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This Week in Optimistic Theatre News

Will ferrell_ george w bush

Despite weeks of news of early closings resulting in two dozen dark theatres on Broadway earlier this winter, it seems spring might actually be coming early this year to brighten the Great White Way (even though plenty of other theatres are still suffering).

Bloomberg reports this week that producers are scheduled to open 19 Broadway shows in the next three months. According to Bloomberg, "If they all arrive ahead of the June 7 Tony awards, the 2008-09 season will go down as the busiest in two decades, with 40 new productions. Broadway will have the most openings since 1986-87, when there were 43."

Bloomberg writer Philip Boroff notes that most of the new productions are either star-driven small plays, which cost less than big-budget musicals, or revivals of proven theatre properties like West Side Story and Guys and Dolls. Some of the big names on Broadway this season include Will Ferrell (whose You're Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush has been a breakout success), James Gandolfini, Jeremy Irons, Joan Allen, Jane Fonda, Oliver Platt, Angela Lansbury, and more.

William h macy In addition to this hopeful story (read all of "Broadway Opens 40 Shows, Luring Ferrell, Gandolfini" here), Playbill reports that the Broadway revival of Speed-the-Plow has recouped its initial investment, according to a press release yesterday. Producers were concerned -- after lead actor Jeremy Piven left the show early, citing alleged mercury poisoning and prompting weeks of tabloid news -- that the show was dead in the water. But since being replaced by actors Norbert Leo Butz and William H. Macy, the show has gotten even better reviews.

Across the sea, U.K. theatre producers have come up with their own reasons for the success of certain recent productions. Despite the depressed state of the global economy, Variety reports that London theatre broke box office records in 2008.

The Guardian reports that movie stars have drawn record crowds to the West End for productions like Rain Man (starring Josh Hartnett) and Speed-the-Plow (starring Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum). The Guardian's Theatre Blog, however, cautions against relying on a name to sell tickets.

Both the Guardian and super-producer Cameron Mackintosh also credit reality shows like I'd Do Anything, a televised reality competition used to cast certain roles for Mackintosh's production of Oliver!, with generating audience awareness and excitement for new shows.

“TV and the theatre have always been intertwined," Mackintosh told The Stage last week. "Who could have thought ten years ago that prime time TV would promote musical theatre and that there would be so many programmes about musicals -- it’s marvellous. That is why the theatre is working... The public want to go to an event, particularly in difficult times. It does not matter what it is as along as it’s something special.”

Others criticize these tactics as crass promotion or a sacrifice of art for commerce -- but without audience members in the seats, where would the art go? It may not be a long-term solution to rely on movie stars and reality TV to generate interest in theatre. But if these ideas can at least keep interest afloat until the next big thing comes along, then they've done their job for now.

-- Daniel Lehman

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