Original plays stage comeback in 2008-09

Whoever thought the Tony Awards would enjoy a competitive race for best play during a financial meltdown? Before we get to the significance of this season’s bounty of original dramas, let’s look back to more monied times.

Back in late November 1999, Gotham’s journos were deep into their usual Broadway doomsdaying when Conor McPherson’s “The Weir” shuttered after 277 perfs. As it was quickly reported in Daily Variety, the New York Times and elsewhere, the closing signaled the total absence of any new play running on the Broadway boards. Theatergoers would have to wait until mid-January 2000 for an original play, “Wrong Mountain,” which registered a blip with its meager 27 perfs.

Despite the economic good times in Gotham and elsewhere, new plays were but the latest legit endangered species, and Broadway wouldn’t see a genuine hit in those terms until Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen,” a British import, opened in April 2000.

Jump to the current legit season. Five new plays now populate Broadway, from Moises Kaufman’s “33 Variations” to Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to Be Pretty,” and vie for a Tony nom. They are joined by three plays that opened and closed earlier in the season, including top awards contenders like Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate” and Richard Greenberg’s “The American Plan.”

Despite the increased presence of nonprofit theater on Broadway, five of the plays are commercial productions and only one is an import, Yasmina Reza’s highly praised “God of Carnage.”

Plus, “August: Osage County” and “The 39 Steps” continue from 2007-08.

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