Mother Nature has her faux fur coat on the foot of her bed and she’s almost ready to step out for New York’s hottest shows. We are here to celebrate the eight shows that will open up on Broadway before October.
The 2017-2018 Broadway season reached 13,792,614 in attendance and grossed over $1.6 million. Despite these record setting numbers, discussion and debate broke out amongst fans as all four Tony nominated Best Musicals were stage adaptations of films; The Band’s Visit, SpongeBob SquarePants the Musical, Frozen, and Mean Girls.
A major criticism of Broadway is the trend of stage adaptations of popular movies, which has been featured heavily in recent seasons. With this upcoming season having two announced adaptations, Almost Famous and Some Like It Hot, and even more rumored for the future including The Notebook, The Devil Wears Prada, and a transfer of the West End’s Back to the Future, there is an understandable interest in the creation and development of original stories on Broadway. What many theatergoers are unaware of is that this trend isn’t new to Broadway. In fact, Broadway has a long history of translating movies to the stage including some classic and fan favorite shows.
While some adaptations are more obvious, such as the Disney Broadway catalog including shows like Beauty and the Beast, Newsies, and The Lion King, many well known theater classics were inspired by movies. Sondheim and Wheeler’s A Little Night Music, which originally opened on Broadway in 1973 and ran for 601 performances, is based on the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. The well-known Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon staple Sweet Charity, written by Neil SImon with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, is based on the 1957 screenplay Nights of Cabiria. Little Shop of Horrors, whose award winning Off-Broadway revival is currently running at the Westside Theatre, is based on the low budget 1960 dark comedy, The Little Shop of Horrors. Andrew Lloyd Webbers’ Sunset Boulevard, which broke advance sale records and sold over 1 million tickets with its original Broadway production, is based on the 1950 film of the same name. Some other classics include Nine, based on Frederico Fellini’s 1963 film 8½, On The 20th Century, based on the 1930s film of the same name, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair, and Promises, Promises, based on the 1960 film The Apartment.
Beyond the classics, many fan favorites, such as Heathers which currently has a production on the West End, are based on films. The 2007 Legally Blonde, which has become a go-to for many community theaters and High Schools across the country, is heavily based heavily on the 2001 film starring Reese Witherspoon as well as the Amanda Brown novel. The beloved Sara Bareilles musical Waitress, which ran on Broadway from 2016 to 2020 and returned in a limited engagement in 2021, is based on the 2007 film written by Adrienne Shelly. Other fan favorite adaptations include the currently running Beetlejuice, based on the Tim Burton horror comedy, 9 to 5, based on the 1980 film, Anastasia, based on the 1997 animated movie, and many more.
Some screen to stage adaptations have even garnered critical acclaim and gone on to win Tony Awards, such as Once, which won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Musical. Carnival, which won the 1962 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical and an Outer Critics Circle Award, was based on the 1953 film Lili. The 2013 winner Kinky Boots, which ran on Broadway for 2,507 performances and is currently running Off-Broadway at Stage 42, is based on a 2005 British film of the same name. The 2021 Tony Award-winning Best Musical, Moulin Rouge!, is based on the 2001 film starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. Other Tony Award winning adaptations include Billy Elliot the Musical, Spamalot, Hairspray, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Producers, and Passion.
The river flows both ways. While many musicals based on films have gone on to win awards and break records, Hollywood continues to turn out movies based on beloved Broadway shows. In the last 5 years alone, there have been a slew of film adaptations of Musicals including Jonathan Larsons’ Tick, Tick…Boom, directed by Lin Manuel Miranda starring Andrew Garfield, a remake of West Side Story directed by Stephen, In The Heights, 13, The Prom, Dear Evan Hansen, and The Last 5 Years (although this came out in 2014 and has yet to have a Broadway production). Coming to Netflix this December will be a movie adaptation of the acclaimed musical Matilda. The long-running Broadway musical Wicked, which has multiple national tours and international productions, has a film adaptation in the late stages of development starring Ariana Grande, Cynthia Erivo, and Jonathan Bailey.
While there should be a healthy mix of original stories and adaptations in commercial theater, the relationship between Broadway and the silver screen has an extensive history that shouldn’t be dismissed. If a screen to stage adaptation is done well, it has the potential to connect with audiences, set records, and become a staple in the theater canon.
It was a wonderful opportunity to explore Lillian Hellman’s classic play with such a dream cast as part of this series of online performances. The themes of liberal America and its imperative to combat fascism in all its manifestations feels all too pertinent to the needs of our present times. When Watch On The Rhine premiered in 1941 it served to bring to the theatre-going public a sense of the turmoil that was brewing in mainland Europe and its potential impact on the global stage.
I was first exposed to the epic dimensions of the American drama when I made my professional theatrical debut in a revival of Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill. Written in the shadow of the Great War, this Pulitzer Prize winning drama features the theatrical convention of characters speaking their innermost thoughts as asides. In deploying this classical device in a contemporary setting, O’Neil shows that despite the privileges of modern education, human beings still struggle to communicate directly and truthfully with one another. However, my lasting impression of this masterpiece is not as profound as I would wish. I was thirteen years old at the time and my hair had been bleached a platinum blonde to evoke the archetypal Golden Child. The abiding memory I have is of the cast, which included Glenda Jackson and my father Brian Cox, gently but firmly urging me to go easy on the gold hairspray that I had applied to my side parting when the dark roots began to show. Luckily, I don’t think my besmirching of the beautifully tailored 1920’s costumes could be glimpsed past the front row.
Thirty seven years later and one of the benefits of being involved in the remote capture of an online performance of a classic play is that this actor can transform himself without having to make a trip to the hairdresser.
Alan Cox recently played Uncle Vanya at the Hampstead Theatre in London and Claudius in Hamlet for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. He played David Frost in the national tour of Frost/Nixon, for which he received a Helen Hayes Award nomination. He made his Broadway debut in Translations. He made his motion picture debut as Watson in Young Sherlock Holmes. His film work includes Contagion, The Dictator, Mrs. Dalloway, and An Awfully Big Adventure. Alan’s television credits include The Good Wife, John Adams, and The Odyssey. He can be seen in Spotlight on Play’s Watch on the Rhine streaming this Thursday.
In 1981, I was in my last year of high school in the suburbs of Toronto. I’d done a bunch of musicals in theatre class (Godspell, Pippin, Fantasticks) but never worked professionally. I got a job bussing tables at a brand-new dinner theatre uptown, O’Neill’s. The opening show, starring six young actors in their mid-20’s, was a collection of songs (from other musicals) about making it in show biz. It was called, literally, One Big Break. Five nights a week, for months, I’d clear plates and glasses, then sit at the back, by the spotlight, and watch my new, slightly-older friends perform. After one show, I was washing dishes when I overheard the owners, in a kitchen corner, whispering their concerns about Stephen, one of the actors.
“He could barely sing tonight,” said Sandra O’Neill, the theatre’s namesake. “Well, we don’t have understudies, Sandra,” hissed the other owner, “what would you suggest?”
“I can do it,” I blurted.
They looked over at me, in my apron and my mullet. Sandra smiled, like I was an adorable puppy. “Aww,” she cooed, “thanks, hon. It’s Eric, right? We’ll figure it out, sweetheart.”
The next day, in history class, I got called to the front office. This had never happened in my life. The principal’s secretary handed me the phone. Sandra O’Neill was on the other end.
“Were you… serious?” she asked, with hesitation.
“Absolutely,” I replied, with none. The bravado of eighteen.
I met with the musical director at 4:00 and we ran the numbers. Once. When the actors got there, they looked ashen. Sure, I was their favorite busboy, but…this? We reviewed choreography for about half an hour…then we opened the place for dinner.
And I bussed tables.
At 8:00, the waiters (to the surprise of the patrons) suddenly became the performers. One by one they’d put down their trays and start to sing the opening number. I was the last. The first lines out of my mouth, the first words I ever sang in a professional theatre…
“One good break is really all I need to make the world stand up and cheer…”
It was a pretty good night. I played the role for two more months. I will always have a special place in my heart for Sandra.
And for Stephen McMulkin.
