBA's music. The high-energy, heavily synthesized songs that Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus turned out with regularity in the '70s and early '80s don't do much to tell a story, explore emotion or, frankly, even make a lot of sense beyond their catchy title phrases. And with one or two exceptions (like The Winner Takes It All, which Pitre turns into a passionate, world-weary anthem), they're so sunny that you need UV protection just to make it to intermission. But they seep into your pores, lift your spirits and remind you that songs are not merely the sum of their words. "Nothing can capture a heart/ Like a melody can," goes a lyric for Thank You for the Music, the group's most disarmingly self-revealing number. Corny? Sure. But right now, that may be just what Americans-and Broadway-need.
-With reporting by Amy Lennard Goehner/New York