After two years of pandemic-generated disappointments for the performing arts, the two sold-out “50 Years of Broadway at the Kennedy Center” parties were designed for uplift — and a reminder of the role that the arts center in country performed as an amplifier for musical theatre. The roaring reception from the audience on Friday night (there was a second show on Saturday) signaled the belief that we collectively deserved this evening of melodic pats on the back.
But jogging through the memories of everything that happened in the Palace of the Arts on the Potomac River pushed me in a more thoughtful direction: What, if anything, is the Kennedy Center doing to create more such memories? The thrilling numbers from “50 Years of Broadway,” directed by Marc Bruni, were a joyous hymn to the past and to the seminal events of American musical theater in which the institution has featured. Where, one wonders, are those kinds of ambitions now?
As emcee James Monroe Iglehart explained, three musicals featured on the show, “Pippin,” “Annie” and “Les Miserables,” hold special significance for Washington: They’ve all tried out at the Kennedy Center before. to make their triumphant Broadway debut. A special tribute was also included on this pair of evenings to Stephen Sondheim, taking note of his recent death and honoring his own deep ties to the institution. Sondheim’s celebration of six musicals in 2002 is widely considered a turning point in the centering of Sondheim’s work in American culture. It’s also worth noting that the arts center was producer in 2003 of Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Bounce,” which would later become “Road Show,” Sondheim’s last musical to debut during his lifetime.
All of these events occurred before Deborah F. Rutter assumed the presidency of the Kennedy Center in September 2014. Many productions took place during the terms of Roger L. Stevens, the arts center’s founding president, and Michael Mr. Kaiser, Rutter’s predecessor. (Mr. Stevens, as he was respectfully known, didn’t even earn a mention on the celebratory anthology show). Over the past 7½ years, the center has become increasingly predictably an upmarket street house, its theater bookings filled almost exclusively with national tours. The latest center-produced musical, “Little Dancer,” was commissioned by Kaiser and directed, starring Tiler Peck, Boyd Gaines and the late Rebecca Luker, in November 2014.
Nothing on the Kennedy Center’s list of musicals has performed, even in the revival category, to rival its productions of “Ragtime” (2009) and “Follies” (2011), both of which moved to Broadway for engagements. modest. And there’s certainly been nothing on the scale of Sondheim’s celebration or even, for that matter, the 2008 curation of August Wilson’s 20th Century 10-Piece Cycle.
The Kennedy Center’s mission statement states that one of its three pillars is “to present, produce, and preserve world-class works of art.” In the theatre, nowadays it relies much more on curating. I repeatedly asked the awesome Finn if the arts center could create more work. “It’s one of my goals. It’s something I always want to do,” he told me last month, adding that the time needed for the technical aspects of a new production, in the limited and highly demanded spaces of the center, is hard to find.
This sometimes seems to thwart the “producer” aspect of its mission. Although the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York has traditionally played a broader creative role than the Kennedy Center, this complex contains significantly more performance spaces. The Lincoln Center Theater, one of the constituent companies, has just finished presenting an original (albeit imperfect) musical, “Flying Over Sunset,” at its Vivian Beaumont Theater. In its second space, the Mitzi Newhouse, an original opera, “Intimate Apparel” by Ricky Ian Gordon and Lynn Nottage, makes its world premiere.
Still, “50 Years of Broadway at the Kennedy Center” made me nostalgic for the days when ambitious new theater was on the arts center’s agenda. So why can’t these concerts serve as a new source of inspiration?
Of course, just two nights isn’t a major commitment, but the talent gathered suggested the cast’s understanding of what exposure to the Kennedy Center can mean. The results were often thrilling: LaChanze with “Waiting for Life to Begin” from “Once on This Island”; Stephanie J. Block sings “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl” and “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked”; Tony Yazbeck tapping out “I Can’t Be Bothered Now” by the Gershwins from “Crazy for You”; Beth Leavel delivering a catchy “Some People” from “Gypsy”; Gavin Creel singing “Pippin’s” “Corner of the Sky”; Betsy Wolfe and Rannells with “Suddenly Seymour” from “Little Shop of Horrors”. it went on and on.
Anyone who was at the Opera last weekend knows what I mean when I say: you should have been there. These are words I can’t wait to write again – about something theatrical at the Kennedy Center that no one has ever seen.