Best known as Will Truman on TV’s Will & Grace, Eric McCormack made his Broadway debut in The Music Man. He appeared as a mystery guest star in The Play What I Wrote, starred off-Broadway in Neil LaBute’s Some Girl(s) and returns to the Main Stem opposite James Earl Jones in the 2012 revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.
This may come as a surprise to some, not so much to others, but Othello is a complex role to accept for the 21st century black actor. On one hand, he’s an incredibly deep, densely drawn character and one of the few that are built specifically for actors of color in the Elizabethan canon. On the other hand, he’s been reduced to some pretty nasty stereotyping. The character has a well documented history of blackface, and the optics of a white woman being strangled by a black man brings to mind the gut-dropping feeling we got in those last moments of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (Daniel Kaaluya hands wrapped around the neck of his captor/honeypot/devil in a white dress, Allison Williams, when suddenly red and blue lights wash the screen). So in my second year of graduate school, when I was called into my department chairs office to talk about playing Othello in the spring…I wasn’t sure what to do. I mean sure; in the name of the pedagogical experience, in the name of practice (because inevitably it wouldn’t be my last time playing the character) and well, the thing looks good on the resume, so why not? But does taking the part make me a sellout? Or worse…is it a full on soul sell?
Around this time, I was reckoning with myself, my artistry and this liquid prison I was attempting to construct. Growing inside me was this festering shadow of insecurity, imposter syndrome, and the ever present doom of letting everyone down, one I tried to bar up with Whiskey, Tequila and Rum. Little did I know, this shadow loved a drink, and despite my attempts to drown it, grew gills. I’ll spare you the rest of the bloody details but I can tell you with confidence that some people do indeed crack their skulls open on rock bottom. Others, however, bounce off stones of despair (it’s my band name, you cannot have it) and are given a chance to change direction.
I started writing letters to Othello in between classes, outpatient treatment, rehearsal and AA meetings on cold Sunday mornings (so much coffee and the squeaking of grey slush on the bottoms of winter boots). It’s not a ritual I had experienced before, but one of my Sunday Morning Crew was like “I write letters to myself and found xyz”. I thought that was a corny thing for a person to do, so I wrote letters to the characters I was cast as (a practice I still carry with me and yes, it is a far cornier endeavor).
We all “know” the play, and in that “knowledge” Othello is this larger than life character who looms over the canon/performer. If the past were to be prologue, he “should” be this gravitational force, the embodiment of strength and “manly-ness”. He’s jealous and angry or something along those lines. So rather than fall in lockstep with the mythic barnacles of the play, I re-read it with the fresh young eyes of a curious child at Disneyworld for the first time.
The first Act is the portrait of a man in love, a man with purpose, a man who has a grasp on what he wants the world to look like and how he can nudge the paradigm a bit closer to the shores of that promise. In my letters, I asked Othello to teach me what love was; specifically, to teach me what it was to be in love with oneself and one’s purpose (he later taught me that once you do that, falling in love is relatively easy). I asked him to remind me of what it means to see beyond what “is” into the realm of what “can be”. I asked him to demand my radical honesty. For a time it felt as though the letter went unheeded. Instead of waiting, I worked my ass off. I scanned and rescanned text, I battled tooth and nail for text to be re-entered into the cut, I linked arms with my castmates/peers to honor the work put in to tell the story as written. I fought for the story in the hopes that it would fight for me. And then, out of that big, looming shadow shrank there emerged a man. He looked a bit like me; a little stockier, a whole lot wiser and a generous smile. And we walked side by side through the play and he revealed things to me. Little secrets other people overlook.
Jealousy seems to be a trait oft associated with The Moor of Venice. I ask…where though? He’s one of the highest ranking generals in the nation, he’s got the hand of one of the most sought after bachelorettes in the nation, he talks business, pleasure and war with the Duke. Iago mentions jealousy, sure…but when does Othello? On the page, he wants to be the change he wants to see in the world. He chooses to partner with the only other human who sees him as such: who sees the sensitivity and the vulnerability in Othello, rather than upholding the expectations of manhood set upon him. With this realization, I felt a little hydrophobic daemon, resistant to my attempts to drown him, squeal away in a puff of brimstone and smoke. I dug deeper: when it is made known to him the possibility of deceit on the part of Desdemona, there is no time for jealousy when your heart is shattered. When you’ve been duped, hoodwinked, bamboozled, how can you blame anyone else but yourself? You can only perform the confusing task of picking up the shards of your heart and fighting through the wincing pain of putting it back together…even though you know it will not refract light the same way. Huh. That’s not jealousy. That’s good old fashioned world weary heartbreak and disappointment. In understanding a bit about him, I understood a bit more about myself. He wasn’t a monolith looming over me, he was right there, next to me, ensuring I honored every step in his shoes.
It’s a cliché to say that Theatre saved my life…so I won’t (it did though, *insert eyeroll*). I know that the characters aren’t actually leaping off the page to rescue me (I’m fully aware it’s my imagination+therapy+the work doing some heavy lifting). As much as I say that the characters are teaching me things, I know that ultimately it’s me, a room full of people, blood, sweat, tears, imagination, and ink on paper. Nor am I here to suggest that Theatre is a replacement to therapy, psychiatry, and/or AA/NA meetings (it isn’t, shout out to my therapist). But it can be a supplement (like B12). The gift and wisdom of the playwright is their ability to teach us lessons about what it means to be human. Sometimes those lessons are about success. They are often about failure; but always, there are lessons to be excavated, digested and shared. There are empathetic bridges to be built; within ourselves, to each other, and to the world into which we wake. And while that sounds like a gushy Barney sing along, the work is hard. It requires dedication, it requires an open mind and an open heart. Building empathetic bridges to truly see each other can be painful. Much like a journey to sobriety, it can feel pretty ugly (ha, I did one of those Shakespeare things). Much like nudging social norms and our existential paradigm towards a just and verdant society, you take it one day, one hour, one minute at a time.
It’s worth it.
Brandon Burton is a 2020 graduate of The Yale School of Drama Master of Fine Arts program. He can be seen in Spotlight on Play’s reading of The Baltimore Waltz streaming April 29th
When I first came to New York, with all those aspirations, I, through a fluke of a chance conversation between an actor I know and her agent, learned that Jerry Robbins, who was about to direct, off-Broadway, Arthur Kopit’s brilliant play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling so Sad, was having a terrible time casting the part of the young son in the play. I worked hard on the audition and waltzed in and knocked him out with the audition. So he asked me to come to a callback audition a few days later. At which I totally bombed. I’d never heard of a callback. It was a fiasco. Jerry called me the next day and asked me to come see him. He said. “what happened?!” He wasn’t angry, he was just bewildered. I told him that I had no idea, at that second audition, what I was doing. So he kept calling me back and calling me back, looking for the fire to return. Then finally, on, I think, the sixth audition, he had me read opposite the magnificent Barbara Harris. And we soared.
So my career was launched. Jerry was the launcher and Barbara was the rocket.
Luck. Pure, wild luck. This business is beyond capricious.
The sun is shining, cherry blossoms are blooming, and many world economies are opening up (slowly but surely). It seems like spring 2021 has finally arrived, bringing with it the seasonal sense of joy, promise, and new beginnings that has long been lauded by writers and artists throughout history. While many people may associate springtime with Shakespeare sonnets, Impressionist paintings, or even madrigals, spring has also been the focus of many Broadway composers and lyricists.
The most obvious example of springtime making its way into the Broadway canon is the song “Younger Than Springtime” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Sung right after Lieutenant Cable and Liat first meet (and make love), “Younger Than Springtime” has all the classic markers of a spring love song. Cable compares Liat to spring – favorably – saying she is “younger than springtime,” “gayer than laughter,” “sweeter than music,” and “warmer than the winds of June.” But the song also has a great “turn” – certainly one of the reasons it’s still so well-known today. While Cable begins the song by saying that Liat is like springtime, halfway through, he implies that she is also transformative: “when your youth/and joy invade my arms/and fill my heart as now they do/then younger than springtime/am I.” Through Liat’s love, Cable argues that he becomes someone who is “gayer than laughter,” “softer than starlight,” and “younger than springtime,” too.
