TIME Theater

Elaine Stritch: How to Be a Broadway Diva

Elaine Stritch attends the "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" New York Screening at Paley Center For Media on February 19, 2014 in New York City.
Elaine Stritch attends the "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" New York Screening at Paley Center For Media on February 19, 2014 in New York City. Walter McBride—WireImage/Getty Images

The iconic Broadway star was always a commanding presence on stage

When she left New York for good in early 2013 — retiring from show business and moving back to her home state of Michigan — it was as if some fundamental life force had suddenly disappeared from Broadway, like the demolition of a storied old theater or the closing of Mamma Mia. Elaine Stritch didn’t deny, in the few interviews she gave after she left, that she missed the city that she loved and came to embody. (“I’m about as unhappy as anybody can be” she told an interviewer last June.) And when she died on Thursday, at 89, it was perhaps a confirmation of what every New York theater lover already knew: neither Broadway nor Elaine Stritch could live without each other.

She was brassy (her name could almost define the word in Webster’s) and boozy, a salty broad with a gravely, gin-soaked voice bursting forth from an improbably pixie-like figure. Even in her late 70s, when she starred on Broadway in a one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, she could show off her still lean and lithe gams in sheer black tights, and make you think that Broadway performers really are immortal. For many, she was.

“She was an indomitable spirit,” said Christine Ebersole, the two-time Tony Award winner who became close friends with Stritch in her later years. “I always felt really close to her — kindred spirits in a way. I admired her tenacity. She was a staunch character.”

Stritch was born in Detroit and began her Broadway career in the late 1940s. She understudied for Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam; sang one of Rodgers and Hart’s most scintillating comic numbers, “Zip,” in Pal Joey; starred in Noel Coward’s 1961 musical Sail Away; and replaced Uta Hagen as Martha in the original Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (a show, she later claimed, in which she experienced her first orgasm onstage).

But her career-defining turn came in Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company, in which she played a hard-drinking society dame and delivered her signature number, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Stritch’s raspy voice and boozy defiance — “another vodka stinger!” — was the perfect match for Sondheim’s urbane cynicism, and she became one of his greatest muses and interpreters. A few years later she appropriated another Sondheim number as her own, his rousing anthem to show-business survival, “I’m Still Here.”

The song symbolized her own career, which seemed to keep hitting new heights as she aged. Woody Allen gave her juicy characters to play in his movies September and Small Time Crooks. On TV, she co-starred in the British comedy series Two’s Company and had frequent guest-starring roles in American sitcoms, most recently as Alec Baldwin’s hard-bitten mother in 30 Rock. She got a Tony nomination (one of five) for her co-starring role in the acclaimed 1996 Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance.

She was 77 when she had her greatest role on Broadway — as herself in Elaine Stritch at Liberty, for which she won a Tony. She commanded the stage, delivering her signature numbers in between stories about her show-business career and her checkered personal life, from her romantic flings with stars like Marlon Brando and Rock Hudson to her blown audition for the starring role in the TV sitcom Golden Girls.

Backstage, too, she was reputedly a tough broad — always a big drinker, sometimes temperamental and insecure. Even at her last New York cabaret appearance — a farewell show at the Cafe Carlyle in April of last year — she berated the audience for interrupting her and laughing in the wrong places. But she was a Broadway diva who earned the right. She never gave less than her all, and the audience never gave her less than its unconditional love.

TIME Theater

REVIEW: Holler If Ya Hear Me: Tupac Shakur on Broadway

Holler If Ya Hear Me Palace Theatre
The cast performs "Holler If Ya Hear Me," at the Palace Theatre in New York. Joan Marcus—Boneau/Bryan-Brown/AP

Can a songbook show work for an audience that doesn't know the songbook?

The first thing people are likely to notice when they walk into the Palace Theatre on Broadway, where the new Tupac Shakur musical Holler If Ya Hear Me has just opened, is a lot of empty seats. Most of the orchestra section has been cleared out, and a new tier of stadium-style seating erected just above it, connecting with the mezzanine to make a smaller, more intimate theater space. But what about those unused seats? A refuge, I wondered, for the old-fogy theatergoers who might wander in by mistake and get driven out by the rough language, the rap music, the hard-edged ghetto ambience, the N-word?

