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Mark Shenton: For once, the play’s the thing on Broadway

Bobby Cannavale and Daniel Radcliffe in The Lifespan of a Fact at Studio 54. Photo: Peter Cunningham
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In the usual run of things, Broadway specialises in musicals and London in plays.

The typical transatlantic traffic between these two world capitals of English-speaking theatre reflects that. They send us musicals (by the ton: in the coming months, we’re getting Hadestown, Come from Away, Waitress, On Your Feet and Dear Evan Hansen); we send them plays (for example, Richard Bean’s The Nap, James Graham’s Ink, Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, and Network, with Bryan Cranston reprising his London performance).

The current Broadway season boasts its usual run of big new musicals: titles include King Kong, a pair of original new musicals set in and around high schools – The Prom and Be More Chill, film-to-stage transfers for Beetlejuice and Tootsie, a revival of the Cole Porter classic Kiss Me Kate, and jukebox shows on Cher and the Temptations. But for the first time in living memory, there’s also a slew of high-profile plays – as many as 20. And most of them are new and American.

The straight play, an increasingly endangered species in the US, is fighting back. And it is using star power to fight its corner in Broadway’s crowded marketplace – both when it comes to securing the prized real estate of one of Broadway’s 41 theatres, and to capture the attention of potential audiences.

Broadway has always depended on actors with marquee value to draw in the crowds. This season’s roster includes Daniel Radcliffe (in The Lifespan of a Fact), Lucas Hedges and Broadway veteran Elaine May (in a revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s 2001 Pulitzer-nominated play The Waverly Gallery), Scandal’s Kerry Washington (in new play American Son), Broadway royalty Nathan Lane (in Taylor Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus), John Lithgow and Laurie Metcalf (in Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton), Jeff Daniels (in a new adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin), Ethan Hawke (in Sam Shepard’s True West), Adam Driver and Keri Russell (in a revival of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This), Annette Bening (in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons) and Glenda Jackson (in a new production of King Lear).

The sudden proliferation of drama on Broadway is partly down to the growing footprint of not-for-profit theatre companies there, with six theatres now controlled by them: Roundabout has three, Lincoln Center Theatre has the Beaumont, Manhattan Theatre Club has the Samuel J Friedman, and Second Stage has the Helen Hayes. With at least half of them usually dedicated to runs of plays produced in-house, it guarantees a certain number of plays on Broadway.

But beyond these companies that own theatres and can schedule them themselves, other producers of plays are controlled by external factors. As a recent New York Times feature about the season put it: “The make-up of a Broadway season is not planned by any one individual or organization, but instead reflects a combination of producer passions, theatre availability, star schedules and investor interest.”

The stars have aligned, in every sense, to make this year’s Broadway season so rich, at least on paper

The stars have aligned, in every sense, to make this year’s Broadway season so rich, at least on paper. And they reflect the times we are living in. As the New York Times also notes: “The nine new American plays already scheduled this season seem to reflect a moment when artists – and, producers hope, audiences – are hungry to reckon with the issues vexing the nation.”

But, while named stars are crucial to these shows’ prospects, there’s another name who is of even greater importance to many of them, but is probably not as well known to audiences. No fewer than four of these are being produced by Scott Rudin, the single most powerful Broadway producer today, with a roster that also includes the smash-hit The Book of Mormon. Just as the West End play has traditionally depended on the diligence and enthusiasm of producers like Michael Codron, Bill Kenwright and now Playful Productions and Sonia Friedman, the idea of Broadway as a creative furnace for new plays is now due largely to Rudin.

He’s taking an even bigger financial and artistic risk than his West End counterparts: while almost every West End play is given a prior tryout, whether at the Royal Court (like The Ferryman), National (like Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night) or at Theatre Royal Bath (as with Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland and Arthur Miller’s The Price), Rudin is originating his new productions (The Waverly Gallery, To Kill a Mockingbird, King Lear and Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus) directly on Broadway.

Suddenly – thanks to producers like Rudin – Broadway is inserting itself into the national conversation again. The Stage is determined to be part of that conversation. As well as regularly reviewing Broadway openings, I’m starting a monthly Broadway interview feature next week, when I’ll be talking to the team behind King Kong.

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