Broadway Preview – Ron Cohen reflects on the musical theatre openings during the first half of 2016.
While nothing on the immediate horizon seems ready to challenge the primacy of Hamilton as the champion of the 2015/2016 Broadway season, musical theatre gourmands nevertheless can still look forward to a promising buffet of late winter-into-spring openings. At present count, at least seven musicals are set to open officially before the Tony Awards eligibility cut-off date of 28 April.
Disaster! A New Musical
In any event, let’s hope that the title of the first Broadway musical to open in the New Year isn’t a harbinger of things to come. It’s a frolic entitled Disaster! The show –which, in contrast to the title, has already enjoyed success with runs both Off and Off-Off Broadway – spoofs disaster movies of the 1970s, such as Earthquake and The Poseidon Adventure. It’s stuffed with a jukebox score of pop hits from the period, such as ‘I Am Woman’ and ‘Hot Stuff’.
Written by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick and directed by Plotnick, the show takes place on a floating casino-cum-disco off Manhattan, which is beset by a series of horrific events, from a tsunami to an attack by killer bees. Rudetsky, a familiar figure on the Broadway scene as an accomplished pianist and radio raconteur, will also appear in the show along with a shipload of Broadway names. They include Roger Bart, Faith Prince, Adam Pascal, Kevin Chamberlin, Rachel York, Kerry Butler, Max Crumm, Manoel Felciano and Jennifer Simard. Several in the company will be making their Broadway debuts, including West End actress Olivia Phillip. Previews are to begin 9 February with the official opening night curtain rising on 8 March. It’s set as a limited engagement through 3 July.
She Loves Me
Another early starter is Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of She Loves Me, which begins previews on 19 February for a 17 March opening. It’s Roundabout’s second go at this musical. In 1993, the non-profit Roundabout staged a well-received production which transferred to commercial status later that year and racked up more than 350 performances. Scott Ellis, who directed that first revival, is again sitting in the director’s chair.
She Loves Me originally premiered on Broadway in 1963 and ran for 301 performances. It features a book by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock. The story is an adaptation of the 1930s Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo, which has served as the basis for several popular movies, including the Judy Garland vehicle In the Good Old Summertime. It concerns two shop employees who quibble constantly during working hours but become romantically involved as anonymous pen pals. Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi will star as the epistolary lovebirds. Gathered round them will be such luminous Broadway veterans as Jane Krakowski, Gavin Creel, Byron Jennings and Michael McGrath. Coming in for a limited run, She Loves Me is scheduled to close 10 July.
As a revival, which has its own separate Tony category, She Loves Me will be saved from competing with Hamilton as Best New Musical. However, it will have tough competition on the revival front from new productions continuing on the boards, The Color Purple and Fiddler On the Roof, as well as Spring Awakening, whose limited engagement is set to close 24 January. Interestingly, Fiddler, as I’m sure you know, is also a Harnick and Bock classic.
Actor, writer and bluegrass banjoist extraordinaire Steve Martin is the big name associated with Bright Star, a new musical starting previews 25 February and opening officially on 24 March. But Martin, who penned the book and co-wrote the music, won’t be appearing in this tale, which takes place in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It centres on the editor of a southern literary journal whose life changes after she meets a young soldier just returned from the Second World War. Carmen Cusack plays the editor, and A.J. Shively the soldier. The cast also boasts such familiar Broadway folks as Stephen Bogardus, Dee Hoty, Michael Mulheren, Paul Alexander Nolan and Jeff Blumenkrantz.
Collaborating with Martin on the music is singer/songwriter Edie Brickell, who also wrote the lyrics. The director is Walter Bobbie, who directed the seemingly immortal revival of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, now vamping through its 20th year on Broadway.
Bright Star had a pre-Broadway run in San Diego in California in 2014 and as of this writing, it’s been playing a brief engagement in Washington, D.C., before moving on to Broadway.
