Types of Shows That Keep Theater Alive
-- By Elyse Sommer
Putting on a play or musical on Broadway, as well as elsewhere, has always been a high-risk cultural enterprise. And yet, each season an array of old and new works are mounted in hopes of keeping the fabulous invalid alive.
Though the name that immediately springs to mind when considering a creative work's immortality is William Shakespeare, the sixteen plays that made him immortal were actually borrowed from other sources like The Holinshed Chronicles, as he was acting as well as producing and writing. That said, to this day some newly formatted or interpreted versions of one of those plays is on a stage or screen somewhere. What's more, his words are often quoted in nontheatrical settings.
While Shakespeare's works are the epitome of immortal storytelling, plenty of others can lay claim to this sort of always rebootable afterlife. Chekhov and Ibsen created an even smaller oeuvre than the Bard, but new presentations of their plays appear on some stage or screen often enough to support their standing as part of the immortal canon -- such as the minimalist A Doll's House currently on Broadway.
But for super-adaptable, page-to-stage leaps, nobody beats novelist Jane Austen. This season, even her unfinished last novel, Sanditon, has proved to be a perfect fit as a PBS costume drama spun out in serial format.
There are also some shows that gain immortality by virtue of their long life on Broadway. which made them events for New York visitors, like a trip to the Statue of Liberty. Sadly, rising costs and the fallout of the pandemic have finally shuttered Phantom of the Opera; ditto for Stomp, a seemingly forever tenant of the downtown Orpheum Theater.
Contributing to the theater's being dubbed an invalid but a fabulous one is its diversity in terms of subjects and styles tackled each season. That means a new production of a favorite from the golden era of musical theater is sure to show up. Working its ticket-selling magic this year was The Music Man, starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. Unsurprisingly, Stephen Sondheim, the recently deceased bard of contemporary musical theater, began his surefire long afterlife with a stellar revival of Sweeney Todd starring Josh Groban as the demon barber. Since playwrights also had their golden era. an Arthur Miller play was likely to have another turn on Broadway. And, sure enough, a new production of Miller's iconic Death of a Salesman just ended its run in January.
Some musicals -- like Parade, which had only a brief run in its Broadway debut but sadly became more relevant with the rise of anti-semitism -- have been given fresh Broadway runs, although the long afterlife of the immortals may still elude them.
Finally, the season has also allowed several new shows to knock on opportunity's door, not necessarily for immortality, but for long enough to make a splash. Perhaps pandemic and bad news fatigue have made Shucked, a musical that once might have been on the dinner show circuit, the musical that had critics as well as audiences holding their bellies while laughing at the literally corny jokes. Seasoned director Jack O'Brien's smart direction, a great cast and tuneful score, savvy marketing, and a theme of tolerance made it all happen
A more modest hit is a new solo show, Prima Facie. However, it was mostly praised for the performance of soloist Jodie Comer rather than its content. Thus, the more name-brand fellow Tony nominees for best solo performance are likely to make Prima Facie's inclusion more honor than fact.
Since this post has mentioned just a few of the varied menu of shows in the finally reopened theaters, and the Tonys won't announce the winners until June, here's a list of award nominees:
Post script: My most delightful recent onscreen experience was Amazon Prime's bio-documentary Judy Blume Forever. While I'm too old to have read her many children's and young adult books, I found the 83-year-old Blume, who narrates, most endearing. I'm also reading, and enjoying In the Unlikely Event, her most recent adult novel.