New Group in the Square

In an age dominated by nonprofit theatre companies taking over Broadway houses —from Roundabout’s conquest of the Sondheim to Second Stage’s brand-spanking-new ownership of the Helen Hayes — the New Group should move into the Circle in the Square (once its current tenant, Once on this Island, closes).

Their productions of Sweet Charity last season and this year’s Jerry Springer — The Opera, both of which have Great White Way aspirations, would fit PERFECTLY in Broadway’s most distinct space, especially since The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, where both were produced, is basically just a smaller (and squarer) version of it. Each deserves — and could easily translate to — the bigger platform that Broadway provides.

Sweet Charity was a master class in how to revive a problematic classic musical for a 21st century context, conversing with the original from a modern, more woke perspective. And Jerry Springer — The Opera is probably my favorite blue musical since Avenue Q (sorry Spamalot and The Book of Mormon), one with as many challenging thoughts on its mind as uproarious yucks it induces.

Yet neither could survive on Broadway without Tony Awards recognition, which is too much of a gamble due to unknown competition for most understandably-conservative producers trying to avoid being one of the 80% of shows not to recoup their investment on the Great White Way.

Sweet Charity might be a classic musical, but mostly for history nerds; the title alone won’t put a sufficient number of butts in seats. And Sutton Foster — though, once again, beloved by “those in the know” — can’t fill a show’s coffers on her own.

But you know what can? The Tony Award for Best Musical Revival; audiences often need that quality stamp of approval before shelling out the mucha moula Broadway shows cost.

And much like Avenue Q, Jerry Springer — The Opera‘s concept — which the title succinctly describes — sounds as appetizing to Broadway’s prime demographic, older women, as an X-rated episode of “Sesame Street.” Without the Best Musical Tony, it’s just too risky to trust that those who proudly associate Broadway with highbrow entertainment will “stoop” to a soap opera for sinners. And it’s not like the word “opera” sounds enticing to most…

If Jerry Springer — The Opera took home Avenue Q’s Best Musical Tony, then it would almost surely rake in the dough…but there’s obviously no way to guarantee that to potential investors, most of whom would be scared away by the apparent anachronism between the source material and the Great Vanilla Way (the musical very much pokes holes in the validity of this condescending perception of the TV series held by the masses, finding the humanity in the depravity by focusing on and recontextualizing the elements of the show universally shared by most art forms, even those conventionally seen as more prestigious). Yes, Broadway content has become way more diverse of late, but the safest bets will always conform to its old-fashioned reputation.

The real shame is that Broadway audiences — many of whom ONLY rely on the Great White Way for their theatre fix, for a myriad of reasons too numerous to detail here — should see both of these shows, because they could expand their conception of what theatre, both old and new, can be.

Which could happen…if The New Group owned the Circle in the Square. With the financial protection offered by its nonprofit designation, both shows could very feasibly be produced on Broadway. And who knows, maybe they’d end up finding an audience irrespective of the unpredictable ways that Tony voters’ winds blow.

Though there are obviously more famous off-Broadway theatres yet to move into Broadway homes — the most obvious being the Public — the New Group’s history of mounting shows in a space so similar to Circle in the Square, a notoriously-difficult theatre to fill, puts them ahead of the pack. Plus, unlike with the under-heralded New Group, the Public’s widely-known profile in no way needs to be raised by the big-city lights of Broadway.

And I haven’t even mentioned the New Group’s continually-demonstrated ability to lure Hollywood actors to star in their straight plays (Ed Harris and Chloë Sevigny appeared in their productions this year). These names couldn’t steer any theatrical venture into the black, but with the nonprofit cushion, they could drum up enough interest, partially thanks to Broadway’s superior publicity machine, to survive.

Anyone who’s monitored the recent state of Broadway will agree that the Great White Way is desperately in need of more plays, whose financial situations are even more dire than for musicals. Nonprofits may soon become our greatest source of such dramatic texts. I won’t pretend to understand the tricky economics required for the New Group to take over a Broadway theatre; I’m just saying it should happen.

Over the years, the New Group has continually proven to their limited off-Broadway audiences that they’re capable of churning out new musicals, musical revivals, old and new plays alike worthy of the most prominent theatrical stage in the world. It’s time for the rest of New York City to realize it too.    

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