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Broadway Fall Preview: The New Shows on the Great White Way

The new Broadway season features revivals, jukebox musicals, adaptations and transfers from Off Broadway. Yet while the game is the same, the rules are changing; many incoming shows are seeking younger, more diverse audiences or breaking new ground, building on the success of last season’s unorthodox shows including “Choir Boy,” “What the Constitution Means to Me,” “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” and “Hadestown.”

“Broadway is becoming inclusive and appealing to a wider audience, one that’s younger and more tuned in with pop culture,” says Jenny Steingart, producer of the hip-hop meets comedy improv show, “Freestyle Love Supreme.” “It gives me hope for the future of Broadway to see shows that play with form and push the envelope.”

Slave Play” actually shreds that envelope with its unvarnished look at race and sex, still haunted by America’s original sin of slavery. It premiered Off Broadway and it “never crossed my mind we might play Broadway,” says director Robert O’Hara. “Broadway must be adapting. There’s a sense that America is becoming more aware of who we truly are and we’re ready to have that conversation in a commercial space on this big platform.”

Diane Paulus, director of “Jagged Little Pill,” a jukebox musical that tackles sexual assault, gender identity, opiate addiction and other timely topics, agrees. “There’s an audience that wants to feel and think and not just be diverted by spectacle.”

Everyone believes revivals of Tennessee Williams (“Rose Tattoo”) or Harold Pinter (“Betrayal”) and more traditional new works by such playwrights as Tracy Letts (“Linda Vista”) and Florian Zeller (“The Height of the Storm”) are still vital to the Rialto and to American culture. But Annie-B Parson, choreographer for David Byrne’s “American Utopia,” says she’s glad there’s finally room for fresh voices and new styles.

“There’s space in the mainstream now for big statements and for breaking the rules,” she says. “With everything going on in this country that is not OK, artists, and producers, are recognizing that audiences want to see change on Broadway.”

Three shows have already opened: “Betrayal,” starring Tom Hiddleston (Sept. 5, Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre), “Derren Brown: Secret” (Sept. 15, Cort Theatre), and “The Height of the Storm” (Sept. 24, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre). Here’s a look at the rest of Broadway’s fall season.

The Great Society
Oct.1, Vivian Beaumont
In 2014, “All the Way” won the best play Tony for the story of Lyndon Johnson’s first term as he worked with Martin Luther King and key senators to pass the Civil Rights Act. (Bryan Cranston won a Tony for playing the president.) Johnson won a second term and so did playwright Robert Schenkkan.

His sequel, “The Great Society,” covers everything from the Voting Rights Act to the Vietnam War, with Brian Cox (“Succession”) as LBJ and Grantham Coleman, fresh off a breakout comedic turn as Benedick in Shakespeare in the Park’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” as Dr. King.

“I’m living my dream making my Broadway debut and playing Martin Luther King,” says Coleman. “It’s both a burden and privilege.”

The play feels essential in an era when voting rights are again under attack, Coleman adds. “Dr. King said you can’t think civil rights will just happen, the fight has to happen every day. So this play is pertinent, powerful, and precious.”

Freestyle Love Supreme
Oct. 2, Booth
Long ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda was just a performer with the stage moniker “Lin-Man,” hanging with friends including director Thomas Kail and Anthony “Two-Touch” Veneziale, who conceived of a show called “Freestyle Love Supreme.” None expected a freestyle hip-hop and improv comedy show to hit Broadway.

“It was just a group of friends having fun and working things out creatively,” says Steingart, whose Off Broadway theater Ars Nova gave it life. But then “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” happened and “Lin Man” became theater’s biggest superhero. Now Kail directs the Broadway version with Veneziale as star and Miranda (and other alumni) making guest appearances. “This show is like their origin story,” Steingart says.

Slave Play
Oct. 6, John Golden
When “Slave Play” opened at New York Theatre Workshop it heralded the arrival of a bold new talent in playwright Jeremy O. Harris. Insightful and funny it was also shocking, though the bigger shock may be the move to the Great White Way.

Beyond questions about mainstream acceptance, O’Hara and the cast focused on more immediate matters. “We went from 200 seats to an 800-seat proscenium theater, so we need to recalibrate for the space,” O’Hara says. “The questions are how big can you play to fill the house but also what does intimacy and subtlety look like in this space?”

Linda Vista
Oct. 10, Hayes
Wheeler, the protagonist of Tracy Letts’ new play, is smart and charming but kind of a jerk and utterly lacking in self-awareness. Letts (“Bug,” “August: Osage County”) explores the white privilege that allows Wheeler to stumble through an unexamined life.

The play was inspired by this cultural moment plus Letts’ own self-study and Wheeler types he knows, says director Dexter Bullard, a fellow Steppenwolf member who has worked with Letts for decades. “It’s about our blind spots and the difficulty we all have seeing ourselves and why we are causing others pain,” says Bullard. “But it’s also an adult sex comedy and Tracy’s funniest play.”

The Rose Tattoo
Oct. 15, American Airlines Theatre
Trip Cullman directed this lesser-known Tennessee Williams play to do justice to one of his favorite playwrights. “I’m excited to make the case that it belongs in a higher echelon,” Cullman says. “The themes and concerns feel really relevant.”

The play, which stars Marisa Tomei, is about a woman retreating from the world after her husband’s death while her daughter moves toward womanhood. But Cullman says it’s also about immigrants assimilating and facing down prejudice and about women finding empowerment and their own sexuality.

Cullman says Williams envisioned a “deeply poetic” play, but the original production and the film adaptation were “mired in the realism in vogue at the time.” He and Tomei aim to set things right. “We both want to give him the production never realized in his lifetime, one rooted in dreams and poetic atmosphere.”