Another well-known use of spring in the lyrics, title, and imagery of a Broadway song can be found in “It Might As Well Be Spring” from State Fair, another Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration. The song plays with some of the springtime tropes and patterns used in “Younger Than Springtime.” The singer, Margy, makes clear that she hasn’t seen any of the typical, physical signs of oncoming spring. In fact, it’s decidedly not spring: “I haven’t seen a crocus or a rosebud/or a robin on the wing,” Margy sings, “But…it might as well be spring.” This is a prime example of Oscar Hammerstein’s genius use of conditional thinking. In the same way Hammerstein implies in Carousel that Julie Jordan is madly in love with Billy Bigelow using the conditional “IF I loved you,” and that Laurie and Curly in Oklahoma! are similarly destined to mate with the conditional “people will SAY we’re in love,” Hammerstein is able to write a spring love song that’s not actually sung during springtime.
The song grows even more rich and complex in its associations with the season. While the characteristics of springtime that Cable lists in “Younger Than Springtime” are all positive, for Margy “it might as well be spring” not only because she’s “starry-eyed,” “giddy,” and “gay,” but also because she feels “restless,” “jumpy,” and “vaguely discontented.” In “It Might As Well Be Spring” you get both sides of the coin: the good and the bad, the positive and the negative, perhaps best summed up by the lyric: “But I feel so gay/in a melancholy way/that it might as well be spring.” Here, spring is being used as a metaphor for the “nameless” discontent Margy feels with her life at the moment – a vague restlessness which sets up most of the action of the play: while Margy is dating Harry, who wants to marry her, she “keep[s] wishing [she] were somewhere else,/Walking down a strange new street./Hearing words that [she’s]…never heard/ From a man [she’s] yet to meet.” These lyrics foreshadow her meeting, and falling in love with, Pat at the (titular) state fair. It’s also hard not to read these lyrics without picking up something of a sexual edge. When Margy starts the song, she sings of “want[ing] a lot of…things/[she’s] never had before.” Given the traditional associations of birth, new beginnings, love, and even sexuality, with springtime, “It Might As Well Be Spring” could easily speak to Margy’s desires as a newly minted young woman.
Many Broadway songs focus on this deeper side of spring’s transitions. In Rodgers and Hart’s I Married an Angel, for example, Willy sings “Spring Is Here” when things with his angel-wife (yes, you read that correctly) have gone sour. “Spring is here/why doesn’t my heart go dancing?/spring is here/why isn’t the waltz entrancing?…Maybe it’s because nobody needs me…Maybe it’s because nobody loves me,” he sings. It’s another clever inversion of the springtime myth: spring may be here, with its gentle “breezes,” and “lads and girls…drinking May wine,” but because Willy has fallen out of love, he can no longer enjoy it. It’s a springtime love song that depends on negative space rather than positive space: without “love,” “desire,” or “ambition,” there can be no spring.
“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf’s 1955 tune which was then incorporated into the 1959 musical The Nervous Set, similarly focuses on the “have-nots” of spring rather than the “haves.” A send-up of the first lines of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” (“April is the cruelest month…”), “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” implies that spring can actually be the worst time of the year – if you’re single, that is. “Spring this year has got me feeling like a horse that never left the post;/I lie in my room staring up at the ceiling/Spring can really hang you up the most!” the lyrics read. The song reverses traditional springtime psychology and implies that the singer was happy and in love in the winter, and now, during the joyful spring season of rebirth, is experiencing loneliness. “Love seemed sure around the New Year,” she sings, “Now it’s April, love is just a ghost;/ Spring arrived on time, only what became of you, dear?” It should be noted that this song, as well as “It Might As Well Be Spring,” became jazz standards, covered by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. The season’s failure to deliver on its promise is clearly a recurring theme on Broadway and beyond.
But no discussion of spring on Broadway would be complete without “Springtime for Hitler” from Mel Brooks’ The Producers. The major song in the musical’s show-within-a-show, a favorable retelling of WWII from the perspective of a disgruntled Nazi, “Springtime for Hitler” shows Brooks’ thoughtful understanding – and appreciation – of spring’s metaphorical function in Golden Age musicals. As the tap-dancing, sausage-wearing Nazis sing lines like “And now it’s springtime for Hitler and Germany/Deutschland is happy and gay,” Brooks is sending up the positive traits associated with springtime in musicals like South Pacific and State Fair. And to the Nazis represented in the show, “springtime for Hitler” is indeed positive: it encapsulates their military campaign to take over the world. Brooks makes clear, however, that this seasonal rebirth is actually extremely dark. Peppered in with the image of a “happy and gay” Germany are lyrics about “U-boats…sailing once more.” In the song, springtime equals gaiety, but it also happens to equal “bombs falling from the skies again.” Combined with the schmaltzy musical style, movie-musical tap-dancing, over-the-top costumes, and of course the late, great Gary Beach’s acting, springtime in “Springtime for Hitler,” repeated over 20 times in the eight-minute song, becomes an absurd (and incredibly funny) dramatic irony.
Brooks’ hilarious treatment of springtime is similar to the season’s representation in a lesser known E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy song, “Springtime Cometh” from the 1951 flop Flahooley. Like “Springtime for Hitler,” “Springtime Cometh” relies on and leans into the audience’s positive associations with spring and its traditional representation in Golden Age musicals. Sandy/Penny and her genie (truly – don’t ask) sing about “lilacs growing on the clothesline,” “roses growing in the ashcan,” “hummingbird[s],” “merry maidens,” and repeat the word “springtime” six times in the short song. Harburg went one step further and even wrote the lyrics in a sort of faux Olde English: “Springtime cometh,” the characters sing. “Hummingbird hummeth,/little brook rusheth,/merry maiden blusheth…springtime cometh for love of thee.” Harburg pushes this construction even further for comedic effect with “Sugarplum plummeth,/Heart, it humpty-dummeth,/And to summeth up,/The Springtime cometh for the love of thee.” The faux Olde English language reaches its zenith with Harburg’s tongue-and-cheek reference’s to spring’s inherent sexuality: “Lad and lass/In tall green grass/Gaily skippeth,/Nylon rippeth,/Zipper zippeth…which is to say/Spring cometh.” Harburg’s ironic send-up of springtime is sexual, funny, self-aware, and, most importantly, irreverent.
Broadway clearly has a long-time fascination – and infatuation – with all things spring. From the huge number of songs with “spring” in their title (and chorus) – to ones that rely on springtime imagery like the lilac trees in My Fair Lady’s “On the Street Where You Live” – lyricists have used the season to convey and inspire romance, joy, lust, restlessness, loneliness, humor, and personal transformation in equal parts. So in this close-to-post-pandemic moment: crank up the Broadway show tunes, smell the flowers, and look forward to a new (and hopefully, better) day. As they say: “springtime cometh!”
Katie Birenboim is a NYC-based actor, director, and writer. She’s performed and directed at Classic Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, Barrington Stage, City Center Encores!, The Davenport Theatre, and Ancram Opera House, to name a few. She is a proud graduate of Princeton University, member of Actors’ Equity, and hosts a weekly interview show on YouTube with theatre’s best and brightest entitled “Call Time with Katie Birenboim.”
In 1997 I did a one man play about a drunken Irish theatre critic at the Bush theater in London. St Nicholas! Written by Conor McPherson, which I subsequently performed the following year at Primary Stages in New York on 45th street, and for which I was honored with ‘The Lucille Lortel Award’!
But the previous year the play was premiered at the Bush Theatre in London. The Bush was a small intimate theatre with the audience on three sides. This particular night was a sellout performance. The audience were packed to the rafters.
Now St Nicholas is an extremely intricate complicated and fantastical text. With a sinewy comic thread! It demands an incredible level of Concentrated attention from the player. That evening started well.
But…About 6 minutes into the evening I noticed that sitting on front row…in…the middle…to my right was my ex girlfriend. Who I had recently broken up with. I was a little thrown by this …and wondered why on earth she had chosen that particular, really, quite prominent, seat.
I recovered from this slight ‘hiccup’ and continued, feeling proud of myself that I was not thrown by this ‘obstacle’. So I proceeded with renewed confidence.
