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Howard Sherman: It’s not just musicals – Broadway’s serving up a tasty menu of plays this season

0206_Janet McTeer in BernhardtHamlet, Photo by Joan Marcus, 2018 Janet McTeer in Bernhardt/Hamlet, Photo: Joan Marcus
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Instead of bemoaning the uncertainty of the upcoming Broadway season, which I’m given to doing around this time every year, I find myself moved instead to enthusiasm, given the range and variety of plays on tap.

It’s not that there aren’t musicals afoot – among them The Cher Show, King Kong, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, The Prom, Beetlejuice, Hadestown, Tootsie and more – but more imminently the season is dominated by plays, sometimes seen as a dying breed in New York’s largest theatres.

Earlier this week, Theresa Rebeck’s comedy Bernhardt/Hamlet opened, with Janet McTeer playing the title roles, and last night brought the US premiere of Richard Bean’s The Nap. These plays are under the auspices of Roundabout Theatre Company and Manhattan Theatre Club respectively, two of the four subsidised companies that have been stalwarts of maintaining a place for plays on Broadway for years.

A scene from The Nap. Photo: Joan Marcus
A scene from The Nap. Photo: Joan Marcus

In just over a week’s time, Second Stage, the third of that quartet, will begin previews of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song, a revised and condensed version of his Torch Song Trilogy, a great success in Second Stage’s Off-Broadway venue last season.

But that’s only three of the nine plays that will open before the end of the year – with only three musicals joining the line-up by December 31. It is worth noting, however, that the summer was an unusually busy time for new Broadway shows, both plays and musicals, with The Boys in the Band, Straight White Men and Gettin’ the Band Back Together having already come and gone and Head Over Heels and Pretty Woman opened and still running.

That makes it 17 new Broadway shows by year end, on track for the typical Broadway season that averages about 35 new productions each year.

Pretty Woman – The Musical review at Nederlander Theatre, New York – ‘peppy, with winning performances’

The plays for the fall are a varied lot. In addition to those mentioned, new plays – often the rarest of the bunch – are represented by The Lifespan of a Fact by David Murrell, Gordon Farrell and Jeremy Kareken; Jez Butterworth’s West End success The Ferryman; Christopher Demos-Brown’s American Son; Aaron Sorkin’s new adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network.

Beyond Torch Song, the only revival of the bunch is Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, which is playing Broadway for the first time.

The breadth of these plays is downright cheering, and while the spring leans more to musicals and revivals, already on tap are the somewhat belated Broadway debut of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy, a new production of King Lear with Glenda Jackson and Ruth Wilson, the transfer of James Graham’s Ink, revivals of Burn This and All My Sons, and a new adaptation of Sherlock Holmes.

And it’s impossible to forget Taylor Mac‘s vividly named Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, blending the old and, knowing Mac’s work, the invigoratingly new.

Aside from the usual wild cards of shows that take advantage of unexpectedly open theatres, or which emerge from the subsidised theatres around the country, there are two other new plays – both transfers from the UK – that could well figure in the mix.

The Jungle will make its US debut in December at Brooklyn’s St Ann’s Warehouse and The Lehman Trilogy, from the National Theatre, will spend March at the vast Park Avenue Armory.

Given their UK receptions, it would hardly be surprising to see them reach Broadway. Indeed, the biggest surprise is perhaps that neither is headed there directly. Presumably well-received runs at these venues would pave the way, a sheaf of good reviews gripped firmly in hand.

December leaves time by April for The Jungle to fit out a Broadway house with the kind of makeover the Playhouse has undergone, though The Lehman Trilogy would have to move quickly to make this season’s Tony eligibility cut-off, only a month after its schedule run ends. Perhaps its prospects are more likely for the 2019-2020 season, but, at this point, it’s hard to say without an insider’s knowledge.

Scanning the season yet to come while visiting London, on a holiday that has me seeing seven plays in as many days, it’s quite exciting to know that my playgoing evenings will be full when I return home, especially as I’ve focused only on Broadway and not even gone into offerings from The Public Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, the Atlantic Theatre Company and many more, all of which contribute to the dramatic vitality of New York theatre.

Broadway may live and die by its musicals, which make up roughly 80% of the total gross revenue in its theatres. But for those of us with a taste not only for music but for the spoken word, the 2018-19 Broadway season is an intriguing, promising menu that I look forward to consuming.

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