Rap music and Broadway have had only passing encounters over the past two decades. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning In the Heights used rap music as a narrative device and a few off-Broadway shows — like the Shakespeare send-up The Bomb-itty of Errors and Matt Sax’s dystopian musical Venice — have used hip hop music effectively. But Holler If Ya Hear Me is the first Broadway show built around the music of a major rap artist.

It’s a project fraught with peril. Tupac was a controversial figure, who flaunted a thuggish lifestyle, wrote songs that celebrated violence and demeaned women, and was constantly in trouble with the law — he had a No. 1 Billboard hit while serving an eighth-month prison sentence for assault — before his death in a drive-by shooting in 1996. But he was a notoriously contradictory artist; belligerent and threatening at times, sentimental and empowering at others — pleading, in some of his late songs, for an end to the cycle of violence plaguing ghetto youths.

Add to this the challenge of making a rap show palatable for a mainstream Broadway audience. Holler If Ya Hear Me is a classic songbook show — a book musical filled with the previously recorded hits of a mega-selling pop artist — in which much of the audience won’t be familiar with the songbook. Meanwhile, those who know Tupac hits like “Dear Mama,” “Me Against the World” and “Unconditional Love” may be turned off by the very idea of an outlaw rapper’s work being co-opted by Broadway — where most of the gangstas are down the street in Bullets Over Broadway.

But the test, as always, is how the piece works onstage, and from my vantage point (down toward the front, a little too close to hear all of the over-miked rap lyrics clearly), Holler If You Here Me works pretty darn well. Writer Todd Kreidler, long associated with August Wilson, has constructed a generic but gritty-for-Broadway story, revolving around the murder of a neighborhood kid and the debate afterwards over whether and how his friends should take revenge. Two characters take center stage: a sullen ex-con (Saul Williams), just released from prison who is trying to start his life over, and the murder victim’s brother (Christopher Jackson), anguishing over how to make his brother’s death “mean something.”

Amid the array of characters — a boozy street preacher, a young hothead itching for a battle, the victim’s grieving mother (played by a radiant Tonya Pinkins) — the show works through issues of violence, peer pressure and economic hopelessness, toward an upbeat, anti-violence message that emphasizes the socially redeeming side of Tupac’s split personality. “We kill one, they kill us,” says the ex-con. “Two caskets now, we gotta make it four. Too many f—— caskets, too many f—— tears.”

Nearly 20 of Tupac’s songs (plus a couple of his poems set to music) are divvied up among the uniformly excellent cast. Director Kenny Leon (who helmed this season’s critically acclaimed revival of Raisin in the Sun) stages it with stripped-down vibrancy, on a mostly bare, black-and-white stage, enhanced by an occasional moving platform. Wayne Cilento’s choreography is a slick combination of slithery, break-dancing ingenuity and well-drilled, Broadway-chorus-line discipline.

One could imagine a better Tupac Shakur musical — one, say, that would tell the story of Tupac’s own fascinating, contradictory life. And some may quarrel with the feel-good message of a show based on the work of a musician who styled himself as an angry voice of the underclass. But Holler If Ya Here Me is a bold effort to open up Broadway to a new musical idiom, without diluting it or reducing it to a cartoon. The show hollers, and you simply have to listen.

TIME Theater

Tony Awards: Wins for Bryan Cranston, Audra McDonald and Neil Patrick Harris

Audra McDonald's feat highlights an otherwise lackluster year for Broadway's biggest awards

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If the gods of theater wanted to create a perfect Broadway star, they couldn’t do better than Audra McDonald. She sings, she acts, she tears up every time she wins an award. And she wins them constantly. On Sunday night, she snagged a record sixth Tony — the most ever received by an actor — for her spot-on impersonation of Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. What’s more, since Lanie Robertson’s re-creation of one of Holiday’s last club appearances was classified as a play and not a musical, McDonald became the first performer ever to win a Tony in four different acting categories — lead and featured actress in both musical and play.

