Early 1990s Broadway Nostalgia: When Theatre Was a Different Place
I remember being in college in the early 1990s and bussing into NYC from SUNY Cortland to see Broadway shows. The early 1990s was an exciting time on Broadway. This was just around the time that Times Square started to shift from a place of dilapidated XXX movie houses interspersed with the occasional Broadway show, the classy theatre havens looking glaringly out of place amid the seediness, hustlers and hookers. It was a glorious place.
Sunset Boulevard, the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical opened in the early 1990s, after much controversy in its casting. Starring the legendary Tony-winner Glenn Close, we were just as excited to see the parade of divas that would succeed her (Betty Buckley was a thrilling choice). How eagerly we waited for Norma Desmond to slink like a spider down that grand staircase and sing diva-worthy songs like "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye" while waiting for her close-up. Glenn Close won a Tony for that performance and we all rushed to make sure we saw her since we knew there would never be another opportunity.
Also running at the time was Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, already a big hit and sure to run to at least the end of the decade. Based on Gaston Leroux’s classic horror tale about a spectral presence living inside (yup, you guessed it) and opera house who becomes fixated with an ingénue, people in the early 90s were intrigued by its lush, romantic score, the pageantry in Harold Prince’s staging, and the amusement park caliber spectacle. The chandelier dropped eight-times a week and those of us in college were learning "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" and "The Music of the Night" for our voice classes and summer stock auditions.
Of course, the early 1990s also held the excitement of Miss Saigon, from the writers of Les Misérables (we haven't seen that show in a while), breezing-in from across the Atlantic in the form of a prop helicopter to dazzle us. Performances by Lea Salonga and Jonathan Pryce were the most talked-about of the decade, both winning Tony Awards for their efforts. Songs like "The American Dream", "The Last Night of the World", “I Still Believe” and “Bui Doi” were on our tongues and we all were transported back to a time where an unwinnable war was claiming the lives of too many of our service men.
In the 1990s there was another long-running show that had been dazzling audiences at the Winter Garden Theatre since the early 1980s. The show was a tourist Mecca for anyone who wanted to have the New York experience, and anyone who thought it was a great idea for felines tossing and dance. Cats (another Andrew Lloyd Webber phenomenon), is the property to which I am referring. We all knew it would eventually wear out its welcome and disappear forever and become a distant "memory". I mean, really, how was a musical about kitty cats trying to get to heaven going to stand the test of time.
The first-half of the 90s brought us productions of the musicals Falsettos, The Secret Garden and Once on this Island, titles that have all but disappeared from the face of musical theatre. How I wish we could have a revival of one of these titles, even for a limited engagement.
Also, in the early 1990s, we were excited to see the new Disney film Beauty and the Beast, that would, a few years later, get turned into a hit Broadway musical. Based on the classic fairy tale of the same name, we reveled in its musical theatre-style score including "Be Our Guest", "Belle" and the title song. People thought an animated film couldn't be turned into a live-action stage show, but Disney showed them wrong, opening the door for a string of family-friendly musicals on Broadway.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane. How I miss that 90's landscape of Broadway. It is sad how things change and new musicals wash away the memory of the old. One can only hope that we can someday relive that exciting time in theatre and perhaps, if we are lucky, we can traverse Shubert Alley and see a marquee for Miss Saigon, Sunset Boulevard, or even Cats.