It used to be common lament: The new American play on Broadway is dead, with non-tuners driven out by flashy musicals and star-driven play revivals.
This season? Not so much.
The four Tony nominees for new play — Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park,” Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” Rick Elice’s “Peter and the Starcatcher” and David Ives’ “Venus in Fur” — emerged from an unusually crowded pack of contenders that suggests producers have grown increasingly willing to take a risk on a play, and in a lot of cases, auds will turn out to see it.
But for all four Tony-nommed titles, a busy season can prove a challenge, as a slew of plays compete for what’s generally acknowledged to be a limited pool of playgoers. And in an unusual coincidence, all four shows took a circuitous route to the Rialto, yielding both risks and benefits.
This season’s new plays were so numerous — and, in many cases, so well-received by critics — that unlike some prior seasons, it was tough to guess which four shows would get tapped by the Tonys. The bumper crop included “Chinglish,” “The Lyons,” “Seminar” and “One Man, Two Guvnors,” each of which could feasibly have snagged a nod.
It made for a tough decision for Tony nominators. But producers agree that for Broadway overall, there’s an upside to the embarrassment of riches.
“There seems to be a real interest in and a hunger for seeing new work right now,” says Andre Bishop, a.d. of Lincoln Center Theater, producer of “Other Desert Cities.”
“I hope a season like this puts to rest the assertion that the new American play on Broadway is dead,” adds Jordan Roth, lead producer of “Clybourne Park.” “It’s not true.”
Each of the four nominated plays took a longer than usual road to Broadway — so long that, in a rare coincidence, every single one was deemed ineligible for most of the year’s non-Tony legit kudos, because each had been considered in previous incarnations from prior seasons.
For “Desert Cities,” which opened last season on LCT’s Off Broadway stage, the delay in moving the much-lauded show was due to a lack of a suitable Rialto house, pushing the transfer to November. “Peter” also bowed last season and took its time in sorting out a producing team and a budget that would make the 12-actor play-with-music a viable proposition.
“Clybourne” and “Venus” go back even further. Both bowed in early 2010, and both stirred talk of an immediate Broadway transfer. In each case a theater logjam proved one of several obstacles, and so the shows held off — with “Clybourne” even going on to be seen in separate productions in cities around the country.
But with tenacious commercial producers behind them, both made it to Broadway this season. “Venus” landed at MTC’s Broadway stage this fall and got a commercial transfer earlier this year; “Clybourne” reassembled its Playwrights Horizons cast and creative team for an L.A. incarnation that led to its current Broadway stint.
At the very least, these four back stories demonstrate that more and more producers are willing to stick with new plays despite the difficulties and hiccups that occur on the way.
“The risk is: Have too many people already seen it, and now aren’t interested in seeing it again?” Roth says. “Or instead, have enough people seen it that now more people are waiting for it?”
Jon B. Platt, producer of “Venus,” says it can be tough to stir media interest in a property that’s been around so long.
“It’s a challenge, because even with the Tony nominations, you’re noticeably quiet at a time when the press could be celebrating you,” he says.
But an indirect path to the Main Stem can also yield rewards. There are plenty of creative benefits. In the case of “Venus,” for instance, “the MTC run contributed the brilliant casting of Hugh Dancy,” say Platt, referring to the well-reviewed actor who signed on in the fall to appear opposite original star Nina Arianda.
Previous incarnations also give a creative team the chance to solve all sorts of creative and technical problems that arise over the course of a show’s run. And it can help guide writers, directors and actors as they tweak, trim, and hone a show with an eye toward making the final product the best it can be.
That’s a vital piece of the puzzle, according to the producers of the four Tony nominees — and perhaps it’s one of the factors that led Tony nominators to recognize them.
“It’s important to have an audience at every step of the way in a show’s development,” says “Peter” producer Nancy Nagel Gibbs. “You need them to tell you how you’re doing.”