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Steve Martin’s new musical and America’s top ten plays

Scenes From a Marriage. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
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Howard Sherman’s fortnightly dispatch from Broadway is your essential catch-up guide to all the latest news, rumours and castings on the other side of the Atlantic. In this edition, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies transfers to the American stage, early thoughts on the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell musical Bright Star and a glut of theatre awards. Plus America’s top ten not-for-profit plays…

Thoughts on Scenes from a Marriage Off-Broadway

Bergman by way of Ayckbourn might be the best way to describe Ivo van Hove’s production of Scenes From a Marriage, which debuted at Toneelgroep Amsterdam and toured to London’s Barbican for a brief run. The production has just opened at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, van Hove’s seventh collaboration with the company, but using an English translation by McCarter Theatre artistic director Emily Mann and an American cast, including Tina Benko, Arliss Howard, Dallas Roberts and Roslyn Ruff. With NYTW’s theatre wholly reworked out to the bare walls, the first act of the show (for those who didn’t get to the Barbican) consists of three 30-minute scenes in separate, intimate spaces, with different actors playing the central couple in each, and with the divided audience rotating between the locations as the actors perform their scenes three successive times for each group. I won’t say anything about act two, except to say that van Hove has new inventions in store, which require a 30-minute intermission for a set change. The run continues through October 26.

Skylight heads for Broadway

Stephen Daldry’s West End production of David Hare’s Skylight, with Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy, will come to Broadway this spring. It’s been 18 years since Michael Gambon and Lia Williams played their limited run here.

The Heidi Chronicles returns

Also returning to Broadway after an even longer absence is Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles. This spring, Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men will take the title role in the play, which won both the Tony and a Pulitzer, having premiered at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons before moving to Broadway for a 622 performance run in the late 1980s.

Wolf Hall, Parts 1 and 2 come to the Winter Garden

Finally official, after being the worst kept secret in town for weeks, is the transfer of Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies to Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre. The plays will be known here as Wolf Hall, Parts 1 and 2. Under any title, this will be only the fourth production in the Winter Garden since autumn 1982, following Cats, Mamma Mia! and this year’s short-lived Rocky. Performances begin March 20.

Steve Martin’s Bright Star early reports

Wayne Alan Wilcox and Carmen Cusack in Bright Star. Photo: Joan Marcus
Wayne Alan Wilcox and Carmen Cusack in Bright Star. Photo: Joan Marcus

He’s already achieved success as a comedian, musician, actor, novelist and playwright, but now it’s Steve Martin’s time to tackle yet again something new. Martin is the book writer and co-composer of a new musical, Bright Star, now in its debut run at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. It’s a romance set in North Carolina between 1923 and 1945, based on a story by Martin and Edie Brickell (once of Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians), who co-wrote the music and crafted the lyrics. Advance descriptions suggest it taps strongly into the bluegrass work Martin has been writing and recording with The Steep Canyon Rangers, as well as his prior collaboration with Brickell for the album Love Has Come For You. Broadway veteran Walter Bobbie directs the show, running through November 2.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown at the Denver Center

Beth Malone as Molly Brown. Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Beth Malone as Molly Brown. Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen

Although it landed on Broadway with Tammy Grimes in the title role, ran for more than 500 performances, and was filmed in 1964 with Debbie Reynolds in the lead, The Unsinkable Molly Brown never quite managed to be thought of as a musical theatre classic. That’s despite music and lyrics by The Music Man’s estimable Meredith Willson. But Molly has returned to her Colorado roots (the real Molly Brown is from there and parts of the show are set there) in a new production at the Denver Center Theater Company, through October 26, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. The show features additional lyrics and book by Dick Scanlan, who brought Thoroughly Modern Millie off the screen and onto the stage with great success. It’s worth noting that the screenwriter of the original Millie was also the bookwriter of the original Molly Brown, Richard Morris.

The World of Extreme Happiness at Goodman and Manhattan Theatre Club

Jo Mei and Jennifer Lim in The World of Extreme Happiness
Jo Mei and Jennifer Lim in The World of Extreme Happiness

Francis Jue, seen in London in Philip Himberg’s Paper Dolls in 2013, is now appearing in the world premiere of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, in a production that will transfer to Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off-Broadway Stage 1 this winter. The cast also includes Jennifer Lim, Ruy Iskandar, Donald Li, Jo Mei and a particular favorite of mine, Jodi Long (Francis is also a favorite, especially from his work with David Henry Hwang). Eric Ting, associate artistic director of the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, directs the story of a young woman from a rural community who moves city-ward on the road to success, only have her optimism derailed by the realization that she’s part of a system that is “enriching itself by destroying its own people.” Commissioned by South Coast Repertory, the play was developed in workshops at both the Goodman and the National Theatre. It continues in Chicago through October 12.

Awards from the MacArthur Foundation, Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust and the Siminovitch Prize

Several big-name prizes and awards have been handed out of late, with more pending. The MacArthur Foundation “genius grants” went to two stage-affiliated artists this year. Honored were graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel, whose Fun Home will reach Broadway as a musical this spring, with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, and playwright Samuel D Hunter, whose works include The Whale, A Bright New Boise and the upcoming Pocatello. Each receives $625,000 over five years as MacArthur Fellows. More immediately, Stephen Adly Guirgis, author of The Motherfucker With The Hat and Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train will receive the $200,000 “Mimi Award,” the largest monetary award for playwriting in US theatre, from the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust; it’s given every other year. Up in Canada, the short list has been announced for the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize, Canada’s largest for playwrights; Michel Marc Bouchard, Olivier Choiniere, Hannah Moscovitch and Colleen Murphy are in contention. The award will be announced October 20.

America’s top ten not-for-profit plays

American Theatre magazine released its list of the top ten plays in America’s not-for-profit theatres for the coming year, and it reads much like the roster of productions seen in New York last season. Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike tops the list, with John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar at number two, and Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon at number three. The magazine also compiled a list of the top 20 most produced playwrights not named Shakespeare, and while Christopher Durang tops that list as well, with 28 productions, he’s followed by Sarah Ruhl and Neil Simon, tied in second position with 18 each. Shakespeare, incidentally, has 77 productions scheduled in Theatre Communication Group member theatres; TCG publishes American Theatre, which also introduced a significantly redesigned website this week as well.

You Can’t Take It With You on Broadway

Moss Hart and George S Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It With You hasn’t been on Broadway in 30 years, but it’s worth observing that the play is rarely off stages in America. In another notable top ten list this week, the Educational Theatre Association informs us that the classic is tied for number four on the list of top ten plays produced in high school theatre; it had the number four slot all to itself last year and, jumping backwards, it was also in the top ten in 2009, 1999 and 1989 as well. Which has me wondering: did any of the cast members – including James Earl Jones, Elizabeth Ashley, Rose Byrne, Mark Linn-Baker, Julie Halston and Annaleigh Ashford – appear in the show in school? Save for the venerable Jones, they’re all younger than the play, which debuted in 1936. The new production opens Sunday night and I see it next week, when it will be wholly new to me – despite its seemingly ubiquity, I’ve never seen it or read it.

A final word

After keeping up my fortnightly schedule for a bit over a year, it will be three weeks until you next hear from me. I’ll be away on holiday… in England. Maybe I’ll see you at the theatre?

Read more Broadway dispatches from Howard Sherman

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