Theater Successes Exist Far Beyond New York City Limits

Theater Success Exists Far Beyond New York, Broadway
Courtesy of Marin Theater

You don’t need New York to succeed in the theater world.

People forget that fact on Broadway, where the theater industry is centered on a dozen blocks in midtown Manhattan. But a handful of mold-breaking artists and projects are reminding New Yorkers that their small world is fueled, bolstered, enriched — and sometimes bypassed entirely — by successes outside the city limits.

Take Doug Wright, who won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his 2003 play “I Am My Own Wife” and wrote the book to the musicals “Grey Gardens” and “War Paint.” His biggest personal moneymaker? “The Little Mermaid.” That’s right, the Broadway disappointment that petered out after two lackluster years.

The show went on to become popular around the country and around the world, starting with new stagings at theaters such as St. Louis’ Muny Theater in 2011.

“It’s infinitely the most money I’ve made on something I’ve done, without question,” Wright readily admits. “It’s keeping the cats well fed.”

Until “The Little Mermaid,” “Seussical” was the poster child for snatching a hit from the jaws of a New York flop. The 2000 Broadway production tanked after about six months, but subsequent stagings, and shortened versions for young audiences, have become a major source of income for creators Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.

“If we hadn’t written ‘Seussical,’ I would be living a lot less comfortably now,” Ahrens says.

“Seussical,” of course, is fueled by the powerhouse name recognition of Dr. Seuss, whose works seem tailor-made for the regional, stock and educational productions that can all add up to a robust stream of royalties. Ditto “The Little Mermaid,” which had the international reach of Disney Theatrical Prods. to pave the way for that show’s turnaround.

But there are theater creatives out there who are making it work even without that kind of backup. Take playwright Lauren Gunderson, whose New York credits amount to only a few Off Broadway shows. But zoom out, and she’s got 27 productions of her work on the docket at theaters around the country in the 2017-18
season alone.

That makes her the most-produced playwright in America after Shakespeare, according to the annual tabulations by American Theatre, placing her ahead of some of New York’s hottest names (Dominique Morisseau, Lucas Hnath, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins). And she did it with new plays like “I and You,” her surprising drama about the bond between two teenagers.

“I hope this can be a new model for writers outside of New York. There’s a great thirst for new plays out there.”
Playwright Lauren Gunderson

Based in San Francisco, the 35-year-old Gunderson has a number of things going for her. She’s prolific — 18 full-length plays and one YA musical so far — and her diverse works are sometimes inspired by familiar touchstones (Shakespeare and his canon as well as “Pride and Prejudice”). The exposure of rolling world premieres via the National New Play Network played a part in Gunderson’s ubiquity, as did an active Bay Area theater scene: She once managed to premiere five different new plays (including “I and You”) in just a single season.

“New York is obviously a pinnacle for playwrights, and of course you want your work done there,” Gunderson says. “But I hope this can be a new model for writers outside of New York. There’s a great thirst for new plays out there.”

That wide and varied network of professional and amateur theaters can also be a proving ground for actors, directors and other creatives who go on to make a splash on Broadway; and for audiences, they can be the gateway to a lifetime of theater fandom. Even for producers of Broadway smashes, the regions can be an important source of revenue.

“It’s millions of dollars a year for us, in non-Broadway, non-first-class licensing,” notes Disney Theatrical producer Thomas Schumacher.

That’s not chump change. And it can serve as a reminder to New Yorkers that there’s good reason, every now and then, to raise their heads and look around.