After a few minutes, I’d just gotten back in stride when I turned to address my audience stage left and there sitting…in the middle of the left front row was…my ex ex girlfriend. The girl friend previous…to the girl friend…now sitting stage right. In fact these two young ladies were actually sitting…facing…each other. I didn’t panic… but, my anxiety…was, shall we say…mounting.
What on earth was going on? And of course various scenarios began to play out in my mind!
Had they come together?
And as some bizarre joke decided to sit opposite each other?
Or??….were they there by pure coincidence?
My brain became occupied with, what seemed endless permutations on these shifting scenarios. The text of the play, the main purpose of my attention, was drifting in my consciousness. And..ten minutes into the evening….the inevitable happened. I went up! Dried stone dead.
I struggled like a drowning man seeking a life raft. But after..a beat..which seemed a lifetime. I stopped turned to the audience, and said “Ladies and Gentlemen I’m afraid for reasons I can’t entirely explain, I need to start the evening over again! Apologies!” And so indeed I did…and it was truly scary!
“Will I get over the point where concentration abandoned me.”
And…”Will I indeed get through the entire evening….”
The moment where I had lost my way, was looming like one of those huge fences at the English Grand national horse race. Would I get over the fence? The moment arrived… and I lept the fence.. and..proceeded obsessively to the finish. After it was over, I left the stage exhausted!
I sat in my dressing room. There was a knock on my door. It was my ex-girlfriend. “Brian that was wonderful, what an incredible evening.” I was about to answer when there was another knock at the door. Enter my ex-ex-girlfriend “Brian that was wonderful, what an amaz….Oh hello, blank!
I was about to answer when there was another knock at the door. Enter my ex-ex-girlfriend “Brian that was wonderful, what an amaz….Oh hello, blank! Were you in?”
Ex-girl friend, “Yes, were you, wasn’t it wonderful
I sat there in a state of stupefaction! Me “But weren’t you?… didn’t you? ..Um..ah…see..?”
Ex girlfriend “ I was absolutely caught from the moment you came on!
I was in a sauna with my husband and 3 year old son on the Dingel peninsula when I received a phone call from Joe Papp asking me to start a multicultural Shakespeare company for him to play for the New York City school system.
Why me? He had seen a multicultural-multilingual production of ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA that I had directed at the Womens’ Interart Theater on 52nd Street. I put together a company: 5 Blacks, 6 Hispanics, 3 Japanese, 2 Whites and 1 Turk.
We played in the Anspacher theater at 425 Lafayette Street for one year and then moved to the Belasco Theater on West 44th Street as SHAKESPEARE ON BROADWAY. It was Joe Papp’s dream.
We played daytimes during the school week for high school and junior high school students. On Friday and Saturdays they could bring their families from great grandparents to babes-in-arms. It was all free.
I TOOK FIVE MONTHS TO DEVELOP THE COMPANY
First an hour of relaxation and physical work led by a member of the company who was a dancer.
Then an hour of vocal work led by another member of the company. Then, five hours of free form work to find out who these actors were.
The reason for these five months?
Commercial actors of whatever culture or race learned to “act white” back in the 80s. I wanted to know who these people really were, their customs, their talk, their heritage, themselves. That stuff is the bedrock of compelling theater and fine acting.
One day Rene Moreno, an Hispanic, was showing us something of his heritage when Vince Williams, a big black guy from a family of musicians in New Orleans, sitting near me watching in the audience, piped up with “My heritage is some guys standing on a beach waiting to be brought here to be slaves”. Necessary talk this. Five months of it.
What do high school students like? Sports teams, oh, yes!
We put sweats on the actors and we had a sports team. (Ruth Morley of ANNIE HALL fame did the costumes). THE NEW YORK SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL PLAYERS
AFTER 5 MONTHS, HERE’S THE DRILL!
The actors came out to introduce themselves “Hello. I’m . . .”
But-hold it! Is that theater? What is your moniker, what is your “John Hancock”?
What is yourself? Show me your essence!
Not easy. Maybe impossible. Try.
One actor was really good at juggling. One could do backflips. One had been trained at New York City Ballet. Got it? Too big a challenge? Yes. Try!
By now the kids were into it.
Bess Myerson, a former Miss America, now part of the city government saw just this much of the performance and gave us a big donation.
BLACKOUT. LIGHTS UP. AS YOU LIKE IT.
Natsuko was Rosalind. Celia was Regina Taylor—with a live boa constrictor around her neck. 25 pounds. Had his own dressing room.
“I can’t rehearse all day with this thing around my neck.” Of course not—but it had been her idea.
One matinee, lights came up and a big girl in the front row shot to the back of the house – faster than any animal I had ever seen run.
The snake was still on Regina’s shoulders.
We alternated AS YOU LIKE IT and ROMEO AND JULIET.
We played the Anspacher, the Mobile Unit in the parks all summer, and then added the Scottish play when we became SHAKESPEARE ON BROADWAY. Ching Valez played Lady M.
Oh, but she could.
After the students had seen the productions, the actors, as themselves, visited the schools and “played Shakespeare” with them.
At the end of our second season, I went, as a wife, to Gracie Mansion for dinner with the Mayor. My husband worked in the city government.
Bobby Wagner, head of the school board, was there. He told a story.
“I was in a school elevator and asked a teacher how her year had been. She said ‘Estelle Parsons’ Shakespeare program was the only good thing that happened all year.”
Estelle Parsons received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Blanche Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde, and was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Rachel, Rachel. She is well known for playing Beverly Harris, on the sitcom “Roseanne”, and its spinoff “The Conners”. She has been nominated five times for the Tony Award (four times for Lead Actress of a Play and once for Featured Actress) for her work in The Seven Descents of Myrtle, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, Miss Margarida’s Way, Morning’s at Seven, and The Velocity ofAutumn.
Beverly Jenkins is not afraid of a cut show. That’s a performance where there are more actors calling out than there are understudies or swings to replace them, and it requires a last-minute reconfiguration of everything from blocking to costuming to the placement of props.
For many people, this would be terrifying, but for Jenkins, who’s been a Broadway stage manager since the early 90s, it’s an opportunity.
Case in point: At one performance of Broadway’s A Bronx Tale The Musical, she only had one Black actress available, even though there was a scene that required two. “I had to decide,” she recalls. “‘Do I have one Black female on stage, or do I have a Black female and a Black male in that other track?’ I’d planned for that, because you have to plan for that, even if it never happens. So I made the decision to have a Black male on stage, because otherwise it would have thrown some things off [to just have one person]. I spoke to some people; we made a few changes, and it worked. No problem.”
That solution indicates what a distinct style of stage management Jenkins has developed over her career, which includes landmark productions like Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk; the original Miss Saigon; and her current gig as the production stage manager for Hadestown.
Crucially, she sees a cut show as a chance to connect. “It’s a community event,” she says. “You check with wardrobe, and they’ll make adjustments. The music department and the dance captains are involved. I always reach out to the director or the AD to make sure my choices are okay. And I take the personal trip to tell people what’s happening. I get a couple of extra steps in on my FitBit, and I’m good. I want to make sure I’m personally letting people know what’s going on before they step on stage.”
Those steps — up and down stairs, into the green room, into the wings — set Jenkins apart “Beverly runs a building, and she doesn’t have to open her computer to do it,” says Michael Rico Cohen, a fellow stage manager who has worked alongside her on A Bronx Tale The Musical, Amazing Grace, and Fully Committed.
Or to borrow a phrase Jenkins uses to describe herself, she’s a mom of many. “I’m fine with the tech,” she says. “It’s all good. I’m very calm, and I can call a cue just as well as the next person, but I believe my speciality is about being hands-on with the people. I put a lot of thought and care into everyone — not just the actors, but everyone — coming into that theatre.”
On every show, then, a big part of her job is figuring out exactly what this particular group of people needs. For instance, on Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, the 1996 dance musical that uses tap to trace Black history in the United States, Jenkins worked with performers who were more familiar with the dance world than with Broadway. “Sorry Equity, but I had to bend the rules for this group of young men,” she says. “I had to assess the rules and see what they needed. Like, ‘I know this is half hour, and if you’re not here at half hour, then I need you to call me and tell me how far away you are. And as Iong as I know you’re coming, you get a five-minute grace period.’ And that’s something I still do, the five-minute grace period.”