Next year, Harvey Fierstein willing, she may be vying for best actor.

McDonald aside, the Tony voters spread the love around at Sunday night’s annual award gala from Radio City Music Hall. The award for best musical, the night’s most anticipated contest, went to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, the frothy show about an English heir who bumps off all his relatives to win a family fortune. But the musical — which took home four awards in all, including best director and best book of a musical — seemed a bit of a default choice. In a year when the most high-profile and highly anticipated Broadway musicals (Rocky, The Bridges of Madison County, Bullets Over Broadway) were denied top nominations, A Gentleman’s Guide was the only of the four nominees that even qualified as an entirely new musical. (The others: After Midnight and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, both of which featured recycled songs, and Aladdin, whose score was mostly repurposed from the Disney animated film.)

The Tony audience seemed to show more enthusiasm for some of the other winners. The award for best actor in a musical went to Neil Patrick Harris, the popular four-time host of the Tony show, who won raves for playing a transgender East German cabaret singer in the revival of the off-Broadway rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. And the best actress award went to sentimental favorite Jessie Mueller, who plays Carole King in Beautiful — and who beat out some of Broadway’s most high-powered musical stars, including Kelli O’Hara (Madison County), Sutton Foster (Violet) and Idina Menzel (If/Then).

In a weak year for Broadway dramas, the winner for best play also seemed a dutiful choice: All the Way, Robert Schenkkan’s earnest but rather pedestrian account of Lyndon B. Johnson’s first year in office. The play’s star, Bryan Cranston — making a smash Broadway debut after his career-defining role on TV’s Breaking Bad — was a more fitting (and expected) winner of the award for lead actor in a play.

If there were no big hauls on the night (no show got more than four awards), several shows came through with satisfying wins. Though Denzel Washington was denied a nomination for his strong starring role in the revival of A Raisin in the Sun, the show itself won three awards: for best revival, best director (Kenny Leon) and featured actress (Sophie Okonedo). The Globe Theatre’s acclaimed all-male production of Twelfth Night won the award it was destined to win — best featured actor in a play for Mark Rylance’s showy drag turn as Olivia. James Monroe Iglehart, as the genie in Aladdin, won for featured actor in a musical — some rare Tony love for a Disney cartoon-to-stage adaptation. And Jason Robert Brown won a deserved award for his fine score for the otherwise troubled (and now closed) The Bridges of Madison County.

The awards telecast itself was a bumpy affair. Host Hugh Jackman began the show with a choreographed opening that had him hopping like an animated pogo stick as he greeted all the nominees backstage before starting the show. (He redeemed himself later with some clever musical introductions of the nominees for acting awards.) And the show looked more than ever like a shameless infomercial for Broadway.

Just a few years ago there were impassioned debates in the theater community over which shows deserved featured spots. First it was only best-musical nominees; then revivals were allowed in as well. Now virtually every musical with enough clout seems to get in on the action. The evening included numbers from nonnominees like Rocky and Bullets Over Broadway; a tribute to the long-runner Wicked; and even scenes from shows that haven’t yet come to Broadway, like Sting’s The Last Ship and Finding Neverland.

Who says Broadway doesn’t have a big heart? Or at least a shrewd marketing team.

TIME Television

The Normal Heart: How to Transplant a Play

HBO

HBO's new adaptation of Larry Kramer's stage diatribe shows how "opening up" can help

Transplanting stage works to the screen is never easy — or often very successful. The list of hit Broadway musicals, from Annie to Phantom of the Opera, that have bombed in the movie theater is long and discouraging. Straight plays fare no better. August: Osage County, the movie adaptation of Tracy Letts’s prizewinning play, was a painful recent example. Truncated by nearly an hour and “opened up” with vistas of the Oklahoma’s prairie, the drama was robbed of the claustrophobic tension it had onstage, and a great play looked conventional and formulaic as a result.

