Lest I be accused of piling on one of my favorite theater companies in New York, let’s remember we should only criticize that which we love enough to want to improve. I promise that my chiding of some of Second Stage’s recent decisions — to read about them, click the two hyperlinks in the lede! — comes from a place of adoration. Seriously, Second Stage rocks! But since it’s undeniably one of the foremost movers and shakers in the Big Apple’s theatre scene — especially now that it’s one of only four nonprofits on Broadway — it has a responsibility to be better than their latest actions.
I guess that’s a good place to start. In the same way the company learned what role it needed to serve off-Broadway, Second Stage must become aware of what voids on the Great White Way it can fill, largely due to its nonprofit designation. Whereas most Broadway ventures are commercial enterprises that must prioritize their bottom lines, Second Stage — along with Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, and Lincoln Center — are literally afforded room to take risks that conservative-by-trade producers usually won’t.
And any surveyor of Broadway present is aware of the severe deficit of new plays on the Great White Way season in and season out; the just-concluded season only saw ten, which equals the number of play revivals. Do we really want to live in a world that confirms Broadway’s reputation as being obsessed with the past?
But it makes sense; only Hollywood actors can sell non-musicals, and they (along with their egos) are attracted to tackling monumental roles from the canon. I can chastise them all day for this approach, but that’s a piece for another day.
I’m here today to suggest that the four Broadway nonprofits should REEEALLY think twice before producing anything other than a new play.
I know the arguments against this opinion; their runaway hits — which rarely take the form of new plays — fund their off-Broadway gambles on new plays that shake up the form. But Broadway, the stage of record for American theatre, simply needs more new plays more than they need the money.
Second Stage’s initial programming seemed to agree with this assertion; their first two productions at Broadway’s HELEN HELEN FUCKING INCLUDE THE HELEN Hayes Theatre were plays new to Broadway (if not totally new in their own right): 2001’s Lobby Hero and 2014’s Straight White Men. And would you look at that, they managed to cast names (Chris Evans, Michael Cera, Armie Hammer, just to list a few) capable of putting butts in seats, even though no one’s singing. The former’s resounding success — critically, commercially, and regarding Tony Awards nominations — should’ve paved the way for more such productions in the future. If Second Stage followed the nonprofit mold, they’d become a revolving door of such excellent limited run plays.
Well, they broke the fucking mold, in the worst way possible.
Straight White Men will be followed by Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song. This latest revival, which premiered at Second Stage’s off-Broadway space last year, drops the Trilogy from the title, an apparent indicator of the edits and rewrites implemented by Fierstein and Co. for this go-around.
To make matters worse, nothing else is booked for the HELEN Hayes for the foreseeable future. Why? Take it away, Carole (Rothman, the artistic director):
“My hope is that the play runs for the year.”
Where do I even begin?
How about here: there is no chance in hell it runs for a year. Unless it’s recast with some huge names — which seems unlikely given the fanfare showered upon the original’s ensemble — Michael Urie and Mercedes Ruehl aren’t bringing the boys to the yard (damn right) FOR A FULL FUCKING YEAR. Anyone tapped into New York’s theatre scene would’ve visited the multi-extended off-Broadway run. Plus, is Second Stage really going to force subscribers to buy tickets again? If not, wooh boy, prepare to see it all over TKTS (and other 21st century discount websites). It would need to win the Tony Award for Best Revival at the very least to even have a shot at running that long. The only problem: THE TONYS AREN’T GIVEN OUT UNTIL NINE MONTHS AFTER ITS OPENING NIGHT.
Another good indicator I’m almost assuredly correct about all of this (even though I’d rather not be; I never root for failure): commercial producers circled the off-Broadway engagement, but none agreed to transfer it, thus the reason Second Stage needed to take it upon themselves to do so. Safe to say the former know more about what will make money on the Great White Way, and this ain’t it, kid.
Do we need to hear Torch Song‘s story today? Why not. But will it speak to today anywhere near as much as a play written today could? Does Harvey need another Broadway break as much as an up-and-comer? Even a new play by Harvey, though more welcome than a revival of one of his classics, wouldn’t be as welcome as a new play by a newish writer; Fierstein — and, for that matter, Lobby Hero‘s scribe Kenneth Lonergan — don’t need their stars to shine brighter as much as a newcomer needs their star to be turned on by the lights of Broadway.
At least with Lobby Hero, the argument could be made that the revival reminded theatergoers that the play deserves to be mentioned on any list of the century’s best. But Torch Song is already canonical! It deserved its heralded time off-Broadway, where venues, and thus offerings, are diverse and plentiful. But in Broadway’s landscape of finite theatres, programming must be more thoughtfully discerning.
I guess the borderline-fact that Torch Song won’t work on Broadway might end up forcing Second Stage to replace it with a new play or two. But I’m more concerned that the company, yet again yet again, doesn’t realize the error of their ways here. And I’m nervous that this decision, instead of being an isolated incident, will be indicative of their general approach to booking their newfound home.
For instance, Superhero — a totally original musical courtesy of the Academy Award-nominated and Tony Award-winning writer John Logan (too many credits to list; ever heard of Gladiator and Red?) and Tony Award-winning composer Tom Kitt (ditto; Next to Normal?) — is already scheduled to play their off-Broadway space in 2019. World premiering it to us bloodthirsty critics who can torpedo a show with a single stroke of our keyboards (I’m obviously referring to critics with way more clout than yours truly) would be needlessly foolhardy. Going the off-Broadway route affords the creative team more time to fix what’s broken based on audience (and critical) responses before the final stop on the main stem.
Given the prestigious names behind it, and factoring in the popularity of the show’s subject that the title clearly advertises for all to consume, the show definitely has Broadway aspirations. Which is great! We could do with more completely original musicals on the Great White Way…
…as long as they don’t take up a nonprofit theatre that straight plays desperately need to be mounted at all. It will be an outrage if Second Stage envisions Superhero as a future longterm tenant at the HELEN!!! Hayes. Musicals can rake in the profits just fine; the likes of Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen traveled the same route from Second Stage to a commercial house on the Great White Way, and they didn’t fare so badly. There’s obviously always risk involved — every memorable success like those two are far outnumbered by a litany of forgotten failures — but they’re risks many would be happy to invest in. New plays, on the other hand, basically require celebrities to exist at all. They still don’t ensure recoupment, but that’s the sort of risk nonprofits are designed to take!
It’s too late for next season, Second Stage. But that’s fine. We all make mistakes. As long as you rectify it in future seasons, I will still love you forever. Keep being you and doing you, 2ST.
Just…with a few modifications.