By Barry Bassis
This season Broadway is presenting three Pulitzer Prize winners and a musical in which Joseph Pulitzer himself is a character.
The 1948 and the 1949 Prize-winners, by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, respectively, were both originally directed by Elia Kazan. Mike Nichols had seen the first production of “Death of a Salesman” and his brilliant revival borrows two of the key elements: the imaginative scenic design by Jo Mielziner and Alex North’s musical score, (This has been a good year for North (1919-1991). His “Unchained Melody” is easily the best song in the musical, “Ghost.”) Philip Seymour Hoffman is Willy Loman, the 60-year old who suddenly finds himself without a safety net. He sounds defeated from the start, with sudden moments of bravado before he yields to despair. Andrew Garfield is equally heartbreaking as his oldest son, Biff, who never recovers from his father’s bad advice and fall from grace. Linda Emond is the heart of the family as the wife-mother, who stands up for her flawed husband. Nichols honors the original production and adds his own magic, by flawless casting.
Kazan considered “Death of a Salesman” his favorite play and the one that affected him the most. However, he thought that Tennessee Williams was a better writer than Miller. Certainly, Williams was at the height of his powers when he wrote “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Emily Mann’s new production still evokes New Orleans, where the work was set, but there are some notable changes. For example, the character originally played by Marlon Brando no longer declares: “I am not a Pollack. People from Poland are Poles. They are not Pollacks. But what I am is one hundred percent American. I'm born and raised in the greatest country on this earth and I'm proud of it. And don't you ever call me a Pollack.” The reason he doesn’t say it is that this is a multi-racial production and the character is now just Stanley (without the Kowalski last name). Blair Underwood is the muscular Stanley, Daphne Rubin-Vega is his wife Stella and Nicole Ari Parker is her troubled sister Blanche. Parker captures the agony of the character and is also, on occasion, quite funny (usually when she tries to play down her taste for alcohol). Underwood may not outdo Brando but at least he doesn’t imitate him. Terence Blanchard's jazzy score perfectly sets the mood.
2011 Pulitzer Prize winner “Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris is a clever series of riffs on Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” (Incidentally, the 1959 Pulitzer didn’t go to “Raisin” but to Archibald MacLeish’s “JB”). Norris’ bright idea was to take the house the African-American family moved into in “Raisin” and show it a year earlier (when it was owned by a white family with a black housekeeper). The second act takes place 50 years later when the neighborhood has changed and a white family wants to move in. The play manages to be hilarious and painful. Pam MacKinnon's production played with the same cast off-Broadway a couple of years ago and they are a seamless ensemble.
Joseph Pulitzer himself is a character in “Newsies.” If he is the villain of the piece, it makes sense because that was the role he played in real life. The show comes from a Disney movie that in turn was inspired by the 1899 strike of newspaper boys. If you want to take children to a Broadway musical, make it this one. They will enjoy the acrobatic choreography by Christopher Gattelli, the uplifting and amusing script by Harvey Fierstein, the terrific lead performance by Jeremy Jordan, and the tuneful songs by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman.