Theatre World 65: 2008-2009 by Ben Hodges

Now in its 65th year, Theatre World is the grande dame of American theatre reference books: distinguished by its longevity yet still young at heart and bursting with style. This year’s volume covers New York and regional theatre for the season running 1 June 2008 to 31 May 2009 with special sections for awards, long-running shows, and obituaries. It’s a vital reference tool for people who work in or write about theatre but also a good way to pass time on a rainy afternoon and catch up with all the shows you didn’t see. Spend a few hours perusing this volume and you’ll come away with a renewed appreciation for the quantity and variety of drama being produced in the United States.

This year Theatre World revives an old tradition by including critical reviews of the year in theatre: editor Ben Hodges looks at the big picture (“Broadway and Beyond”), Shay Gines (founding director of the New York Innovative Theatre Awards Foundation) contributes an essay on the Off-Off-Broadway season and Nicole Estvanik Taylor (managing editor of American Theatre magazine) does likewise for the season in regional theatre.

Theatre World 65 opens with a dedication to Editor Emeritus John A. Willis, unofficial record holder for most New York Theatre productions attended (five-eight per week, 50 weeks a year, for over 40 years) and a section of color photos of productions from the 2008-2009 season (all the other photos in this volume are black and white). This is followed by the real heart of the volume: listings of the season’s productions, packed with the kind of detailed information difficult to locate elsewhere.

Broadway shows come first with productions listed in chronological order by opening date, beginning with the shows which opened in 2008-09, followed by those which were carried through from the previous season, and special events such as Broadway Bares and the Gypsy of the Year competition. One to three pages is devoted to each show, including information such as the theatre where it was performed, opening date (and closing date, if any), number of previews and performances, cast and crew, understudies, orchestra and musical numbers (if any), setting (both the setting of the play and the site of the current and the original productions), a one-paragraph synopsis, and several photos.

Off-Broadway shows get shorter listings of the same type of information (one-three shows per page) and are divided into three sections: new shows, those held over from the previous season, and company series (for instance all the shows for City Center Encores! are listed together). Off-Off-Broadway listings are arranged alphabetically by company, with one paragraph devoted to each show. Together, the Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway sections comprise about two-thirds of the book.

The regional theatre section is arranged alphabetically by company (professional companies only) from the American Conservatory Theatre to Yale Repertory Theatre, with basic information about each company followed by one paragraph of information about each production.

The Awards section begins with the Theatre World Awards followed by other major New York and national awards (e.g., the Tonys, Obies, and Pulitzer Prize for drama) followed by regional, specialized, and other awards such as the Ed Kleban Award (given by New Dramatists to a librettist and lyricist) and the Helen Hayes Awards (for productions in Washington, D.C.). There are also sections for the longest-running Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, an obituary section with a one-paragraph biography of each person, and a detailed index which you definitely need to find production listings as well as to locate all the entries relating to a particular person or show.

But the sections on long-running awards started me thinking, and I offer this as a cautionary tale about how browsing in Theatre World can be addictive. Of the top 10 Broadway shows, three are still running, including the leader Phantom of the Opera which has already racked up 8,875 performances since 26 January 1968. The only shows in the top ten to have opened before 1980 are A Chorus Line (#4 with 6,137 performances between 25 July 1975 and 28 April 1990) and the revival of Oh! Calcutta at #5 with 5,959 between 24 September 1976 and 6 August 1989. Disney has two shows on the list, as do Andrew Lloyd-Webber and the team of Claude Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boublil. Most of the top shows opened within my lifetime and you have to go down to #14 and #15 to find something which opened before 1960: Life with Father (1939-1947) and Tobacco Road (1933-1941) respectively.

But the Broadway shows are pikers by comparison with Off-Broadway which is led (as every theatre geek knows) by The Fantasticks with 17,162 performances (more than the top two Broadway shows combined). Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt had better watch their backs, however, because #2 and #3 (although far behind) are still playing: Blue Man Group with 9,440 performances and Perfect Crime with 9,034.

Haven’t heard of Perfect Crime? Neither had I but the index led me to the information that it’s a mystery about a psychiatrist accused of killing her husband with the additional complication that the case is being investigated by a detective who’s also in love with her, and that the Actors Collective have been performing it in the Snapple Theatre Center since 18 April 1987. I could (and did) go on, but this story just goes to show what a great book this is for setting off discursive chains of thought and why you think about setting an alarm before you start to browse in it, at least if you expect to get any work done for the rest of the day.

RATING 7 / 10