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Mark Shenton: My top 10 New York producing theatres

Times Square. Photo: Andrey Bayda Times Square. Photo: Andrey Bayda
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Just as there’s much more to London theatre than just the commercial outposts of the West End, there’s also much more to New York theatre than the glittering shop windows of Broadway. These are the top 10 companies whose work I personally look for each time I’m in town.

These are also the places where lots of Broadway producers do their scouting, so they are good places to find future Broadway hits. In a few cases, these full-time producing companies have expanded their reach to operate Broadway houses of their own, while also continuing to also have an Off-Broadway home.

1. Broadway

Broadway – as in the producers who are members of the Broadway League – is its own biggest producing engine, originating a vast amount of product directly on to its stages. Thought these are often revivals of previously tried and tested shows, new shows also open here, sometimes via an out-of-town run in places such as Chicago, Washington DC or Seattle, but always intended for Broadway. Next year Disney’s Frozen (which is being directed and designed by Michael Grandage and Christopher Oram) will be tried out in Denver, but has already booked the St James Theatre for its Broadway debut in 2018. It is essentially Broadway money and producing know-how that originated, under commercial auspices, such current hit shows as Disney’s The Lion King and Aladdin, Beautiful, The Book of Mormon, Jersey Boys and Kinky Boots, all currently also playing in the West End, so we owe a debt to them, too.

2. Public Theater

I’ve already designated the Public Theater as one of my top venues. This is the place where Hamilton was born, and where A Chorus Line originated. Between those shows, numerous other hits, including last year’s Tony-winning best musical Fun Home and the stunning Here Lies Love (that transferred to the National Theatre), began their lives. Right now, Rachel Weisz is starring in a revival of Plenty. The Public also stages the annual festival of free theatre at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, where last summer I saw Cush Jumbo and Janet McTeer in a brilliant The Taming of the Shrew. There isn’t a more essential theatre in New York.

3. New York Theatre Workshop

Michael C Hall in Lazarus. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
Michael C Hall in Lazarus. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

NYTW shared a top venue entry with the Public, and is currently represented in London by the transfer of its production of David Bowie’s Lazarus. London will also soon see Peter and the Starcatcher, a play that also originated there (though in a new production). NYTW most famously was the originating home of Rent (also due back in London this Christmas), but it has also provided a regular New York artistic home to Ivo van Hove, long before his current pick-up by Broadway producers and the National.

4. Lincoln Center Theater

This is probably the closest New York has to our National Theatre: a permanent company based within a huge cultural complex that also includes the homes of the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet and the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. They operate three theatres here – the Broadway-scaled Vivian Beaumont Theater (which has been the originating home to hit revivals of shows like Anything Goes, South Pacific and The King and I), the Off-Broadway Mitzi E Newhouse Theater (where plays such as Other Desert Cities originated), and the new Claire Tow Theater (which opened in 2012 on the roof of the Beaumont) to provide a home to LCT3, dedicated to producing the work of new artists and building new audiences). LCT also regularly produces direct on Broadway, including a new revival of William Finn’s Falsettos (which opened officially at the Walter Kerr Theatre on October 27).

5. Roundabout Theatre Company

Though accusations are sometimes levied that Roundabout Theatre Company plays it safe with star-led revivals, this prolific and powerful company is a major player in the New York scene. Founded in 1965 in a converted supermarket basement, it has expanded now to own and run three Broadway houses (the American Airlines Theatre on West 42nd Street, the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on West 43rd Street and Studio 54 on West 54th Street), as well as the Off-Broadway Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre on West 46th Street which comprises two spaces, the Laura Pels Theatre and Black Box Theatre. It is at the Off-Broadway space that some of the most interesting work happens. It is here that The Humans, the best new play currently on Broadway, was first seen; ditto Significant Other, which transfers to Broadway’s Booth Theatre in February. I’ve also often loved the Roundabout’s Broadway musical revivals, including a wonderful production of On the Twentieth Century last year.

6. Manhattan Theatre Company

The Samuel J Friedman
The Samuel J Friedman Theatre

MTC was founded in 1970 as an Off-Off-Broadway theatre, but has long expanded into operating both on and Off-Broadway, with permanent homes at Broadway’s Samuel J Friedman Theatre on West 47th Street (which it purchased in 2001 and reopened after a refurbishment in 2003) and New York City Center on West 55th Street where it operates a 299-seat Off-Broadway theatre with fixed seating, and a flexible 150-seat studio. It was at the City Center spaces that Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg originated before moving to its current run at the Friedman Theatre, as well as where I first saw the premiere of Murder Ballad, now playing at London’s Arts Theatre (in a different production).

7. Second Stage

Second Stage operates two Off-Broadway houses – on West 43rd and 8th in a converted bank in the heart of the theatre district, and uptown at Broadway and 76th Street – and now also owns Broadway’s intimate Helen Hayes Theatre on West 44th Street. Originally founded in 1979, it has become an essential part of the fabric of New York theatre, providing the original New York homes for shows such as Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen (which transfers to Broadway’s Music Box Theatre from November 14. It was also here that Jason Robert Brown first staged his own revival of The Last Five Years that he is now restaging at London’s St James, where it opens on November 2.

8. Ars Nova

Located on West 54th Street, this company was only founded in 2002 – but it is responsible for the utterly ravishing current Broadway transfer of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, currently in previews at the Imperial Theatre, but which I have already snuck into see. It’s the next iteration of immersive theatre, truly rendering a conventional Broadway house unrecognisable. Earlier this year, Ars Nova also produced the almost entirely silent play Small Mouth Sounds, also directed by Rachel Chavkin who was responsible for Natasha Pierre.

9. Signature Theatre

Signature Theatre
Signature Theatre

This Off-Broadway company was founded in 1991 by James Houghton, who only recently died, with a brilliant idea: to honour and celebrate the playwright, by producing entire seasons of their body of work. Among the playwrights honoured were Edward Albee, David Henry Hwang John Guare, Sam Shepard, August Wilson, Lanford Wilson, Tony Kushner and AR Gurney, offering new work by them in addition to a series of revivals. Its premiere of Horton Foote’s The Young Man from Atlanta won him the Pulitzer prize for drama. Originally housed in a shop front space on the far end of West 42nd Street near the river, since 2012 it has been located in the purpose-built Frank Gehry-designed Pershing Square Signature Center with two auditoriums, which, as well as housing their own work, is also available for rentals. The theatre this month revives Master Harold… and the Boys by Athol Fugard, a playwright whose work has previously had an entire season dedicated to, and the premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks’ The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead, a playwright recently represented in London by Father Comes Home from the Wars, seen at the Royal Court.

10. Classic Stage Company

CSC, founded in 1967 and located on East 13th Street, is one of Off-Broadway’s most enterprising theatres exploring the classics in a contemporary way. It regularly attracts top-flight acting talent – though there was a recent debacle when Tonya Pinkins pulled out of its production of Mother Courage after it had already begun performances, objecting to the way it had been directed. Other prominent New York actors that have appeared here more successfully include F Murray Abraham, Ethan Hawke, Dianne Wiest, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Alan Cumming, Nina Arianda, Mandy Patinkin, Bebe Neuwirth and Michael Cumpsty. Now newly led by British director John Doyle, whose brilliant revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion I saw here in 2013, I expect musicals will play an even larger part in its repertoire and I will therefore be there even more in the future.