Everyone Loves Another Op'nin', Another Show. But What About Previews? | Playbill

Special Features Everyone Loves Another Op'nin', Another Show. But What About Previews?

The history of Broadway previews, and why you should be in the audience for them.

For thespians and theatre enthusiasts everywhere, there is nothing more special than another op’nin’, another show. There is an unmatched buzz of elation, especially when it comes to waiting to see a highly-anticipated show coming to Broadway. 

Maybe the excitement comes from this show having an intriguing brand new story to tell. Maybe it is a bucket-list revival. Perhaps it stars an illustrious actor, or features the work of a lauded creator. Or it could simply be that this show offers a fun night out with some good-time song and dance, and a splashy show-themed cocktail. Whatever it is that gets different theatregoers hyped up to see a new show on the Main Stem, waiting for opening night to happen can sometimes feel like eternity and a day.

But here is the thing. There is actually a way to see a show before it officially opens. Almost all Broadway shows get a pre-opening-night test run called previews.

From Broadway to the U.K., previews are a time-honored custom practiced in most professional theatres. Previews showcase works in progress, offering the cast and creative teams of upcoming productions the opportunity to test drive their work in front of live audiences in the evening, while still being able to rehearse and make changes during the day. So, if you are seeing a show during previews, you are not necessarily seeing the finished product (with some exceptions that we will explain later). 

Broadway previews typically last anywhere from two to six weeks, usually averaging to approximately 30 preview performances. Some Broadway shows have had fewer previews—such as the 1966 musical Breakfast at Tiffany's, which had four previews total (it never opened). This season, we're even harkening back to older seasons and getting a show whose first Broadway performance is its opening night, Illinoise. That's pretty unusual today, and happening so the musical can squeak in and make 2024 Tony eligibility, transferring directly from an Off-Broadway run that made additional rehearsals unnecessary. We had the opposite in 2010, when Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark made history with a still-record 183 previews before opening.

Previews give directors and designers a chance to fine-tune their visions, and actors the opportunity to hone their performances. As long as a show is in previews, the production can be rehearsed during the day and adjustments can be made. But once the curtain rises on opening night, the stage is set, the material is fully resolved, and the performance is locked (or "frozen," as the industry says) in place. No more changes can be made. The critics are allowed to share their reviews. The show is ready for its run.

Cast of Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when previews first came to be, but the tradition of working on a show before the big, "official" opening goes back to the early days of Broadway. In vaudeville—a theatrical genre of variety entertainment that was incredibly popular in the United States and Canada from the late 19th century until the early '30s—performers would travel circuits of theatres, honing their act in front of audiences. Perfect that act, and performers could move up to more esteemed circuits and venues.

Kind of like vaudeville circuits, new plays and musicals historically have played pre-Broadway try-out runs to get a show in front of an audience before they're in front of New York critics. The internet has somewhat weakened the protection from Broadway critics that out-of-town try-outs used to afford shows, making the Golden Age try-out tradition more rare today, but cities like Boston, Chicago, New Haven, Seattle, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. were and are important proving grounds for theatre's newest works.

It's not unusual to see major changes implemented during a show's try-out run. During Aladdin's 2013 tryout in Toronto, negative reviews led to the team overhauling several elements of the show before Broadway. Other shows make casting changes, massive set and costume design changes, and even revisions to the songlist and order. For instance, Company's pre-Broadway try-out cycled through a number of finale songs before settling on the now-iconic "Being Alive."

Since microphones and amplification first hit the theatre scene in the mid-20th century, the use of technology in stage productions has only continued to increase, making the previews process even more crucial. Nowadays, Broadway productions have intricate soundscapes, specialized lighting systems, automated visual scenic design, and ample projections, as well as complex cable systems, motors, and electronic control software. In addition to ensuring that a new show hits home with audiences, that actors feel solid in their performances, and that the creative team’s vision is fulfilled, previews help to make sure all the technological aspects of a production run smoothly, safely, and effectively illuminate the story being told.

Some shows have more intricate elements to drill out during previews than others. Stage plays will often have script rewrites—which can be minor like word changes and sentence revisions, or major like adding or cutting complete scenes from the plot. Lighting design will often change throughout this process to enhance the intensity or perfect the ambience of specific moments. Costumes can also be modified or changed completely if designers feel they do not mesh quite right with the lighting and scenery, or if they do not move quite right on stage. And for musicals, there's the added challenge of sound mixing amplified voices and orchestral music, as well as staging elaborate choreography.

The most minute stagings of a production, like moving a chair from one side of the stage to the other, can be readjusted a dozen times before a director is satisfied enough to “freeze” it for good. But sometimes, changes end up being cosmic. “Last Midnight,” one of Stephen Sondheim’s most famous songs—if not one of the most famous songs in the musical theatre canon—was written while Into the Woods was mid-way through previews. The song was originally a shorter ditty called “Boom Crunch,” which Sondheim admitted may have over-mystified audiences. “Last Midnight" took some of "Boom Crunch"'s lyrics but had a stronger build melodically, becoming a bonafide 11 o'clock number in the process. It captivated preview audiences, and has remained a crowning moment of the show ever since. That was just one of many ways that Into the Woods was transformed during previews.

Danielle Ferdland, Ben Wright, Kim Crosby, Chip Zien and Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods. Martha Swope / The New York Public Library

Previews not only give a production's cast and creative team time to work through, refine, and fully develop their show—they are also equally beneficial for critics. Instead of scrambling to write their flash opinions of a show in a few hours after seeing it on opening night, most reviewers now opt to see the show earlier. Typically, a show is set by the final week of previews, so critics are now invited to attend during a preview instead of opening night. Seeing a show during previews offers them more time to meditate on their opinions of the show before publishing the reviews on opening night. Then, opening night does not have to be as much of nerve-wracking high-stakes evening for all parties involved. It can simply be a party to celebrate an exciting feat.

So, in short, anything can happen during previews. If you are an audience member deciding if you should see a show early in its run, ask yourself this: Am I someone who enjoys the exciting unpredictability of a show that could change on a nightly basis? Or do I prefer the certainty of seeing a work of theatre that is the finished product? 

The main thing about previews is that you never know what you are going to get.

Even so, seeing a show that may not be in its fully realized form yet can be very appealing. For one, tickets are typically cheaper than they would be after a show opens (especially if it's a hit). And when you are seeing a preview, you are getting to witness the rawness and freshness of a piece of theatre that is completely new. A show can play for years, go on tour, and even undergo several revivals if it is lucky—but preview audiences are the only people who will ever get to see exactly what the show was like in its early days.

Perhaps what is most exciting about seeing a Broadway preview is that you, as a preview audience member, become part of the show’s honorary creative team. The audience is the most important element of every show, and the main reason previews exist. The public's reaction during previews is the reason directors, actors, producers, composers, lyricists, musicians, choreographers, designers, production, and crew members have a shot at making their show a hit. If you choose to see a Broadway preview, you are becoming an integral part of that show forever. And that is pretty special.

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