Sometimes, however, the “opening up” process can be good for a play. When The Normal Heart was first produced at New York City’s Public Theater in 1985, Larry Kramer’s angry indictment of the medical, media and political establishment (as well as much of the gay community) for failing to move faster in combatting the AIDS epidemic struck many as overly strident and polemical. When the play was revived on Broadway in 2011, in an excellent production directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe, the play looked different. Suddenly the hectoring of an activist playwright, writing in the midst of a health emergency (Kramer was one of the founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis), had become a historical cautionary tale. The passage of 25 years made Kramer’s moral self-righteousness easier to take.

HBO’s new movie version of the play, directed by Ryan Murphy (the creator of Glee) from a script by Kramer, continues the work’s evolution from heated diatribe to historical document. The movie aims to tell not just the story of an activist named Ned Weeks (a stand-in for Kramer), his relationship with a closeted reporter from the New York Times, and his campaign to sound the alarm about the spreading epidemic, but to chronicle the transformation of an entire generation. It opens in the bright sunshine of a summer weekend on Fire Island — the height of a hedonistic golden age for the gay community — as a reveler suddenly breaks into a coughing fit and collapses on the beach. As the scope of the epidemic becomes clear, we get creepy-nostalgic scenes of the gay bathhouses, depictions of gay sex as graphic as anything I’ve seen on TV (or in movies, for that matter), haunted glimpses of emaciated men with lesions on their face, on the streets or riding the subway.

The techniques are not subtle, a mixture of horror-film tropes and disease-of-the-week TV-movie cliches. And the hectoring has hardly gone away. Much of it comes from Dr. Emma Bookner, the doctor who seems to be the only medical practitioner in the country who recognizes the scope of the crisis — though Julia Roberts, on her Erin Brockovich high horse, is less strident in the role than Tony-winner Ellen Barkin was on Broadway. Mark Ruffalo doesn’t have the intensity that Joe Mantello brought to role of Weeks on stage (Mantello remains in the cast, playing another gay activist), and Jim Parsons’ fairly small role as Tommy Boatright, an early member of the anti-AIDS cadre, has been beefed up, it seems, chiefly to make sure he gets an Emmy nomination.

But the movie has passion, and a pleasing complexity, as it portrays the complicated political struggle faced by the AIDS community as the crisis unfolds. Weeks/Kramer faces opposition, not just from more moderate colleagues over his confrontational approach, but from other activists who fear that spreading too much alarm over AIDS will undo all the progress they have made in battling anti-gay bias. That political debate too seems like ancient history. The Normal Heart’s triumph, on TV even more than on the stage, is to make it urgent once again.

TIME Theater

Tony Nominations: A Morning for Snubs

Joan Marcus

Big stars and big shows didn't get much love from Broadway insiders

Correction appended, April 29 4:30pm

It’s a good bet that a lot of Broadway veterans, and a few celebrated outsiders, are having a rough Tuesday morning. The big news from the Tony nominations, announced this morning in advance of the June 8 awards ceremony, is the number of high-profile Broadway shows and stars who got shut out.

Denzel Washington, who gives a commanding performance in an American classic, A Raisin in the Sun (and is bringing in sellout crowds to the revival), was, surprisingly, left off the list of nominees for Best Actor in a Play. So was another well-known star giving a critically acclaimed performance — Daniel Radcliffe in the fine new revival of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan. Two more big-name stars, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, were also ignored for their work in the revivals earlier this season of No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godot.

Instead, for Best Actor, the Tony nominators gave a double shout-out to two less well-known British interlopers: Mark Rylance and Samuel Barnett, for their roles in two Globe Theater Shakespeare productions, Richard III and Twelfth Night. Bryan Cranston, the Breaking Bad star making his Broadway debut as Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way, also snagged a nomination, along with Chris O’Dowd, who plays the slow-witted Lennie in a revival of Of Mice and Men, and Tony Shalhoub, in the stage adaptation of Moss Hart’s autobiography, Act One.