However, bright Bright Star may be, things are bound to get darker when American Psycho hits town. This musical portrait of a dashing, young Wall Street ‘master of the universe’, who also happens to be a serial killer, is to begin previews on 24 March. It’s to open officially in April, but the exact date is yet to be determined. If it is to qualify for this year’s Tony Awards, it will need to open before or on the previously noted deadline of 28 April. The musical has a script by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and a score by Duncan Sheik; it’s based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, which was turned into a 2000 movie starring Christian Bale.
Playing the murderous hero in the musical will be Benjamin Walker, who shot to prominence in the titular role in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (is there a pattern here?). Ladies in the cast will include Alice Ripley, Jennifer Damiano and Heléne Yorke.
Rupert Goold directs the show, which premiered in 2013 at London’s Almeida Theatre. It was originally scheduled to land in New York in February 2015 at Second Stage, an Off-Broadway venue. But those in control obviously determined the show was too bloody good for merely an Off-Broadway run.
Coming to the table right on the heels of American Psycho will be Waitress, which starts previewing 25 March for an opening on 24 April. This new musical, which had a tryout at the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T) at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is based on the 2007 film written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly. The script for the musical is by Jessie Nelson, and the score is by the acclaimed singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles. The director is the incredibly industrious Diane Paulus, currently represented on Broadway with Finding Neverland and earlier with such hits as the revivals of Pippin and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. She also happens to be the artistic director of A.R.T. Completing the top creative team is choreographer Lorin Latarro.
The title role goes to Jessie Mueller, fresh from her Tony Award-winning stint in Beautiful – The Carole King Musical. She plays Jenna, an unhappily married woman who sees a potential escape through her ability to make scrumptious pies. (No, she’s not related to Mrs Lovett.) Other Broadway talents studding the cast include Eric Anderson, Drew Gehling, Dakin Matthews and Keala Settle.
Next on the calendar is Tuck Everlasting, with opening night set for 26 April, previews beginning 31 March. The show is based on a 1975 children’s novel, which has already been adapted twice into movies. It tells of a young girl who becomes involved with the Tuck family, folks who have acquired immortality.
The musical, which premiered early last year in Atlanta, Georgia, is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, whose credits include such hits as Aladdin and The Book of Mormon. The cast also has a Broadway lustre with such names as Carolee Carmello, Terrence Mann, Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Fred Applegate. It will also introduce to New York theatregoers, 11-year-old Sarah Charles Lewis, who originated the central role of Winnie Foster in the Altanta production.
The book for Tuck Everlasting is by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle. Chris Miller wrote the music and Nathan Tysen the lyrics.
Also starting performances on 31 March will be a new musical called Nerds. The official opening will be on 21 April.The show depicts the rivalry between the tech titans, Apple’s Steve Jobs and Microsoft’s Bill Gates. Reports about the show, in development for years, coming to Broadway have been circulating for some time, but firm plans weren’t announced until just this month.
The book and lyrics are by Jordan Allen-Dutton and Erik Weiner, with music by Hal Goldberg. Casey Hushion directs, and Joshua Bergasse choreographs. Casting is still to be revealed, but but it’s said there’ll be a lot of up-to-date stage technology involved, including an in-house app that will allow the audience to guide the plot. Sounds appropriately nerdy, doesn’t it?
The final entry in the Tony race is expected to wind things up with quite a flourish. It’s a show with the apt but ungainly title of Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. However, there’s nothing ungainly about the stellar cast list, headed by Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry. It’s scheduled to open right on the Tony cut-off date of 28 April, after almost a month and half of previews starting 15 March.
Directed by George C. Wolfe and choreographed by Savion Glover, the show re-creates the all-black 1921 musical, Shuffle Along, and tells the behind the scenes story of its making. That show – with a score by composer Eubie Blake and lyricist Noble Sissle – was indeed a sensation. Despite initial skepticism, it proved that white audiences would flock to a show of black talents, and while playing in an out-of-the-way venue, it scored almost 500 performances. And here’s an interesting question for the Tony folks who decide such things: should Shuffle Along be considered a revival or a new musical? That could take some heavy thinking.