On Noise/Funk, she also turned her office into an occasional daycare center, so that parents in the company could bring their children with them when there were no other options. She recalls, “I had Barney tapes. I had a playpen. I was like, ‘You’re not going to be forced to miss work because you’re doing the right thing with your child.’ I have to get my show up, no matter what. I have to figure out how to get the best show on stage today. And on that show, watching kids was part of it.”
For Amazing Grace, the 2015 Broadway musical that explores how the British slave trade inspired the titular hymn, Jenkins knew her job required extra compassion. She says, “Amazing Grace was important to me because of what was happening on stage. How hard is it that the first time you see Black people on stage, they are stuffed in a crate, and then they get pulled out, thrown on the ground, and shot in the back? So when the actors come off stage, how can they not carry that off stage? How do we make sure that these people are not carrying the feelings of trauma off stage with them?
“We had company morale-building events. We had t-shirt day. We made sure the dressing rooms were mixed, and that we weren’t keeping the Puritans over here and the Africans over here. It was good to see everyone put thought into how to make this a harmonious backstage area and still tell that particular story.”
It no doubt helped that Jenkins herself was spearheading the backstage culture. “She is wildly good at creating fellowship and community,” says Rachel Chavkin, the director of Hadestown.
Jenkins asserts that small touches help a company avoid bigger problems, particularly when they’re together for a lengthy run. That’s one reasons she runs a “turkey hand” contest for Thanksgiving, getting everyone in the building to trace their hand on construction paper and then turn it into a decorated turkey drawing. “And believe me, there are prizes, honey,” she says.
Cohen confirms, “There’s nobody that loves a turkey hand competition more than Beverly Jenkins. But it’s more than just turkey hands or door decorating contests or the Father’s Day barbecue. She’s a master of the casual-but-meaningful interaction. It creates a camaraderie and an immediate trust. It’s these little things that really make the building a happy place over a period of years. All of those things are just as important — and sometimes more — than announcing what we’re doing in understudy rehearsal on Friday.”
Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.
Is it a squirrel? Is it a beaver? (Kinda both, but not quite either!)
That’s right, woodchuck-chuckers, Thursday, February 2 is Groundhog Day! Though it is not considered a federal holiday, many Americans turn their attention to the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where its famed groundhog, Phil, will either see his shadow or not at sunrise. If so, that means six more weeks of winter, and if not, spring may just be around the corner.
Punxsutawney gained immense popularity when the town’s annual Groundhog Day celebrations were captured in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. The story of an arrogant TV weatherman (also named Phil) forced to relive the same day over and over until he learns to better himself, it has become one of the most successful comedy films ever, with several quotes now entrenched in the American pop culture lexicon.
As early as 2003, there were initial talks of potentially adapting Groundhog Day for the stage — Stephen Sondheim was interested at first but ultimately decided to back out, stating that “it could not be improved.” The year 2014 linked a new trio to a potential musical version: composer-lyricist Tim Minchin, librettist Danny Rubin (who also wrote the film’s screenplay, and had been working on a musical version for years at that point), and director Matthew Warchus. Minchin and Warchus were reunited after their Matilda became a smash hit in London and New York.
Groundhog Day, The Musical was officially confirmed in 2015. It was announced it would play London’s Old Vic Theatre in the summer of 2016, during Warchus’s debut season as their artistic director. Andy Karl led the company as Phil. Opening night was on August 16, 2016; reviews were overwhelmingly positive. The musical received two 2017 Olivier Awards, including best new musical.
It was announced in September 2016 that Groundhog Day would transfer to Broadway, succeeding the long-running Jersey Boys at the August Wilson Theatre. Karl would reprise his role and find himself surrounded by an all-new cast.
First preview was set for March 16, 2017, but 15 minutes in that evening, there was a problem with the revolving stage (a crucial part of the show’s set design) and the show had to be continued as a “concert version” for the rest of the performance.
The musical made unfortunate headlines when Karl tore his ACL mid-performance just three days before Groundhog Day’s scheduled opening night, but despite his injury, he would return for the official opening on April 17, 2017, receiving raves once again, along with the show itself. “A star is born (and born and born),” Ben Brantley of The New York Times praised, “Karl is so outrageously inventive in ringing changes on the same old, same old, that you can’t wait for another (almost identical) day to dawn.”
Groundhog Day was nominated for seven 2017 Tonys, including best musical. However, in what proved to be an extremely stacked 2016-17 Broadway season for new musicals — a climate that also included Dear Evan Hansen, Come from Away, and Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 — it walked away empty-handed. As it also competed against family fare like Anastasia and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as well as star-studded revivals of Hello, Dolly! and Sunset Boulevard, ticket sales began gradually slipping after the Tony ceremony, and a September 17, 2017 closing date was announced in mid-August. Groundhog Day shuttered after 31 previews and just 176 regular performances.
A Broadway cast recording was released during the show’s opening week. It shows Minchin taking the form of a fine musical chameleon, utilizing countless styles to make up his score. Highlights include the yearning group ballad “There Will Be Sun” (in which the Punxsutawnians pine for spring to arrive), the rollicking hillbilly anthem “Nobody Cares” (in which Phil goes drunk-driving with two other drunkards stuck in a rut, upon realizing they all have no future), the tap-happy delight “Philanthropy” (where Phil performs random acts of good for various townspeople), and the gorgeous finale “Seeing You” (where Phil shares a tender moment at a bachelor auction with the associate producer he has gotten to know very well across many Groundhog Days, yet it feels like he has just met her for the first time).
The musical served as a launchpad for many of its Broadway cast members. Karl led Pretty Woman a year later and was most recently seen in the revival of Into the Woods. Barrett Doss, who played Rita Hanson (the associate producer) is one of the leads on the “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff “Station 19.” Andrew Call — Karl’s understudy — is the current Orin Scrivello in Off-Broadway’s Little Shop of Horrors.
As for the ensemble, Taylor Iman Jones is the current Catherine Parr in SIX. Gerard Canonico was in Be More Chill and recently played Dick Roswell in Almost Famous. Rheaume Crenshaw can soon be seen in Shucked, and Vishal Vaidya will appear in a forthcoming revival of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Raymond J. Lee will soon feature in Once Upon a One More Time, as Heather Ayers (recently seen in Off-Broadway’s Between the Lines) tours the country as the adult women in Mean Girls.
It was announced in early December 2022 that Groundhog Day would return to the Old Vic in the summer of 2023, with Karl once again reprising his role and Warchus’s staging still intact. Opening night is set for June 8, and tickets are on sale now.
“We still need togetherness; we still need each otherness—with faith in the futureness of our cause. Let us, therefore, stifle the rifle of conflict, shatter the scatter of discord, smuggle the struggle, tickle the pickle, and grapple the apple of peace!” – Purlie Victorious Judson
Tony & Grammy Award winner and Academy & Emmy Award nominee Leslie Odom, Jr. will star in the new Broadway production of the classic American comedy Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch by the legendary Ossie Davis. Purlie Victorious will be staged by Tony Award winner Kenny Leon who directed the critically acclaimed productions of Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog earlier this season. This production, scheduled to begin in late summer 2023, will mark Odom’s return to Broadway after winning the Tony for his iconic performance as “Aaron Burr” in Hamilton.
The creative team will feature scenic design by Tony Award winner Derek McLane (Moulin Rouge, MJ), costume design by Tony Award nominee Emilio Sosa (Trouble in Mind, A Beautiful Noise) and lighting design by Adam Honoré (Ain’t No Mo’, Chicken & Biscuits).
Purlie Victorious premiered on Broadway in 1961 at the Cort Theatre (now the James Earl Jones Theatre), directed by Howard Da Silva, and starred Ossie Davis as “Purlie Victorious Judson” and his wife and frequent collaborator, Ruby Dee as “Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins.” Original cast members also included: Alan Alda, Godfrey Cambridge, Sorrell Booke and Beah Richards. For its 100th performance, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited the company and celebrated the milestone with them. The play was later adapted into the musical, Purlie, which premiered on Broadway in 1970 at the Broadway Theatre.