Best Musical was another category where the no-shows were more startling than the nominees. In a season full of big-budget, brand-name musicals from widely admired Broadway hands, the snubs were many. Among the musicals denied nominations were Rocky, The Bridges of Madison County and Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, along with If/Then, a small-scale show that some thought might sneak in among the blockbusters.

The four shows that did get nominated constitute one of the weirdest Best Musical lists in years. The front-runner, by default, is A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, the enjoyably frivolous musical about an heir who kills off all his relatives so he can inherit a family fortune, which leads the field with 10 nominations. Its competition includes one pastiche of jazz-era song-and-dance numbers, After Midnight; a routine songbook show, Beautiful: The Carol King Musical; and a Disney show, Aladdin, that seems a way for the Tony voters to make up to Disney for all its shows that have been snubbed since The Lion King.

For Best Play, by contrast, the Tony voters seemed more inclined to the big-tent philosophy. In an especially weak year for new plays, almost any plausible show seemed to get a nomination. Among them were two interesting but long-winded plays, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, and James Lapine’s Act One; Harvey Fierstein’s dour look at cross-dressing in the Catskills, Casa Valentina; and two inferior works by major playwrights, Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons and John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar.

The odd play out was The Realistic Joneses, surely the strangest Broadway play of the season, but certainly deserving of more attention than it got. Not only was it denied a Best Play nomination, all four members of its excellent cast— Tracy Letts, Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei — were surprisingly shut out as well.

The richest category, and the toughest race to handicap, is the one for Best Actress in a Musical. Each nominee has a plausible chance to win: Mary Bridget Davies (A Night With Janis Joplin), Sutton Foster (Violet), Idina Menzel (If/Then), Jessie Mueller (Beautiful: The Carol King Musical) and Kelli O’Hara (The Bridges of Madison County). The race for Best Actress in a Play is nearly as competitive, though packed with some dutiful and dubious nominees — notably Tyne Daly in Mothers and Sons and Estelle Parsons in The Velocity of Autumn. The race will more likely be between Cherry Jones in The Glass Menagerie, LaTanya Richardson Jackson in A Raisin in the Sun, and Audra McDonald, vying for a record sixth Tony, as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.

Amid all the snubs, it was gratifying to see Andy Karl get a nod for his excellent job in the Stallone role in Rocky, an underrated show that did manage to pick up four nominations. And though Michelle Williams was overlooked for her low-key turn as Sally Bowles in the revival of Cabaret, the show’s two standout supporting actors, Danny Burstein and Linda Emond, both got deserved nominations.

Meanwhile, one year after Kinky Boots took home the award for Best Musical, the Tonys proved once again that drag queens rule Broadway. No fewer than four actors from the Globe’s all-male cast of Twelfth Night were nominated; Reed Birney got a nod as one of the cross-dressing househusbands in Casa Valentina; and Neil Patrick Harris is the favorite to win Best Actor in a Musical for his flamboyant turn as the German transsexual star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the source material for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. It is the book Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, on which the Alec Guinness movie Kind Hearts and Coronets was based.

TIME Theater

Broadway Bummer: The Play’s Not the Thing

Joan Marcus

Three end-of-the-season disappointments: The Velocity of Autumn, Act One and Casa Valentina

Now is the season of my discontent. After a last-minute flurry of Broadway openings, in advance of Thursday’s deadline for Tony nominations, I find myself with little to rave about. A few of the spring’s new musicals (Rocky, Aladdin) have had their pleasures, and several revivals have been first-rate, most recently Michael Grandage’s smashingly good production of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, starring Daniel Radcliffe. But the crop of new plays has been notably lackluster.

I wasn’t expecting much from The Velocity of Autumn, Eric Coble’s one-act play about an elderly Brooklyn woman threatening to blow herself up in her apartment rather than get carted off to assisted living, and the play didn’t (which is to say, did) disappoint. It’s a cutesy, formulaic two-hander, essentially one long conversation between the stubborn old gal (Estelle Parsons) and her estranged son (Stephen Spinella), who has been called back from New Mexico to try to talk some sense into her.