Another perplexing thing about this show is that potential ticket buyers are being advised that the ever-busy and habitual (six-time) Tony Award winner McDonald will not be appearing in the show from 21 June to 25 September because of a pre-existing commitment that for quite a while remained undisclosed. Now, we know, of course, that McDonald will be spending the summer in London, making her West End debut reprising her Tony Award-winning role as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.
For Shuffle Along, the absence of McDonald could be a turn-off for the hordes of summer tourists-cum-theatregoers, who mean so much to the Broadway box office.
Undoubtedly, though, a number of those tourists will be tempted to buy tickets for the Broadway debut of that global producer of gargantuan spectacle, Cirque du Soleil. Fashioned expressly for the Main Stem, its creation, entitled Paramour, promises a tale of a poetess forced to choose between love and art in Golden Age Hollywood. It further promises ‘eye-popping acrobatics and sumptuous music and dance’. Previews start on 16 April, but the official opening won’t be until 25 May, taking it out of eligibility for this year’s Tony Awards.
Heading the cast will be Ruby Lewis as the poetess, Bradley Dean as a director and Ryan Vona as a composer. Surrounding them will be a large assortment of actors, dancers and circus arts performers. Philippe Decouflé directs. The production should be – at last – a fitting tenant for the mammoth Lyric Theatre, where such diverse past shows as On the Town and Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark have run into problems filling seats.
The Bloody Irish
Also announced for Broadway in the spring, but as a special event rather than a long-term resident, will be The Bloody Irish, depicting the Easter Uprising of 1916. Its two-week run starting 10 April will be part of a centenary commemoration in the US marking the 1916 events in the fight for Irish independence. A performance of the musical drama at the Helix Theatre in Dublin was filmed and shown on US public television last year. After the Broadway stand, it is to tour the US East Coast.
Written by Barry Devlin and directed by Michael Barker-Caven, the show features music composed and arranged by David Downes. Highlighted will be new renditions of songs such as ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’. The 23-person cast is headed by Malcolm Sinclair, Lisa Lambe, Lorcan Cranitch and Gavin O’Connor.
Remembering Elizabeth Swados…
Finally, regarding the upcoming slate of shows, it should be noted that Waitress claims to be making history as the first Broadway musical to have females in the four top creative slots: the book and score writers, director, and choreographer – or at least, the first to have four different females in those slots.
Back in 1978, however, a musical entitled Runaways, which came to Broadway from the Public Theater, was the creation of just one woman, who wrote the script and the score, directed and choreographed. She was Elizabeth Swados, one of contemporary musical theatre’s most original and socially aware talents, who died on 5 January. Her death at age 64 was attributed to complications of surgery for esophageal cancer.
While Runaways was her most widely appreciated work, Swados forged a lifelong career as an exponent of unusual and often experimental musical theatre and other musical forms. Runaways, whose cast featured teenagers she had interviewed in researching broken families, recorded 286 Broadway performances (including previews) and garnered Swados four Tony nominations for her writing of the book and score, direction and choreography. It was also nominated as Best Musical. After Runaways, she worked with cartoonist Gary Trudeau on two satirical musicals Doonesbury and Rap Master Ronnie. Her many other creations included The Haggadah: A Passover Cantata; Jerusalem, an oratorio using writings by the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai; and, among her latest works, Resilient Souls, telling of murders by death squads in El Salvador.
Swados’ passing prompted tributes from Broadway luminaries. Jeanine Tesori, the composer of Fun Home, tweeted: “Liz Swados, how many people did you inspire… We will do well by you this summer, as I promised.” Tesori is the artistic director of New York City Center’s Encores! summertime Off-Center series, which has just announced it will include Runaways in its upcoming summer programme of concert-style productions.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of Hamilton, tweeted: “Liz Swados was using hip-hop on Broadway in 1978 ahead of EVERYBODY. A colossus, singular, unequalled.”
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Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill starring Audra McDonald hits the West End in June 2016 – News