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Serious Broadway

Date: May 11, 2007


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Teen suicide and violence. Talk radio language wars. A White House coverup amid an unpopular foreign war. The dark side of unwanted pregnancy. Front-line soldiers gritting their teeth through a war of attrition. The rise of a charismatic black politician. A debate over teaching evolution. The stages of grief.

Are these today's headlines, or some of today's Broadway offerings? Both, as the Great White Way--while certainly no stranger to escapist fun--shows off its dramatic side this spring.

The show with the most Tony nominations this week (11, to be exact) is Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's provocative Spring Awakening, the unlikely rock-musical update of Frank Wedekind's once-banned 1891 play about teenage sexual confusion, and its often harrowing results. Proving its timeliness, and garnering a pair of Tony noms, is the revival of Eric Bogosian's 1987 play Talk Radio, about a controversial radio host testing the outer fringes of acceptable public discourse.

And who would have thought we'd still have Nixon to kick around onstage? Actually, in playwright Peter Morgan's acclaimed Frost/Nixon (three Tony nominations), Frank Langella gives the disgraced former President a few sympathetic shadings, even if his questioner, David Frost, musters some tough questions about the Commander in Chief's management of the Vietnam debacle, and about his apparent disregard for the Constitution, that ring with uncomfortable contemporary resonance.

In the English import Coram Boy (six Tony nods), a sweeping Dickensian yarn about orphans and choral music, the piece's blackhearted villain runs a singularly grim trade relieving young mothers of their unwanted offspring. Another trans-Atlantic import, Journey's End (also six Tony noms), takes an unblinking, and unforcedly relevant, look at loyal British soldiers hunkered down in a trench during World War I, fighting off the twin evils of boredom and fear, and desperately uncertain of their cause.

In August Wilson's final play, Radio Golf (four Tony noms), an African-American real estate developer mounts simultaneous campaigns to gentrify a blighted Pittsburgh and to become the town's next mayor. As the late playwright's first play about the black middle-class, it's set in the late 1990s but speaks eloquently to a present in which Barack Obama's presidential campaign is making headlines.

Oddly enough, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's 1955 courtroom drama Inherit the Wind, the revival of which has garnered four Tony noms, may be more timely now than it was in its day: As featured actor Denis O'Hare recently pointed out to TDF, it was originally intended as an allegory about McCarthyism, not primarily a debate about the teaching of evolution. How times have changed.

And finally, though it garnered just one nomination (for Vanessa Redgrave's lead performance), The Year of Magical Thinking might be the poster child for Serious Broadway: a solo show adapted from Joan Didion's riveting memoir about grief. And that's not even accounting for Tom Stoppard's mammoth trilogy The Coast of Utopia (10 Tony noms), in which Russian revolutionaries debate the best way to effect political change.

By embracing such meaty fare, theatregoers--not to mention Tony voters--handily prove that there's more to Broadway than song and dance (not that there's anything wrong with that!). Perhaps most encouragingly, these productions prove that Broadway remains an indispensable player in the national dialogue about issues at the center of our present-day lives.