Davis and Dee were named to the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame; were awarded the National Medal of Arts and were recipients of the 2004 Kennedy Center Honors. Davis was also inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1994.
“Ossie Davis gave the American theater an American hero in Purlie Judson,” said Leslie Odom, Jr. “I have loved this piece and its author, Mr. Davis, for well over half my life. His writing and acting, his integrity, the commitment he and his brilliant wife made to nurturing young talent, and the example of citizenship have meant so much to me! I am thrilled beyond measure to be part of this revival company. Mr. Davis’s pages are full of joy and rhythm, laughter and hope. We will endeavor to live up to the demands of a challenging text and the legacy of a great American.”
The Davis family stated the following: “The Dee-Davis family is so excited that Purlie Victorious will return to Broadway. Dad’s genius with words was never more evident than in the voice of Purlie Victorious Judson, who takes a humorous look at a serious subject. His call to justice is timeless and needed now more than ever. Thanks to producers Jeffrey Richards, Hunter Arnold, and Leslie Odom, Jr., and to director Kenny Leon for bringing Reverend Purlie to his feet once again. With Leslie Odom, Jr. in the role, Purlie will rise with magnificence.”
The producing team is led by Jeffrey Richards, Hunter Arnold, Irene Gandy, Jacob Soroken Porter, Kayla Greenspan and Leslie Odom, Jr., making his Broadway producing debut.
Theatre, dates, additional casting and creative team members will be announced at a later date.
Broadway’s Best Shows invites you to the starry Opening Night of Pictures From Home. To enter to win, all you have to do is email us a “picture from home” (This can be any vintage photo of you or your family) to this address with your name and you’ll be automatically entered. Five lucky winners will get a pair to the Opening Night on Thursday, February 9th at 7pm at Studio 54 Theatre.
Based on the landmark photo memoir by Larry Sultan, adapted to the stage by Sharr White, starring Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein, and Zoë Wanamaker and staged by award-winning director Bartlett Sher, PICTURES FROM HOME will evoke memories of childhood, parenthood, and the hard-won wisdom that comes with both.
*No purchase necessary and winners will be randomly selected Monday, Feb 6th. Photo submissions will be featured across social platforms.Travel not included.
On Tuesday, the nominees will be announced for the 95th annual Academy Awards. There have been many Best Picture nominees and winners throughout Oscar history that have been based on plays and musicals; this article will shine a light on some of them:
During the Academy’s early history, around 8-12 films were nominated for Best Picture every year, and plays proved to be popular source material. In fact, there was at least one nominee most every year in the 1930s and early 1940s that used recent plays as its basis. When there were only three Best Picture nominees for the very first Oscars in 1927/28, two of them — 7th Heaven and The Racket — were play adaptations from earlier in the decade. The first Best Picture winner that started as a work of theatre was 1931/32’s Grand Hotel. Based on a 1930 drama by screenplay writer William A. Drake, it remains to this day the only Best Picture winner to not be nominated in any other category.
Other notable nominees during this era were based on dramas, like 1932/33 winner Cavalcade (based on Noël Coward’s historical play), 1936 nominee Dodsworth, 1939 nominee Dark Victory, and 1940 nominee Our Town (which currently has a Broadway revival in development, on track for the 2023-24 season). Early comedies were also popular fare, like 1938 winner You Can’t Take It with You, 1940 nominee and rom com The Philadelphia Story, and 1932/33 nominee She Done Him Wrong, starring Mae West and Cary Grant. The first musical adaptation to garner a Best Picture nomination was 1934’s Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers charmer The Gay Divorcee.
As the 1940s rolled on, Lillian Hellman got some Oscar love, with 1941 and 1943 nominees The Little Foxes and Watch on the Rhine having been based on her plays. 1943 was also the last time until 2010 that there would be more than 5 nominees for Best Picture; the winner that year happened to be the classic Casablanca, based on the unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s. Because of this new nomination limit, that created a lesser chance that play-based material could be up for Best Picture. 1948 and 1949 drama nominees Johnny Belinda and The Heiress were among the only non-Shakespearean works to be up for top honors.
The 1950s were Tennessee Williams’s time to shine in filmland, with his A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof all receiving top-honor nods. That decade was also a good time be a drama, as works like Witness for the Prosecution, Picnic, and The Diary of Anne Frank were well-represented in their respective awards years.
The next decade proved to be a golden age for the movie musical. West Side Story, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Oliver!, Funny Girl, and Hello, Dolly! were all based on smash-hit Broadway tuners; three of them won Best Picture. The ‘60s also saw a renewed interest in historical works, like 1964’s nominated Becket and ’66 victor A Man for All Seasons. The year 1968 was the first time since 1955 that at least 3 out of 5 of the Best Picture nominees were originally seen on stage.
Though the early 1970s saw a couple more successful nominated musicals — Cabaret and Fiddler on the Roof — aside from them, theatre was starting to be represented less and less (and likewise, novels, disaster movies, and thrillers much more) in the running for Best Picture, a trend that continues today.
The dramedy Driving Miss Daisy and the Mozart bio-drama Amadeus won Best Picture in the 1980s, with another bio-drama and family drama — The Elephant Man and On Golden Pond — getting nominations. By the time the ‘90s came, theatre representation was vastly nonexistent amongst Best Picture nominees, with 1992’s A Few Good Men serving as the sole nod of the decade.
However, with what the 21st century has showed us so far, there is much optimism for the future of theatre-based films at the Oscars. 2003 saw Rob Marshall’s Chicago become the first musical to win Best Picture in 35 years, with War Horse, Les Misérables, Fences, The Father, and the acclaimed West Side Story remake all getting nominated in the 2010s and 2020s thus far.
This year’s nominations will be announced at 8:30 AM ET and will be available via global livestream on Oscar.com and on their social media platforms, as well as a Good Morning America / ABC News Live telecast from the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills at the same time. Tune in — you don’t want to miss it.
Sunday, January 22 marks Lunar New Year 2023. Observed by millions across the continent of Asia, the holiday traditionally represents reunion and rebirth and a transition from winter to spring. It is also a time to honor ancestors and deities, and some traditional celebrations are marked by family reunions, parades, and pyrotechnic displays. Though Americans are most familiar with China’s Lunar New Year traditions, different Asian cultures observe in different ways. 2023 marks the Year of the Rabbit — the Asian calendar operates on a 12-year cycle where each year corresponds to one of a dozen different animals. The fourth animal represented in the Chinese zodiac, the rabbit is a symbol of grace, beauty, mercy, and good luck.
In honor of Lunar New Year, we would like to spotlight some of the finest pieces of theatre — both musicals and plays — set in Asia:
In 1951, Broadway audiences got to know The King and I, the fifth musical by the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on the Margaret Landon novel “Anna and the King of Siam,” the show follows British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, hired by the King of Siam as part of an attempt to modernize his nation. As she takes a liking to the King’s children, Anna’s relationship with the King is marred by conflict, as well as a love for each other neither one of them can admit. Critics whistled a happy tune when The King and I officially opened at the St. James Theatre on March 29, and the musical received five 1952 Tonys, including best musical. It ran for 1,246 performances, making it the fourth-longest running musical in Broadway history at the time. As of this writing, the show has been revived four times on Broadway; the most recent mountings in 1996 and 2015 have each won the Tony for best musical revival. Musical highlights include “Hello, Young Lovers”, “Getting to Know You”, “Something Wonderful”, and “Shall We Dance?”.
19th-century Japan served as the locale of Stephen Sondheim’s 1976 musical Pacific Overtures. The story tells of the country’s 1853 Westernization, as American ships opened it to the rest of the world. Pacific Overtures takes a Japanese point of view and follows two friends who are affected by this change.
The original production was nominated for ten Tonys, with a 2004 revival receiving four more. Sondheim wrote his score in a quasi-Japanese style, utilizing many parallel 4ths and omitting all leading tones; highlights include “Someone in a Tree”, “Chrysanthemum Tea”, and “Please Hello.”
