Opening night on Broadway is usually a triumph for all involved. No matter how reviews may go, nothing can challenge the accomplishment of mounting a work on the American theatre’s most high-profile stage.
For these 11 plays and musicals, however, opening night must have been at least partially bittersweet, because they opened after the author passed away. We’re taking a look at 11 shows that premiered posthumously on Broadway.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, A Touch of the Poet, More Stately Mansions, and Hughie, by Eugene O'Neill
Eugene O’Neill’s later life was plagued by illness, including a tremor in his hands that made it impossible for him to write. He ultimately passed away in November, 1953, at the age of 65, and he did so with several works still unproduced.
O’Neill left a great deal of instructions for his widow involving his unfinished and unpublished works, but she decided not to follow all of them. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, an autobiographical work that O’Neill had wanted to remain unpublished until 25 years following his death, was published in 1956—just three years after his death—and premiered on Broadway in 1957, winning O’Neill a posthumous Best Play Tony Award and his fourth Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The following year, A Touch of the Poet was published and premiered on Broadway.
O’Neill’s one-act two-character play Hughie was completed in 1942, but it didn’t receive its world premiere until 1958 when it was produced by the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre. Hughie premiered on Broadway in 1964 and was revived in 2016.
A sequel to A Touch of the Poet, More Stately Mansions, only existed as a rough draft when O’Neill died, but his widow authorized the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre to adapt the work into a producible version, which opened on Broadway in 1967.
O’Neill’s other unfinished works were presumably destroyed as he’d requested after he died.
Rent, by Jonathan Larson
The untimely passing of Jonathan Larson is surely one of Broadway’s great tragedies. Though Larson had enjoyed success with his solo show Boho Days, Rent was poised to put Larson on a completely different plane. After a long developmental process, Rent was preparing for preview performances Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop when Larson died suddenly of an aortic dissection, believed to be part of undiagnosed Marfan syndrome. Rent nevertheless went on to enjoy a smash-hit sold-out Off-Broadway run, and ultimately a Broadway transfer that won Best Musical at the Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and ran for over 12 years. Following Rent’s success, Boho Days was also re-born as a three-character musical, retitled Tick…Tick…Boom!, which opened Off-Broadway in 2001.
Not About Nightingales, by Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams, the Tony and Pulitzer-winning playwright behind such works as The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, died in 1983 at the age of 71. Williams completed a handful of works still awaiting world premiere when he passed, including In Masks Outrageous and Austere and The Parade, or Approaching the End of a Summer; but his sole posthumous Broadway premiere was actually one of his earliest plays. Not About Nightingales was written by Williams in 1938 for New York’s Group Theatre, but it was rejected and largely forgotten until actress Vanessa Redgrave discovered a brief mention of William’s experience with the Group Theatre and Not About Nightingales in the introduction to a published version of one of William’s other plays. Redgrave became obsessed with finding this “lost” Williams work, and contacted his literary executor who was able to find a manuscript of the piece. Not About Nightingales had its world premiere production in London in March 1998, a co-production of the Royal National Theatre and the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. Following the London engagement, the production transferred to the Alley and ultimately Broadway, at the Circle in the Square theatre where it opened February 1999.
Lucky Guy, by Nora Ephron
Lucky Guy, which follows the life of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mark McAlary for 13 years up to his untimely death at the age of 41, was originally conceived as a TV movie in 1999, a year after McAlary died. After years of revisions, the work became a play and Ephron actively sought out producers in 2011. By 2012, Ephron gained interest from Tom Hanks, who wanted to make his Broadway debut with the piece. She was working with director George C. Wolfe on revisions to the play right up until she passed away in June of 2012. Though her passing initially made the piece’s future unclear, it ultimately opened on Broadway in April 2013 with Hanks as McAlary and Wolfe as director. The play went on a huge commercial success, receiving six Tony Award nominations; Courtney B. Vance won for Best Featured Actor in a Play.
Radio Golf and Jitney, by August Wilson
Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle or Century Cycle is a series of ten plays investigating the African American experience in each decade of the 20th century. The final play of the cycle, Radio Golf, examines 1990s Pittsburgh. This final work of Wilson’s premiered shortly before his death, at Yale Repertory Theatre. A month after this world premiere production completed its run, Wilson announced that he’d been diagnosed with liver cancer and was not expected to live beyond five months. Radio Golf continued to receive successful productions in regional theatres, including the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, but the work would not see its Broadway premiere until 2007, about a year-and-a-half after Wilson passed away.
Jitney, the earliest-written of Wilson’s Century Cycle plays, premiered at a small theatre in Pittsburgh in 1982. But it was a substantially revised production that opened in 1996 that Wilson considered the work’s professional debut. This version came to New York in a production presented by Off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre in 2000. Though it became a successful work in American regional theatres and in London, it was not until 2016 (11 years after Wilson’s passing) that Jitney finally made its Broadway premiere with Manhattan Theatre Club, winning the 2017 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.
Marvin’s Room, by Scott McPherson
Marvin’s Room, about a family struggling to take care of their ailing patriarch in Florida, was inspired by McPherson’s own experiences with older family members living in the Sunshine State, but it must have also been steeped in McPherson’s experience living through the worst of the AIDS epidemic. The Chicago-based playwright cared for his partner, Daniel Sotomayor, as he succumbed to the illness and McPherson ultimately fell victim to it, as well, dying tragically young at the age of 33. McPherson lived to see the work premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Hartford Stage, and Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, but he passed away a year almost to the day after the Off-Broadway opening. The work won the 1992 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, and was adapted into a successful film in 1996 starring Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Gwen Verdon. Marvin’s Room didn’t see a Broadway bow, however, until this past summer, when Roundabout Theatre Company brought it to the American Airlines Theatre.
Les Blancs, by Lorraine Hansberry
Lorraine Hansberry is best remembered as the playwright behind A Raisin in the Sun, her landmark work about an African American family trying to buy a house in suburban white Chicago. Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer in January 1965, at the age of 34, and she left a great deal of unpublished and unproduced work behind. A collection of her unpublished writings, titled To Be Young, Gifted and Black, became an Off-Broadway success in 1968, but Les Blancs is Hansberry’s only work to posthumously open on Broadway. Taking place in Africa and depicting the colonialism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Les Blancs was an unfinished manuscript when Hansberry passed away, but she reportedly considered it her most important work. Her widower, Robert Nemiroff, made some minor changes and had the work published four years after Hansberry’s death. The piece opened on Broadway in 1970, earning two Tony nominations and winning James Earl Jones a 1971 Drama Desk Award. Other unfinished plays, including The Drinking Gourd and What Use Are Flowers?, remain unproduced on Broadway, though they have been published.