The play hits all the familiar notes: rueful reflections on the indignities of growing old, revelations about the son’s wayward life, well-paced one-liners to keep the audience amused, and a predictably heartwarming ending. The only reason to sit through it is Estelle Parsons, who at 86 creates an admirably tough character while keeping much of the sentimentality at bay. Then again, if a beloved 86-year-old actress can’t win raves playing a feisty senior citizen threatening to ignite her apartment with Molotov cocktails, Broadway is in more trouble than I thought.

Act One held out more promise, at least for lovers of Moss Hart’s celebrated 1959 autobiography, on which James Lapine has based his affectionate, if ultimately unsatisfying play. Hart, for the uninitiated, was George S. Kaufman’s collaborator on such classic stage comedies as You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner, as well as the writer or director of several other famed Broadway shows, including My Fair Lady. Lapine’s stage adaptation takes a quick jaunt through Hart’s impoverished New York City childhood, then focuses mainly on the beginning of the Kaufman-Hart collaboration, on their 1930 comedy Once in a Lifetime.

The play paints a knowing, often amusing picture of the crazy world of Broadway collaboration, as the novice Hart must adapt to the notoriously persnickety Kaufman. Through a neat bit of casting legerdemain, Tony Shalhoub gets to play both Kaufman and Hart (the latter in his older years, narrating much of the story in flashback, while Santino Fontana plays Hart as a young man), and he brings both gravitas and, as the neurotic Kaufman, shrewd comic timing. But the play is too muted and meandering, the backstage tale lacking in either dramatic or comic tension. Twenty minutes could have been trimmed to the play’s advantage, but writer Lapine apparently had no strong director to tell him so. Probably because the director is also James Lapine.

Harvey Fierstein’s new play Casa Valentina is an odd duck, and not just because it focuses on an obscure and puzzling subculture: a Catskills resort in the 1960s where men — heterosexual, all-American, married guys — came to relax by dressing up as women. An array of good Broadway actors, including Patrick Page, John Cullum and Tom McGowan, have a high old time as the cross-dressing family men, strutting around in heels, padded dresses and bouffant hairdos. “Here,” says one of them, “we breathe.”

But what, exactly, is the attraction? Not sexual gratification, we are assured in this straitlaced play. Nor, it appears, very much fun. Barring one brief scene in which the guests get together to do a makeover on a timid newcomer (Gabriel Ebert), these gals seem to spend most of their time sitting around a table, smoking cigarettes and congratulating themselves on being there. The play, set in 1962, doesn’t even do much with the era’s peppy pop music. In one scene, three of the guests do a karaoke rendition of the McGuire Sisters’ “Sugartime.” But their performance is purposely amateurish, and the song is barely audible on a tinny old Victrola. What — it’s 1962, and the place can’t afford a stereo system?

No, this weekend of cross-dressing hijinks quickly devolves into a series of sober, angst-ridden discussions about the survival of the financially challenged resort. One regular (Reed Birney) wants the group to organize into a sorority that would explicitly ban homosexuals. Fierstein, who created empowering drag queens in shows like La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots, has written another preachy plea for tolerance for the misunderstood misfits of the world: not just gays (one resort guest turns out to be a closeted homosexual, with a daughter who foams at the mouth with anti-gay prejudice), but the straight guys who are man enough to embrace their feminine side. Right on, Harvey — but after a session with these earnest drag queens, I’m booking next weekend at Grossinger’s.