The heat was on at the Broadway Theatre in 1991, as the popera Miss Saigon opened to much fanfare. Written by Les Misérables songwriters Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, the tuner relocates Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly” to the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Miss Saigon chronicles the doomed romance between a seventeen-year-old Vietnamese bargirl and a United States Marine. Like Les Mis and some of the other British “mega-musicals” of the 1980s, Miss Saigon had no shortage of visual spectacle; most notably, the famous onstage helicopter was an actual life-sized piece of machinery that served as a metaphor for both freedom and fear. The musical was nominated for eleven 1991 Tony Awards, and it ran for a decade; today, that production remains the 14th-longest running musical in Broadway history. A 2017 revival marked Miss Saigon’s return to its original home for a limited engagement.
A tragic affair based on Puccini’s opera also provides the groundwork for the David Henry Hwang play M. Butterfly. Here, a French diplomat is posted in China and has a twenty-year romantic relationship with who appears to be a Beijing Opera diva. M. Butterfly won the 1988 Tony for Best Play, and it was adapted into a 1993 film starring Jeremy Irons. Like Miss Saigon, the play also received a 2017 Broadway revival, with Hwang making textual changes that mostly addressed the issue of intersectional identities.
Lesser known is The World of Suzie Wong, a 1958 play by Paul Osborn. Based on Richard Mason’s novel of the same name, it follows a British businessman who moves to Hong Kong to try and start a career as an artist; he falls in love with a Chinese prostitute who he has hired as a model. The World of Suzie Wong opened on October 14 and starred William Shatner as the businessman. In turn, the play was adapted into a successful 1960 motion picture starring another William, William Holden.
Another old, rare gem is the 1946 Raymond Scott / Bernard Hanighen musical Lute Song. Based on the 14th-century Chinese play Tale of the Pipa, it is about a young scholar who leaves his bride behind to seek advancement in Peking. However, once he succeeds in doing so, he is unable to return home or contact his family. Mary Martin and Yul Brynner worked on this project together, and appearing as a lady-in-waiting was then-known Nancy Davis in her only Broadway show; of course, she became First Lady of the United States in 1981. Scott and Hanighen’s score for the show is thin — the cast album only includes 6 tracks — but it includes the gorgeous “Mountain High, Valley Low.”
Finally, we can look optimistically to future pieces of theatre that take place in Asia, as Maybe Happy Ending received its English-language premiere in Atlanta in early 2020, right before the COVID-19 shutdown. The winner of six Korean musical awards, Will Aronson and Hue Park’s original musical, directed by 2-time Tony nominee Michael Arden, is set in mid-21st century Seoul, where two helper-bots undertake an adventurous journey. It opened at the Alliance Theatre — a prime breeding ground for forthcoming Broadway shows — where the Atlanta-Journal Constitution gave it a warm welcome: critic Wendell Brock called it “a dazzling, wonderfully strange new musical… brimming with ideas and technological inventiveness,” concluding, “As far as happy endings… I see nothing but a bright future for this deeply affecting show.” Producers are currently targeting the 2023-24 season for a New York transfer.
Another one of Wilson’s most notable works is the fourth play in his Pittsburgh Cycle, The Piano Lesson. The play takes the ideas of legacies and family history and asks how we preserve them. Set in post-Depression Pittsburgh, The Piano Lesson follows a brother and a sister debating whether they should sell their family’s prized heirloom piano (carved with their ancestors’ faces). Only by revisiting their history can the family find a way to decide. The play arrived on Broadway in 1990, winning that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A revival starring Samuel L. Jackson, John David Washington, and Danielle Brooks opened in September 2022 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and is about to conclude its limited engagement later this month.
Wilson’s final work, Radio Golf, is also the last installment in the Cycle. It tells the story of Harmond Wilks, who is on a quest to reinvigorate Pittsburgh’s Hill District (through a major redevelopment project) and become its first Black mayor. Following a 2005 premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, Radio Golf received a Broadway mounting in 2007, with Kenny Leon directing. Notably, it played the Cort Theatre, the same house where Wilson’s first Broadway play— 1984’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — opened.
The African nation of Liberia saw itself represented on the Broadway stage when Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed opened in 2016 at the John Golden Theatre, following a critically acclaimed Off-Broadway run at the Public Theatre the year before. A story of hope and resilience, the play is set in 2003 in a small, bullet-ridden, one-room shack, and it follows five Liberian women as they survive the final stages of the Second Liberian Civil War. The Broadway production made history, as it became the first all-Black and female play to make it to the Great White Way. Eclipsed marked the Broadway debut of Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, who received one of the show’s 5 Tony nominations, which included Best Play.
In 2022, Broadway audiences braced themselves for the flight of their lives, as Ain’t No Mo’ took off at the Belasco Theatre, also following a successful Public Theater run. Through a biting mosaic of vignettes, this sketch comedy imagines a world in which descendants of enslaved peoples are offered the chance to escape to Africa following Barack Obama’s election. The vignettes throughout the show touch upon themes of racism, classism, and culture. As Ain’t No Mo’ arrived at the Belasco for a limited engagement, Jordan E. Cooper became the youngest Black American to debut on Broadway as a playwright. Sales were lacking, though, and the run was cut short. What followed was one of the most triumphant final weeks in recent history: Cooper launched a #saveAINTNOMO campaign on Twitter, which gained a big celebrity push. Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Shonda Rhimes, Gabrielle Union, Dwyane Wade, Queen Latifah, Sara Ramirez, and Tyler Perry all bought out performances, resulting in a one-week extension.
Monday, January 16 marks Martin Luther King, Jr. Day across the United States. One of the leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, King challenged segregation through nonviolent protests and civil disobedience. Notably, he organized the March on Washington in August 1963, which culminated in his “I Have a Dream” speech. In it, King spoke of his “dream”: that one day, people would be judged by personal qualities — the “content of their character” — rather than the color of their skin. The speech had tremendous effects: it put pressure on then-President John F. Kennedy and his administration to advance civil rights legislation through Congress; it also played a major role in King being named TIME Magazine’s “Man of the Year” for 1963. The following year, he became the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
We would like to pay tribute to King with a singular work from each decade beginning in the 1950s up until today, highlighting major Black plays on Broadway:
In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry became the first Black female author to have a work represented on Broadway, as her A Raisin in the Sun premiered in March at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The story follows the Younger family and their experiences in a Caucasian-heavy neighborhood in south Chicago; following the death of the father figure, the family tries to improve their financial standing with an insurance payout. Throughout the play, the family deals with experiences of racism, assimilation, and housing discrimination. A Raisin in the Sun was nominated for 4 Tonys, including Best Play. It has been revived on Broadway twice as of this writing, and it has spawned a film adaptation (starring its original leading man, Sidney Poitier), a musical version (the Tony-winning Best Musical Raisin), and a stage prequel told from the perspective of the family that sold their house to the Youngers (Clybourne Park, which won the 2012 Tony for Best Play).
Ossie Davis — who replaced Poitier during A Raisin in the Sun’s original run— had a play of his own, Purlie Victorious, reach the Broadway stage in 1961, playing the Cort Theatre (now the James Earl Jones). The New York Times greeted Purlie Victorious with great praise, calling it “marvelously exhilarating.” “The play tells the story of Purlie Victorious Judson, a joyous, robust preacher,” the Times explained, adding, “it won’t let you wipe that grin off your face.” The New York Herald Tribune also raved, calling the play “a bucketful of bristling laughs” with “wild, outrageous fantasy.” Like A Raisin in the Sun, Purlie Victorious was adapted into a movie (under the title “Gone Are the Days!”), and later it “got life” as the musical Purlie, which won lead actor and featured actress Tonys for Cleavon Little and Melba Moore. The play is set to receive new life soon, as a revival is currently in development and preparing for a Broadway bow in the 2023-24 season.
On March 27, 1973, The River Niger arrived at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (now the Lena Horne) after a celebrated Off-Broadway run that saved its home — the Negro Ensemble Company — from devastating financial difficulty. The tale of a family and the unrest they face when their son returns to their Harlem home after a stint in the Air Force, Joseph A. Walker’s work won the 1974 Tony for Best Play — the first Black play to accomplish that feat. The River Niger was filmed in 1976; it starred James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson.
