Are Off Broadway Shows Redeemed or Ruined on Broadway?

Ten of the 34 shows that opened on Broadway during the 2018-2019 season began life Off-Broadway.  I was struck  by how sharply different my reactions were to seeing the Off-Broadway and Broadway versions of four of these shows – Be More Chill, Hadestown, Oklahoma!, and What The Constitution Means to Me. This was true even though all four were considered transfers, most of them with little change in the casts and no change in the creative teams. The biggest change in some of these was the context — and that could make all the difference.

Now, the significance of a Broadway run was surely greatest this season in the play “The Boys in the Band,” which had debuted Off-Broadway in 1968, and had been produced around the world ever since, but had never been on Broadway. The Broadway debut production on the play’s 50th anniversary offered a symbolic importance that was as much political and aesthetic. Though many feel the script is dated — the characters stereotypes of unhappy homosexuals – the production was a celebration of how far we’d come.   All nine actors were openly gay men, as were the director Joe Mantello and all five producers including Ryan Murphy (creator of such TV series as Glee,American Horror Story, and Pose). Several were famous—TV stars (Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory, Matt Bomer of White Collar), movie stars (Zachary Quinto of the Star Trek films), Broadway stars (Andrew Rannells of Book of Mormon, Hamilton.) These good-looking, successful, popular out gay actors weren’t so much re-creating gay history, or even honoring gay history, when they portrayed these brittle homosexual characters from the past. By their very participation in this production, they were making history.

Given how vibrant the work that is produced Off Broadway, Off Off Broadway and in regional theaters, it’s easy to argue that making it to Broadway should mean less than it used to.  But Broadway still carries an emotional weight for theater people. How else to explain, for example, the Broadway debuts this season of such downtown avant-garde artists as Taylor Mac (Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus) and Young Jean Lee, whose Straight White Men earlier this season came some four years after the play debuted Off-Broadwayat the Public Theater.

Avant garde artists’ dreams of mainstream success can work in the audience’s favor. Exhibit A for me is director Daniel Fish’s dark production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! When I saw it Off-Broadway at St. Ann’s Warehouse last October, I found its reliance on too many familiar avant garde devices tiresome and annoying. I felt it lost sight of a theater maker’s basic compact with the audience. “In its effort to make the environment feel authentic, the show suggests low-budget community theater as much as small town community gathering: The folding wooden chairs are physically uncomfortable, and the seating on either side of a long narrow stage (which looks like a fashion runway, except it’s made out of unfinished wood) nearly guarantees obstructed views at various times for a large portion of the audience. The director’s commitment to naturalism sometimes comes at the expense of audibility. Whole scenes unfold in complete darkness.”

Six months later, on Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theater, I was pleasantly surprised to discover comfortable seats and decent sightlines. Was the bigger theater more able to accommodate the set without sacrificing comfort and accessibility, or did the producers put the pressure on the creative team to accommodate the more demanding (and higher paying) Broadway theatergoers? In any case, it’s an improvement.

They also now give the playbill to you before the show begins, rather than after it is over, as at St. Ann’s — an affectation that to me epitomized the gratuitous  efforts to be au courant.

There are still plenty of what I consider avant garde affectations in Fish’s Oklahoma! But many were toned down, and there are enough adjustments for the balance to have shifted for me. I could better enjoy  Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score and the performances by a diverse and talented cast, and better appreciate Fish’s darker take on the world of the musical.

The changes in two of the other transfers were less tangible, but they had the opposite effect on me.

When “Be More Chill” made it to Off-Broadway, the odyssey of the musical felt as engaging as anything in the show itself. A short run to mixed reviews in a New Jersey theater resulted in an original cast album that went viral, creating a whole nation of teenage fans for this high energy adaptation of a popular young adult novel that combines high school bestiary with sci-fi.  The transfer to Broadway marks the Broadway debut of talented songwriter Joe Iconis, and incorporates changes that reflect an obviously bigger budget – more, fancier stage effects. But the biggest change is its new context. The show has gone from a theater with fewer than 300 seats to one with more than 900, and ticket prices as high as $325. It no longer feels like the little show that could. It’s a noisy, high-powered commercial enterprise, selling itself largely to kids. So, what exactly are they selling?

Curious, I read the original novel by Ned Vizzini, and was taken aback by a couple of the changes in the stage adaptation. In the musical, Jeremy is reluctant to join the cast of the school play, saying “ It’s a sign-up sheet for getting called gay.”  But in the original novel by Ned Vizzini, Jeremy is a theater kid who has performed frequently in high school productions. Shouldn’t Broadway be the one place where gay theater kids don’t have to feel left out and put down?

When I saw “What The Constitution Means to Me” Off-Broadway, I found  Heidi Schreck’s show about the United States Constitution extraordinary — funny and infuriated, analytical and confessional, erudite and heartbreaking. Schreck, who plays herself at age 15 competing in oratorical contests about the Constitution, and then herself at her current age, is a good storyteller. Her play is informative, enlightening even, inspiring me to re-read the U.S. Constitution (copies of which are distributed during the show.)  It also has some important, justifiably angry points to make about the Court-sanctioned subjugation of women. Yet, in retrospect, what was most powerful about Schreck’s play was similar to the pull two decades ago of Anne Nelson’s “The Guys,” which was presented at The Flea Theater not far from the World Trade Center right after 9/11. “What’s The Constitution Means to Me” has allowed people to gather communally in a time of crisis.  The crisis this time is not a foreign invasion, but what the theatergoers drawn to this show see as a domestic threat to democracy.

There are few discernible changes to Schreck’s play on Broadway, which has the feel of spontaneous improv but is actually carefully scripted. While other critics have reacted ecstatically to Schreck’s piece both on and Off Broadway, I have mixed feelings about the transfer of this straightforward, three-character play to Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater, where there are three times as many seats as Off-Broadway, and ticket prices are more than 70 percent higher.  Instead of one producer, there are now more than a dozen. “What The Constitution Means to Me” can still serve as a salve for the politically shell-shocked and disaffected; they just have to be a little richer, which kind of undermines the “we’re all in this together” vibe for me.

 

Hadestown was a very different show when it debuted at a reconfigured New York Theater Workshop in 2016.  Just eight cast members brought Anais Mitchell’s concept album to life, performing in the sung-through musical all along the dimly lit spaces in front of stadium seating that evoked the rings of Hell.

Three years later, after a run at The National Theater in London, Hadestown is now on Broadway, with an expanded cast of 13, and elaborate choreography for them. Only two cast members are holdovers from the original eight,  Gone is the reconfigured theater. The show plays out on Walter Kerr’s proscenium stage, and now features all sorts of stage effects, from stage smoke to a working steam whistle to a few surprise alterations of the set that are the fruit of a bigger Broadway budget.

Some of the intimacy is lost. But there is now a sharper clarity to the tale, in large part because of the expansion of the role of Hermes as narrator, now performed by André De Shields. (There is also a note in the program explaining, “Who’s Who in Greek Mythology,” which is helpful in a show that still focuses more on atmosphere than plot.)

What made Hadestown most thrilling remains – the delightful score.

In the case of Hadestown, then, Broadway neither ruined nor redeemed an Off-Broadway show. It created something that’s different — adjusting to the new context and changed expectations — and in its own way just as good.

 

 

 

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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