Theater reflects who we are in broad strokes and microcosms. Our identity as a people can be seen in the diversity on our stages.
This year we’ve been introduced to many American families. The Profanebrings us two Muslim-American families in a powerful version of the old theme of star-crossed love. Zayd Dohrn’s play depicts conflicts between secularism and adherence to religious traditions. It also reveals how practitioners on either path are ultimately assimilated into America. It is who we are, a nation of many different faiths and backgrounds.
If I Forgetpresents a similar dilemma of identity for a Jewish-American family, for whom the crisis centers on an allegiance to Israel.
Bella: An American Tall Tale casts a look backward at the role of African-Americans have held in our culture. Unsung contributions loom large in this musical celebration from playwright Kristen Childs. (Bella…plays at PHnyc through July 2nd.)
Napoli, Brooklyn shows an Italian-American family at a time of social flux with the matriarch admonishing herself to speak English even in her talks with God. (This Roundabout production at the Laura Pels Theatre runs through September 3rd.)
Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s take on the working classes, gives us another glimpse at what defines America. The Pulitzer Prize winning drama, which closes today at Studio 54, focused on laborers in a Pennsylvania factory; united by work, but still divided by race. America still has not found its post-racial moment; perhaps now more than in the previous nearly dozen years, it is less likely to reach that ideal.
Work exhausts while giving the worker a sense of purpose and fulfillment. This is especially true of physical labor and its practitioners.
When Lynn Nottage’s characters in Sweat, at Studio 54 through November 19th, lose their jobs, and hit the picket lines, they are unmoored. Sweatis a working class story, of friends who share their lives on the factory floor and then relax at the bar over which Stan (James Colby) presides.
The characters in Sweatinclude two young men, Chris (Khris Davis) and Jason (Will Pullen) and their mothers, Cynthia (Michelle Williams) and Tracey (Johanna Day) in scenes that go back and forth starting with Jason and Chris with their parole officer, Evan, (Lance Coadie Williams) in 2008, and going back to the bar in 2000. Rounding out the cast are Oscar (Carlo Albán), in a pivotal way, Brucie (John Earl Jelks) and Jessie (Alison Wright.)
The actors all work hard to make us see them as factory laborers, and they succeed well. We engage in the life stories the characters tell but those seem distant. We don’t connect not just because we don’t share their workplace experiences, but because they are more representatives than individuals to which we can relate. There is, however, a mystery set up at the beginning of Act One which we look to solve.
The play under Kate Whoriskey’s direction transferred from The Public Theatre in March. Johanna Day and Michelle Williams have been nominated for a Tony as Best Featured roles. Sweat is in contention as the Best Play for 2017.
Lynn Nottage is not afraid of hard work. For Sweat, Nottage researched the background for her scenario, as she has for her previous projects. In her past plays she has honored her grandmother who toiled behind a sewing machine (Intimate Apparel, which won off-Broadway accolades in its 2004 run); in the equally well-received By The Way, Meet Vera Starkshe looked at the roles of black women in Hollywood’s heydey. Nottage is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright; in fact the second win was with Sweat, which won her the prize this year. (Ruinedwon the 2009 Pulitzer. )
Originality is always prized, but is it always good box office?
Back by popular acclaim
On Broadway, the revival is generally a vehicle that’s had tried-and-true success. The public likes the play or its author, and adding a marquee name will probably bring them in again. An eager new cast and crew doing the hard bits is probably a formula that will minimize a producer’s risk.
There are no guarantees, of course, in the theater. The audiences can be fickle. Is O’Neill still a draw? Will Arthur Miller appeal? Do they want to see Neil Simon, or Ibsen? Is Chekhov a lock for their full attention?
Setting the stage
Les Miz and Miss Saigon (currently in a revival at The Broadway Theatre) cycle through periodically, generally with good success. Catsis bringing back “Memory” at the Neil Simon Theatre at the moment. Sondheim gets out quite a bit too– from revivals of Follies to Sweeney Toddto Gypsy, to mention a few, and of course the current revival of Sunday in the Park with Georgestarring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford at the refurbished Hudson Theatre.
Bette Midler is expected to be a very effective matchmaker in Hello Dolly!Given her fanbase, she should attract a loyal audience to the Shubert Theatre, running through January 7, 2018, and in fact, the website’s performance calendar is already offering tips on availability.
On the dramatic side, Tennessee Williams gets his share of the Broadway air. His works are often produced, and not just at the not-for-profit subscription houses. So many roles tempt actresses to climb the mountains of his beautiful poetic prose that The Glass Menagerie has seen a number of recent renditions. In 2014, Cherry Jones tackled the part of Amanda Wingfield; in 2010 it was Blythe Danner. Currently, it’s Sally Fields taking on the mother of all roles (sorry Mama Rose) in the Broadway run of The Glass Menagerie through July 2nd.
Broadway transfers create a very different equation for the money behind productions. The show did well in, say, a 300-seat house. How will it fare in one with 500+?
We caught In Transit in its off-Broadway run at 59E59 in a Primary Stages production, and the move to Broadway for this gritty a cappella musical should be interesting to watch. It’s at Circle in the Square through June 25th.
Often, Broadway’s bookmakers like the odds. They’ve taken The Humans, for instance, out of Roundabout’s Laura Pels and plucked it onto the Helen Hayes where it has flourished. Stephen Karam’s domestic drama won the 2016 Tony® as Best Play. Significant Other, another Roundabout vehicle is heading over to Broadway’s Booth Theatre, through July 2nd.
Dear Evan Hansenis doing very well, thank you, since moving around the corner from 43rd Street’s 2nd Stage to the Music Box in an open run. A dramusical with lots of heart and the off-Broadway cred of its creative group, Steve Levenson (book) and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics.) It’s attracting Broadway audiences. Its lead, Ben Platt, who like Significant Other‘s Gideon Glick , has star quality; both transferred with the pvehicles they lead.
Avenue Q took a circuitous route, after transferring from off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre, it landed off a well-received Broadway run (it won 3 Tony®s in 2004) at New World Stages for seven years.
The most famous name in Broadway transfers came from the Public Theater to win 11 Tony Awards®. It is, of course, Hamilton, a story onto itself. Another recent Public Theater production, Sweat, opens at Studio 54 on March 26th; Lynn Nottage’s timely drama about the dystopia of working class America should do well on a bigger stage.
For my money…
If you were putting up money for a Broadway produciton, would you opt for a revival or take a fly on bringing a production uptown? Tough call. And a big thanks to all the folks who do put their money in and bring theater to us.