Known as “the theater’s poet of Black America,” August Wilson is best known for the ten plays that make up his Pittsburgh Cycle, which chronicles the Black experience and African American heritage in the 20th century. The sixth play in the cycle, Fences, premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985, before a Broadway production took up space at the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers) in 1987. Fences is the story of Troy Maxson, who is a garbage collector but once had tremendous upside as a baseball player in the late 1950s. His childhood circumstances led him to prison, and when he got released, he met his wife and started a family; he struggles to provide for them throughout. The show won 4 Tonys, including Best Play, and its 2010 Broadway revival (with Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and Stephen McKinley Henderson) picked up 3 more. Washington and Davis reunited on a film adaptation that gave both Oscar nominations; it was also nominated for Best Picture.
They can sing, they can dance and yes, they can act. As if being a triple threat weren’t already enough, many celebrated Broadway musical theatre actors are showing their range by trading melodies for monologues.
It’s not unheard of for stage talent of various artistic genres to wade into new creative territories outside of their honed craft. The Wolverine meets The Music Man. Pop singer Selena Gomez pretends to uncover mysterious murders on TV and hawks a beauty line in between albums. The theatre however, is a far less forgiving place than TV and film. Broadway actors cannot hide their flaws behind post production and vast edits when on stage, in front of a live audience. On stage, they are completely exposed. It takes sincere raw talent to bring a group of people to their feet each night and to command such a demand for more encores.
Musical actors on Broadway have already proven so much. They can hit the high notes every night on cue and work in tandem with the theatre’s acoustics to maximize the audience’s experience without missing a beat or barely breaking a sweat. So what is with this niche group of talent that has long mastered a voice that so many of their fellow actors are unable to that makes them want to venture into dramedies and away from melodies? Perhaps it’s simply that overachieving cliche of the musical theatre actor that makes them crave even more perfection. Whatever their reason, with songstresses like Audra McDonald giving us her stunning performance in the Broadway mystery Ohio State Murders, we couldn’t be more grateful for their incessant reach.
Follow along as we mention a number of Broadway musical theatre actors who’ve recently traded songs for soliloquies and where you must see them.
Danny Burstein is a seven-time Tony award winner, most notably for Moulin Rouge!, and will star in the dramedy, Pictures From Home, directed by Bartlett Sher (To Kill a Mockingbird) on Broadway in January 2023 alongside fellow musical actor Nathan Lane.
Three-time Tony award winner Nathan Lane has 40 years of acclaim behind him in theatre, TV and film. From Guys and Dolls and The Producers, Lane is no stranger to non-musical roles and we can’t wait to see him star in Broadway’s dramedy Pictures From Home with Burstein in the new year.
Jessie Mueller starred in Carousel and won a Tony award for Best Actress in a Musical for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Mueller recently took on a very different role in The Minutes on Broadway this past spring, a comedic play from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production group.
Audra McDonald truly stands out in this list of musical theatre actors gone gloriously rogue. She has won six Tony Awards and is the only actor to win for all acting categories. McDonald stars as the lead character in Ohio State Murders—a whodunit style mystery written by 91 year old Adrienne Kennedy—the playwright’s Broadway debut. McDonald previously starred in Carousel and Ragtime among many other famed musicals. You will not want to miss Ohio State Murders so be sure and get your tickets asap.
Matthew Broderick (and really, his wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, too). Broderick starred alongside Nathan Lane in the very popular musical The Producers (SJP famously starred in Annie as a kid), and yet the comedy, Plaza Suite, along with SJP, was a huge success this year. Broderick previously won two Tony’s, one for the famed Broadway musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Sharon D. Clarke is a UK born musical theatre actor and three-time Laurence Olivier award winner. Clarke starred in many West End London musicals. Her leading role in Caroline, or Change most recently led to a Best Actress award, followed by a win for the dramatic Death of a Salesman rendition in London, which you can see 8 times a week at the Hudson Theatre on Broadway.
Jeremy Pope is a Tony nominated actor of Broadway’s Choir Boy and Ain’t Too Proud which also garnered him a Grammy nom. Pope currently stars as Jean-Michel Basquiat alongside Paul Bettany as Andy Warhol in Broadway’s The Collaboration directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. The Collaborationkicked off in London’s West End and debuted at the Samuel J. Friedman theatre on Broadway in late November. Pope’s turn from musical songman to the dramatic NYC street artist is incredible to watch.
For those musical theatre actors who’ve gone from the stage to screen or are simply finding their way to new genres, we couldn’t leave them out. Tonya Pinkins won a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a musical for Jelly’s Last Jam. Pinkins also starred in the dramatic A Time to Kill and Radio Golf and praised for her recent turn in A Raisin In the Sun.
Darren Criss was a breakout star in TV’s “Glee” prior to taking the Broadway stage in the musicals How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch prior to the Broadway play, American Buffalo. Criss won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe in 2019 for TV’s dramatic thriller “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.”
Hugh Jackman is probably the most well-known actor on this list and still commands blockbuster film status, which is why we’ve listed him as an honorable mention. However, Jackman still serves as a great example of the shapeshifting musical theatre actor. His Broadway hit The Music Man was a roaring success, but the triple threat actor also started out in The River on Broadway, a dramatic play, as well as A Steady Rain.
Even the greatest dramatic actors can’t all sing a tune, but is it fair to say that all Broadway musical actors can be as brilliantly dramatic without songs to save them? If this list proves anything it’s just that. Let’s all give applause to the illustrious musical theatre actor, because whether you’re willing to admit it or not, they’ve certainly earned it.
It’s December, the time for giving and the time for openings! That’s right, six Broadway shows will open this season, rounding up an incredible 2022 season with 22 new shows and 12 more that are planned; making a total of 32 new contenders for the Tony race in June.
Direct from a smash-hit run at The Public Theater, AIN’T NO MO’ dares to ask the incendiary question, “What if the U.S. government offered Black Americans one-way plane tickets to Africa?” The answer is the high-octane new comedy from the mischievous mind of playwright Jordan E. Cooper.
Six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald—“the undisputed queen of live theater” (Variety)—leads the cast of the riveting and surprising Ohio State Murders. Directed by Tony Award winner Kenny Leon (A Soldier’s Play), McDonald plays a famous writer who returns to her alma mater to finally reveal the truth of what happened when she was a student there.
SOME LIKE IT HOT brings one of Hollywood’s greatest comedies to new life on the Broadway stage. Don’t miss your chance to join this fast-paced, sassy, brassy cross-country romp, as two best friends run for their lives – and find true love where they least expect it.
City Hall is demanding more than his signature, the landlord wants him out, the liquor store is closed — and the Church won’t leave him alone. For ex-cop and recent widower Walter “Pops” Washington (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and his recently paroled son Junior (Common), the struggle to hold on to one of the last great rent stabilized apartments on Riverside Drive collides with old wounds, sketchy new houseguests, and a final ultimatum in this Pulitzer Prize-winning dark comedy from Stephen Adly Guirgis. For Pops and Junior, it seems the old days are dead and gone — after a lifetime living Between Riverside and Crazy.
Warhol. Basquiat. Electric, eccentric, polar opposites… together, for the first time in the most unlikely partnership the art world has ever seen. Paul Bettany (The Avengers, “WandaVision,” “A Very British Scandal”) and Jeremy Pope (Choir Boy, Ain’t Too Proud, The Inspection) star in the thrilling American premiere of the London sensation.
List of announced productions scheduled to open in 2023
February 9 Pictures From Home (Studio 54)
March 9 A Doll’s House (Hudson Theatre) Closing Date: June 4th, 2023
March 19 Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ (Music Box Theatre)
March 23 Bad Cinderella (Imperial Theatre)
March 26 Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre)
March 30 Life of Pi (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)
April 4 Shucked (Nederlander Theatre)
April 13 Camelot (Vivian Beaumont Theater)
April 23 Prima Facie (John Golden Theatre) Closing Date: June 18th, 2023
April 24 Good Night, Oscar (Belasco Theatre) Closing Date: August 27th, 2023