Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE, coming to you this week from New York.
Plays making a Broadway comeback
Of 35 shows currently on the boards on Broadway, just 12 are plays. But apart from HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD (now playing in a single play version, not the double bill that it opened as), every single one is on a limited run.
And of those 12 plays, seven are revivals of plays that have previously had Broadway runs, from MACBETH (with Daniel Craig in the title role) and the 1943 Pulitzer prize winning Thornton WIlder play THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, to Paula Vogel’s HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE and Richard Greenberg’s TAKE ME OUT, which respectively won the Pulitzer in 1998 and 2003, plus Neil Simon’s PLAZA SUITE, David Mamet’s AMERICAN BUFFALO and Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.
So that leaves just five ‘new’ plays — two of them imports from London (HARRY POTTER and Martin McDonagh’s HANGMEN). The last three are Noah Haidle’s BIRTHDAY CANDLES (which is being produced by Roundabout Theatre at their Broadway home theatre, the American Airlines on w42nd Street, that was first commissioned and produced by a theatre in Detroit in 2018), Tracy Letts’s new play THE MINUTES (transferred from Chicago’s Steppenwolf, where it premiered in 2017) and finally, a direct-to-Broadway premiere for Selina Fillinger’s White House farce, POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive.
I saw the latter on Tuesday. This funny — and refreshingly filthy — comedy revolves around an (useen) president who is suffering from an abscess on his anus after a bout of over-rough anal play, and the seven women — from his wife, mistress and criminal lesbian sister recently released from prison, to his chief of staff and press secretary — who variously attend him.
It’s the West Wing rewritten as a sex farce. And if the writing is not always subtle — and neither, to be frank, are some of the frequently overpitched performances — Susan Stroman’s production provides a fast, slick evening of female empowerment; it’s lovely to see this carried through beyond the all-woman star cast to a mostly female creative team (the only major male participant is set design Beowulf Boritt).
New plays off-Broadway
The more natural home for plays, especially NEW plays, these days is Off-Broadway, where lower costs prevail both for the production and therefore the ticket prices.
Companies like Manhattan Theatre Club, Roundabout and Second Stage (each of which also now have a Broadway presence as landlords to Broadway houses, where they either produce themselves or act as landlords for others), or Playwrights Horizons and Signature with their permanent, purpose-built homes on W42nd Street, have created a thriving scene for new plays and musicals; other leading companies include the Atlantic (in Chelsea), Classic Stage Company and the Vineyard (both of them near Union Square) and MCC (on 10th Avenue at 52nd Street).
On Wednesday afternoon, at a friend’s urging, I saw Samuel D Hunter’s new play A Case for the Existence of God; my friend had seen it five times already! And seeing this absolutely spellbinding two-hander drama tender, surprising drama about two single parenting dads in small-town Idaho– one, newly separated from his child’s mother, the other a gay dad fostering a daughter and seeking her adoption — just broke my heart but also entirely captivated it. It has just had its run extended to May 29. It is not to be missed. Yesterday, it was named best play of the 2021-22 season by The New York Drama Critics’ Circle.
A STRANGE LOOP: from Playwrights Horizons to Broadway, and MR SATURDAY NIGHT, direct to Broadway
Each of the companies mentioned above regularly transfer shows to Broadway: last season saw Vineyard’s productions of Tina Satter’s IS THIS A ROOM and Lucas Hnath’s DANA H both transfer to Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, where they played in rep. Now the Lyceum is home to this year’s most talked-about — and most Tony nominated — new musical, A STRANGE LOOP, which led this week’s announcement with 11 nominations, more than any other show.
But as the New York Times cautioned in a column on Monday, “Scoring the most nominations is not always predictive of winning the prize, and A Strange Loop, which is adventurous in form and content, will face tough competition from MJ, a biographical jukebox musical about Michael Jackson; Six, a fan favorite about the wives of Henry VIII; Girl From the North Country, which combines the songs of Bob Dylan with a fictional story about a boarding house in the Minnesota city where Dylan was born; Mr. Saturday Night, about a washed-up comedian hungering for a comeback; and Paradise Square, about a turning point in race relations in 19th-century New York.”
