In yesterday's blog, I discussed the state of Broadway today in relation to its high costs and dependency on shows that must bring in the tourist trade, both foreign and domestic, in order to succeed. If that requirement makes it difficult for big musicals, think how much harder it makes it for small plays.
This season saw the usual number of original plays appear on Broadway. They numbered nine (the previous season there were ten), and of the nine, five were favorably reviewed and four received mixed to poor reviews. It's interesting to note that two of the four in this latter category (Misery and China Doll) due to the star power of Bruce Willis and Al Pacino respectively, made their money back and even turned slight profits. The most critically acclaimed show of the season, Stephen Karam's The Humans, has unfortunately proven a tough sell without benefit of any stars on its marquee. Currently it is in one of the smallest theatres on Broadway, the Helen Hayes, which seats 597. It moves later this month around the corner to the twice as large Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, with a 1,079 seat capacity. Obviously it will be sold as the winner of four Tony Awards including Best Play, and I am personally praying for its success. It's a terrific play that deserves a wide audience and a long run. But make no mistake about it: if it couldn't sell out at half the capacity, this is not going to be an easy move in the middle of summer with most people out for a fun night. The Humans is dark and disturbing, but it's also wildly funny and brilliant, which is part of its genius.
Stephen Karam's The Humans, set design by David Zinn.
These days there is no question that the Little Guy (or Little Girl, if the case may be), is getting crushed. The straight play with no stars to sell as an enticement is practically an endangered species.
Big stars do revivals all the time because it's safer when a play has been pre-tested by critics and audiences alike. You may wonder why is Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie slated later in the season for its third revival on Broadway in twelve years? It's because when a talented and well-known actor feels ready there are producers happy to support their dream, as well as a director's vision, if it's a play that has already proven it can find an audience. Since becoming a huge film star, Denzel Washington has appeared on Broadway three times and as Richard III in Shakespeare in the Park, which is to be applauded. But he has yet to do anything original and it will be interesting to see if and when he feels ready to do that.
Nathan Lane is on of Broadway's biggest stars and one who rarely plays it safe. Over a year ago, he brought Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh to New York in a production he headed previously in Chicago to great acclaim and sell-out business. For this visit, the play bypassed Broadway and was staged in Brooklyn instead, due more to economics than anything else. Iceman's large cast, and with Lane already committed to another show, a limited run at BAM was the most feasible option. Still it made the choice of bringing it in no less courageous, especially with Lane, best known for his comedic roles, taking on what is certainly one of the most serious plays in the dramatic canon. But for Lane the play's the thing. He received rave reviews and a Tony nomination for Best Actor when he starred in Douglas Carter Bean's original comedy/drama, The Nance, on Broadway in 2013.
Yes, Tom Hanks chose to make his Broadway debut in an original play a few seasons ago, Nora Ephron's Lucky Guy. And last season Hugh Jackman took on a difficult new play, The River, by Jez Butterworth, which took some guts. But if these two guys can't afford to take risks, who can? The plays weren't very much liked by the critics, but both did stellar business and Hanks and Jackman deserve praise for not playing it safe.
I hope the Little Guy (or Girl) finds more opportunities to stand tall. If after reading this, you do nothing else, go see The Humans. Don't read reviews or listen to anybody who's seen it, even if they liked it, just go. Karam's an important writer, it's beautifully produced and acted, and extremely well directed. If there's any other criteria for seeing a new play, I don't know what it is.
And go with the knowledge that by doing so ... you'll be helping out the Little Guy.
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