Theater in the year ahead

This year, musicals make a comeback, plus plays and actors you already know.

To find out what's new on Broadway this year, just follow the singing. More musicals are on the way in a season that so far has featured few of them. But with the Tony Awards just around the corner in June, producers are revving up to get musical versions of movies - and star-studded revivals of classic plays - to theaters in time to be contenders.

Two of the most anticipated new productions are Monty Python's Spamalot, based on the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," and another film-turned-musical, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. "Spamalot" will arrive with high expectations from a test-run in Chicago, thanks in part to its adaptation and new songs by Python veteran Eric Idle - and to its star power, including Tim Curry, David Hyde Pierce, and Hank Azaria.

"In the [same] way that people anticipated 'The Producers' and 'Hairspray,' they're coming to anticipate this," says Robert Simonson, editor of Playbill On-Line. "They know that this is being put on strictly for their joy, that there'll be lots of laughs and funny songs and good performances, and a great portion of it will be very tongue-in-cheek."

The film, which has a cult following, featured King Arthur and his knights searching for the grail under often silly circumstances - they ride pretend horses, for example, with the sound of hooves provided by servants banging coconuts together.

Publicity for the musical version is expected to be extensive. "Unless something unforeseen happens, this will probably be the show to beat, once awards time comes around," notes Matthew Murray, the lead New York critic for the website Talkin' Broadway (talkinbroadway.com).

"Scoundrels" opens shortly before "Spamalot" in March, and also has momentum behind it. Composer David Yazbek's second musical (his first was a popular adaptation of the movie "The Full Monty") stars John Lithgow as one of the titular scoundrels who con women on the French Riviera. The production also features a crew of theater notables. "Jack O'Brien and Jerry Mitchell are directing and choreographing, and were also responsible for [Tony-winner] 'Hairspray,' so I think many people at least expect them to repeat their success with that show," says Mr. Murray, in an e-mail interview.

To the list of productions to keep an eye on in early 2005, Mr. Simonson adds a musical by a well-pedigreed newcomer. The Light in the Piazza is the first Broadway production by composer Adam Guettel, grandson of the late Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame). The work, which opens at Lincoln Center in April, is based on a novella about a mother and daughter traveling in Italy in the 1950s. Romance ensues between the daughter and a Florentine - a romance the mother opposes. It's a literary piece (perhaps more so than other new musicals like Little Women and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and may be a litmus test for Mr. Guettel's abilities, says Simonson. "Of all the young composers of the generation that followed Sondheim, he does seem to be the one who has the most distinctive voice of his own, and the most talent," he says.

Of the plays opening on Broadway this spring, many will have a decidedly familiar feel. Classic works - with big stars attached - will be more common than original productions.

"It's not a great year for new plays, unfortunately," says Murray, noting that one exception is a riveting off-Broadway drama, Doubt, about controversy surrounding a priest at a Catholic school, that may transfer to Broadway before the end of the season. "If it doesn't [transfer], it will be a dry, strange Tonys," he suggests.

Star power is driving many of the revivals and productions of classic plays. James Earl Jones will return to Broadway for the first time in decades in the lead role in On Golden Pond opposite Leslie Uggams. And Denzel Washington will be Brutus in Julius Caesar. The pithy Glengarry Glen Ross, by David Mamet, will feature Alan Alda and Liev Schreiber. The list also includes Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (with Kathleen Turner), The Glass Menagerie (Jessica Lange), A Streetcar Named Desire (Natasha Richardson), and Steel Magnolias (Delta Burke).

"There's talk about all of them," says Simonson, "and any one of them could turn out to be a winner. It's hard to tell."

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