I’ve now seen all six nominees myself — and I couldn’t easily predict the likely winner of the all-important Best Musical award. As it is, a nomination alone is important if only in order to secure the placement of a number from the show on the Tony Awards broadcast. MRS DOUBTFIRE will be feeling the loss of a nomination for Best Musical most keenly in this regard, and it will be interesting if it survives as far as the Tony Awards (for which it has a sole nomination for lead actor Rob McClure)
Though last year we saw the record number of Tony nominations for Jeremy O.Harris’s SLAVE PLAY not translate into a single win, I suspect A STRANGE LOOP may be the musical to beat, partly for its formal adventurousness in presenting such a nakedly autobiographical story so freshly, but also for offering a window into a rarely-visited gay life story, like Harvey Fierstein’s breakthrough play TORCH SONG TRILOGY did on Broadway exactly forty years ago, in 1982.
It’s certainly robust in its descriptions of a twenty-five, going on twenty-six, year old overweight gay black man’s search for love and validation, whether parental, physical or professional, in contemporary New York, as he spends his nights ushering at Broadway’s The Lion King while attempting to complete his own autobiographical musical, which is the one we are in fact watching. With book, music and lyrics by Michael R Jackson, this meta-musical is stunningly staged by Stephen Brackett, with a cast led by a phenomenal Jacquel Spivey as the composer’s alter ego. It’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes — but it is full of alternating notes of tenderness and toughness, and has some really glorious songs.
By contrast, MR SATURDAY NIGHT. with music by Jason Robert Brown, lyrics by Amanda Green and book by Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, based on their screenplay to the 1992 film of the same name, is an old-fashioned charmer of a musical about an old-school comedian’s attempted comeback.
It’s all very much in the milieu of the wonderful Amazon Prime comedy series THE MARVELOUS MRS MAISEL, if not quite as funny or stylish — though David Paymer (who reprises his Oscar nominated performance from the film of Mr Saturday NIght as brother to Crystal’s character) is also a Maisel regular. Crystal, of course, is an audience favourite — and instead of having to age up as he did in 1992, he is now more comfortably aged in real life. He can also carry a tune comfortably, but the musical honours go to Broadway regulars Shoshana Bean as his daughter and Randy Graff as his wife.
COCK deflates again quickly after sudden rise
On Wednesday I wrote here about the social media storm that had engulfed the current West End production of COCK, when tickets for the remaining weeks of the run were suddenly being advertised, through the show’s own box office, at up to £400 a ticket.
The producers Elliot Harper, in a statement to The Stage, cited supply and demand for the sudden price inflation. But it turned out that the sky isn’t the limit, after all; the limit is shame. And shamed by the very public denunciation of their price gouging tactics, they relented, bringing the price of those premium tickets down to “just” £125-£175, as The Guardian reported on Wednesday.
Those prices are still essentially unaffordable to many, but at least they’re not totally insane.
Meanwhile, in New York — where Elliott Harper have transferred their London production of Sondheim’s COMPANY — Chris Harper got a more welcome public mention yesterday. At a talkback after the show on Tuesday, Patti LuPone publicly challenged a member of the audience who was defying the regulation to wear a mask over her nose and mouth: “Put your mask over your nose, that’s why you’re in the theater, That is the rule. If you don’t want to follow the rule, get the fuck out! Who do you think you are, that you do not respect the people sitting around you?”
When the audience member shouted back, “I’m paying your wages!”LuPone in turn retorted: “You pay my salary?” Bullshit. Chris Harper pays my salary.”
By yesterday, TodayTix had already mocked up a tee-shirt that proudly stated:
Partly, no doubt, with the inflated premium price tickets that he’s earned for COCK. For his part, Harper replied to LuPone’s outburst with this statement: “Over the course of her storied career, Patti has always had an unshakable bond with the audience, and she takes their role as seriously as her own. She is also a fierce advocate for the entire theatrical workforce. We stand with Patti and support her efforts to keep our entire community — from patrons to hers, cast to stage crew — safe and healthy so we can keep Broadway open.”
SEE YOU ON MONDAY
If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/ (though not as regularly on weekends).