The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical
Oct. 16, Longacre
The movie version of this beloved Rick Riordan YA novel about a boy who discovers he is a demigod made millions, but was disparaged by critics and fans alike. So the musical’s creators knew “there were a lot of hurdles,” says composer and lyricist Rob Rokicki. “We had to get the tone right, to balance the heart of the story and make sure the stakes felt earned with the zaniness of the world.”

Rokicki hopes to draw teens and tweens to their first Rialto show. “There’s a sea change in Broadway’s demographics and we’re happy to be part of that.”

The show originated Off Broadway and now has a bigger budget and “some cooler elements to add punch,” Rokicki says, but it remains faithful to its “scrappy nature,” with seven actors playing 47 characters to create “rough magic. We don’t want it to be slick or flashy like a Hollywood movie.”

The Sound Inside
Oct. 17, Studio 54
Playwright Adam Rapp makes his Broadway debut with Tony-winning actress Mary-Louise Parker on stage and Tony-winning director David Cromer at the helm. Parker plays Bella Baird, a Yale professor and writer facing a devastating medical diagnosis while penning a story about a scribe facing a devastating medical diagnosis. It earned rapturous reviews at 2018’s Williamstown Theater Festival. “Usually when someone sends me a script I dither starting around page three,” says Cromer, who had long admired Rapp’s challenging works. “This one I read straight through.”

He was drawn to Rapp’s “dense and mysterious” work that “pushes for a hybrid of prose and play. It’s a different experience for the audience, with a lot of evocative imagery and ambiguity.”

American Utopia
Oct. 20, Hudson
David Byrne’s “American Utopia” album was his first studio work in nearly 15 years. But given Byrne’s fertile imagination, this was no mere song collection — it’s part of a “cross-platform” positivity project called “Reasons to Be Cheerful.” And, instead of a traditional tour, the legendary Talking Heads frontman created a theatrical concert for Broadway.

“It seems both completely crazy and totally inevitable that it’s on Broadway,” says Parson. “It’s a rock concert, but David has always been a deeply visual artist and being theatrical was central to his work from day one so this should be on the biggest theatrical stage.”

Tina — The Tina Turner Musical
Nov. 7, Lunt-Fontanne
Katori Hall felt it her “duty” to help write the book for this musical of the singer’s life. “I’m from Tennessee too and my mom was a super diehard fan — my older sister is named Tina — and Turner was an aspirational symbol of success, so I understood the cultural and political context around her story. “I want to see a show about a revolutionary black woman on the Great White Way run for years,” she adds.

Hall (“The Mountaintop”) was surprised that she felt “no nerves” upon meeting the icon. “She was sitting at a glass table looking out at a lake and there was just extreme peace.” Their visit and phone conversations informed the play in ways that reading books and articles never could. “They led me down different creative roads,” Hall says. “It was in how she answered questions or the pauses and silences that made me see there were still conflicts in her heart.”

Slava’s Snowshow
Nov. 13, Stephen Sondheim
Russian performance artist Slava Polunin has toured the world since 1993 with his show featuring wordless clowns and a full-on blizzard. It played Broadway 11 years ago after more than two years Off Broadway.

“We think it’s time to bring it back,” says producer David Carpenter of the Tony-nominated show. “‘Lion King’ has the best opening on Broadway, well this has the best finale,” Carpenter says: that culminating snowstorm followed by giant balls tossed into the audience, who can stay and play as long as they’d like. “It’s beautiful and unlike anything else.”

The Inheritance
Nov. 17, Ethel Barrymore
E.M. Forster’s “Howards End” was already an acclaimed movie, but Matthew Lopez was inspired to transform the novel into something ambitious and very different: a two-part, seven-hour gay-themed contemporary play set in New York.

“I hope this play will attract younger audiences but also the older, traditional audience,” says Samuel Levine, who was in the original London production and
is making his Rialto debut. “So much of the play is about the bridging of generations so it’s important to have both in audience. Maybe they can talk at intermission and learn from the past and listen to the future.”

A Christmas Carol
Nov. 20, Lyceum
Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, performed annually around the country, has played on Broadway, in a solo performance by Patrick Stewart and in a musical production at the Paramount that featured celebrity Scrooges from Hal Linden to Tony Randall to Roger Daltrey. This Broadway turn stars Campbell Scott and is written by Jack Thorne, best known for a little play called “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

“This is for an audience that wants a holiday experience and also a Broadway play,” says producer Tom Smedes. “We envision this as a true theatrical piece, with great storytelling that also lets the audience use its imagination.”

The Illusionists — Magic of the Holidays
Nov. 29, Neil Simon
“The Illusionists” is making its fifth seasonal visit with its rotating set of magicians — and with two twists, says producer Simon Painter. He sold his company to Cirque du Soleil, which bought Blue Man Group in 2017, providing more resources for the show’s tours. And, Painter says, this show features holiday-themed magic and music. “It feels natural,” he says. “Magic is like Christmas in that it makes kids look on with awe and wonder and it can make people believe in miracles.”

Jagged Little Pill
Dec. 5, Broadhurst
Choosing to direct “Jagged Little Pill,” inspired by Alanis Morissette’s
Grammy-winning stunner of an album, “was one of the fastest decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” Paulus says. “The music is so viscerally powerful and that album was the soundtrack to my life. I would clear my life to be involved.”

Diablo Cody’s book for this issues-packed musical pulls back the curtain on the troubles of an American suburban family. “It really speaks to the moment,” Paulus says. “The lyrics sound like they were written yesterday.”

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