Plays stage comeback on Broadway

Musicals outnumbered in the fall

Reports of the death of the Broadway play may have been exaggerated.

After a spring slate full of non-musicals, the fall sked is equally packed with straight plays — a dozen of them opening before the end of the year.

The slate is a fertile field of new works by big-name scribes (Tom Stoppard, Aaron Sorkin), little-seen revivals (“The Ritz,” “Cymbeline”), London hits (“The Seafarer”) and regional transfers (“August: Osage County”). There’s even a “new” play by Mark Twain. In both number and diversity, the lineup clearly overshadows the tuner slate: just three new musicals before the holidays.

“Last year, there were a lot of plays that were a little heavier,” says Bob Boyett, producer of the recently unearthed Twain farce “Is He Dead?” along with Conor McPherson’s supernatural-tinged “The Seafarer” and Stoppard’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” all opening in November. “The difference in this coming season is that we have a much broader, and in my opinion a much brighter, spectrum.”

The conversation about fall musicals is a short one. Remaining on the 2007 sked are the two mega-events of “Young Frankenstein” and “The Little Mermaid,” both of which recently opened out of town in their respective tryouts, with the long-gestating and comparatively low-profile Shakespeare-in-Texas tuner, “Lone Star Love,” also in the mix.

With four times as many plays as musicals set to open before Christmas, the lineup serves to silence all those pundits bemoaning the Rialto’s hostility to drama — especially to previously unseen work.

However, this deluge does not indicate a sea change in tuner-dominated Broadway. The longevity of hit musicals is on the rise, and tuners remain both the top money earners (“Wicked,” “Jersey Boys,” “The Lion King”) and the top tourist draw on the Great White Way. It’s also worth noting that right now, not a single play is running on Broadway. (That situation that will change Sept. 13 with the first preview of the Manhattan Theater Club production of Theresa Rebeck’s “Mauritius.”)

But after last spring, a second consecutive full plate of plays, eight of which are commercial ventures, indicates that producers beyond the nonprofit sector are increasingly willing to take a chance on a non-tuner, crafting productions that maximize potential and minimize risk.

In addition to complaints about musicals muscling out plays from Broadway, the other commonly heard gripe is that Brit imports manage to secure a berth far more easily than American work, a perception fanned by the attention in recent seasons to plays like “The Coast of Utopia,” “The History Boys,” “Frost/Nixon” and “The Pillowman.” That balance looks likely to shift this season.

Among new work from American writers, Rebeck makes her Broadway debut with MTC’s “Mauritius,” about two half-sisters at odds over their inheritance of a rare stamp collection. Doug Hughes’ production opens Oct. 4 at the Biltmore, with Bobby Cannavale, Alison Pill, Katie Finneran, F. Murray Abraham and Dylan Baker.

Also new to the Rialto is Tracy Letts, whose ambitious family drama about a clan gathering in the wake of its patriarch disappearing, “August: Osage County,” attracted major attention in its Steppenwolf premiere. Anna D. Shapiro’s production transfers intact to the Imperial, bowing Nov. 20.

Sorkin makes his return to Broadway after an extended hiatus in film and television, with “The Farnsworth Invention,” which delves into the advent of the tube via the clash between Philo T. Farnsworth and David Sarnoff, played respectively by Jimmi Simpson and Hank Azaria. Opening is Nov. 14 at the Music Box, with Des McAnuff directing.

And Twain’s previously unproduced 1898 farce “Is He Dead?” bows Nov. 29 at the Lyceum in Michael Blakemore’s staging, with an ensemble headed by Norbert Leo Butz as an artist who fakes his own death.

Waving the Brit flag is Stoppard’s London hit “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a look back at music, politics, love and death in the period of 1968 through 1990, set between Prague in former Czechoslovakia and Cambridge, England. Trevor Nunn’s production opens Nov. 4 at the Jacobs, with West End leads Brian Cox, Sinead Cusack and Rufus Sewell reprising their roles.

Also from London, Conor McPherson returns with “The Seafarer,” about drinking buddies whose card game is joined by a satanic stranger with an agenda. Directed by the Irish playwright, production opens Nov. 15 at the Booth, with a cast that includes Blighty vets Conleth Hill and Jim Norton, along with Ciaran Hinds and David Morse, among others.

Six revivals balance the half-dozen new plays.

Chazz Palminteri will bring his semi-autobiographical solo show “A Bronx Tale,” about growing up in the tough Gotham ‘hood, to the Walter Kerr, opening Oct. 25, with Jerry Zaks directing.

Bowing Nov. 1 at the Richard Rodgers, Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner pair up for David Leveaux’s take on Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

Mark Lamos has assembled a strong cast, including Jonathan Cake, Michael Cerveris, John Cullum, Martha Plimpton and Phylicia Rashad, for the Lincoln Center revival of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” opening Dec. 2 at the Beaumont.

Daniel Sullivan’s staging of Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” opens Dec. 9 at the Cort, with Ian McShane, Raul Esparza, Michael McKean and Eve Best. And Claire Danes makes her Broadway debut alongside Jefferson Mays and Boyd Gaines in David Grindley’s production for Roundabout of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” bowing Oct. 18.

While the roster of fall plays leans heavily toward drama, Joe Mantello weighs in with a comedy revival, also for Roundabout, of Terrence McNally’s 1975 farce set in a gay bathhouse, “The Ritz.” Rosie Perez and Kevin Chamberlin star in the production, opening Oct. 11 at Studio 54.

So can song-happy Broadway accommodate so much talk in one season?

A hit play will never make as much money as a hit musical: Plays have little of the razzle-dazzle that draws most theatergoers to Broadway, and international tourist traffic is limited to those with strong English comprehension.

But producers can still manage to generate modest coin with a viable play, and bank some prestige while they’re at it.

Recent seasons, after all, have proven that plays can claim just as much of the legit spotlight as their tuner counterparts. Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Stoppard’s mammoth trilogy “Utopia” became the intelligentsia’s non-singing legit event of the season, racking up seven Tonys (right behind the eight nabbed by musical fave “Spring Awakening”). The prior season, “The History Boys” was the straight play to beat.

With ambitious plays like “Utopia” beginning to make a comeback, major risks can yield major dividends. Such was the case with Stoppard’s nine-hour undertaking, a $7.7 million production that ended up exceeding its expected gross by $900,000.

Sometimes, however, high hopes lead only to disappointment, as when last season’s 40-performer production of National Theater hit “Coram Boy” quickly tanked after failing to catch on with critics or auds, or the Tony-winning commercial revival of WWI drama “Journey’s End” failed to muster an audience despite across-the-board raves.

The emergent formula for a straight play on Broadway boosts demand with a limited run and, if possible, a strong name to topline the cast.

“It’s very helpful to maximize your potential audience with a limited engagement,” says producer Jeffrey Richards (“August,” “Homecoming”). “Also, most artists will commit to the stage for only a certain amount of time.”

With “November,” the new David Mamet comedy that opens in January, Richards will have three plays on the boards this season. But he doesn’t see making money as more of a battle for plays than tuners.

“It’s hard to make money on Broadway, period,” he says.

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