TIME Theater

Stars and Warhorses: James Franco and Denzel Washington on Broadway

James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men Richard Phibbs

Two classics, A Raisin in the Sun and Of Mice and Men, look good in their new starry outfits

Anyone who doubts that star power is driving Broadway these days need only check the current box-office figures. A Raisin in the Sun, a revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic, is a sellout — thanks largely to its movie-star leading man, Denzel Washington. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck’s Depression-era warhorse, is another hot seller, helped by a starry cast headed by James Franco and Leighton Meester, formerly of the hit primetime soap Gossip Girl. Stars have also given a big box-office boost to two more upcoming revivals: Daniel Radcliffe in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, and Neil Patrick Harris, as a German transsexual in the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

But the stars aren’t drawn only to retreads. Will Eno’s new play The Realistic Joneses, an enigmatic, plot-free encounter between two suburban couples, both named Jones, would most likely never have come to Broadway (and certainly would have been more of a trial to sit through) if it weren’t for its expert quartet of well-known stars — Marisa Tomei, Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall and last year’s Tony-winner, Tracy Letts. By the same token, a little more star power might have helped Bullets Over Broadway, Susan Stroman’s enjoyable but less-than-dazzling new musical based on Woody Allen’s movie. Nearly every cast member (Zach Braff as the nebbishy playwright who gets a gangster to back his Broadway show, Helene Yorke as the mobster’s no-talent girlfriend, Marin Mazzie as the show’s diva star) seems a step down from the more distinctive actors (John Cusack, Jennifer Tilly, Dianne Wiest) who brought the characters to life on screen.

It’s easy to be cynical about Broadway’s fixation on stars, but their presence has been been mostly good news this spring. I was not looking forward to another go-round with A Raisin in the Sun — last revived on Broadway just 10 years ago, with Sean Combs, and also revisited in the 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park. Moreover, the casting of Denzel Washington, as Walter Lee Younger, the chauffeur whose dreams are dying in the crowded Chicago apartment he shares with his family, seemed so obvious that I had to check the theater websites to make sure he hadn’t done it already.

He should have done it already. Washington, at age 59, is now a couple of decades too old for the part. The script has been adjusted to boost the character’s age from 35 to 40 (and the fit actor can plausibly pass for it), but the already broad age gap between Walter and his college-age younger sister (played by a young-looking Anika Noni Rose) is now almost untenable; she looks like his daughter.

Yet Washington quickly dispels the reservations. His commanding voice and magnetic physicality envelop the stage: he seems ready to burst out of the Youngers’ already cramped apartment. And yet he doesn’t overwhelm this admirably even-handed play: director Kenny Leon gives all the well-chosen actors— especially LaTanya Richardson Jackson, as the intrepid family matriarch, and Rose, as her acerbic daughter —their chance to shine. But it’s the play that shines most: the definitive depiction of the black experience in mid-century America, as relevant and powerful as ever. The chance to see the leading African-American actor of his generation finally take it on, even a few years late, seems both fitting and essential.

Of Mice and Men, the play that Steinbeck adapted from his 1937 novella about a pair of itinerant farm laborers in California’s Salinas Valley, is not as often revived (it was last seen on Broadway in 1974, with James Earl Jones in the role of Lennie). But it seems even more a part of our collective consciousness: its story of a tragic friendship as resonant as a Biblical fable, its snapshot of Depression-era migrant workers part of the American grain. As with Raisin in the Sun, revisiting it seemed more like a duty than a chance for fresh insights.

But one insight is that James Franco, in his Broadway debut, can hold his own on stage. The polymathic actor/writer/director/Instagram celebrity has played everything from James Dean to Spider-Man villains, but his scruffy cool and restless intelligence often seems like a throwback to the 1930s; one could imagine him replacing John Garfield in Group Theater productions of Clifford Odets. As George, the companion and caretaker for the kindly, feeble-minded Lennie (played with touching, if rather familiar, gentle-giant oafishness by Chris O’Dowd), he steps easily into Steinbeck’s world: a cynical victim of an economic system stacked against him, clinging to a doomed friendship out of pragmatism, loyalty and something like love.

Anna D. Shapiro’s crisp, unfussy production reminds us what an expert piece of stagecraft Steinbeck created. Each minor character is sketched in a few brief, vivid strokes; the Depression-era sense of social injustice is muted but unmistakable; the march toward tragedy perfectly paced and inexorable. A few paragraphs ago I called the play a warhorse. But cheers for this production, and the Hollywood star who helped make it happen, for letting a new audience rediscover it as a moving masterpiece.

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