The straight play made an emphatic splash on Broadway this past season—more than usual—as marquee titles generate a palpable excitement in the Theatre District and a sea change in the national conversation.
With 14 new plays in the 2018–2019 season—from The Ferryman to What the Constitution Means to Me—Broadway’s plays tackle Black Lives Matter, the gender gap, white privilege, homophobia, parental anxiety, institutional racism, sensationalist media, and the Time’s Up movement, and that doesn’t even include this season’s seven revivals. And in 2019–2020 we already have Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune starring Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon, as well as upcoming Sea Wall/A Life starring Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal, Linda Vista by Pulitzer winner Tracy Letts, Matthew Lopez’s Olivier-winning The Inheritance, Bess Wohl’s debut Grand Horizons, Laura Linney in My Name is Lucy Barton, another revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Laurie Metcalf, a star-studded revival of Take Me Out, and Birthday Candles starring Debra Messing.
Plays are provoking the biggest buzz these days—a shift for the theatrical genre that many in the industry once thought needed saving.
“I do feel like there’s an influx of interest in more adventurous writing happening on Broadway,” says director Leigh Silverman, who helmed this season’s Lifespan of a Fact, “and to have so many different kinds of plays, comedies and dramas, and to feel there’s diversity in terms of subject matter is just so exciting.”
That diversity in storytelling reflects the diversity in authors, including seven Broadway debuts. “A few years ago, if people had said Lucas [Hnath], Heidi [Schreck], Taylor [Mac], Tarell [Alvin McCraney], and Young Jean [Lee] are going to all have plays on Broadway, I just don’t think people would have believed it,” says Lee, who made history this season as the first Asian-American woman playwright produced on Broadway with Straight White Men.
“We’ve worked rigorously to make sure plays feel like they run the gamut of human experiences,” says Choir Boy playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, “and to find ways to make sure that the prestige of the thing doesn’t outweigh its accessibility to folks.”
In addition to variety, the buzz surrounding plays has increased to the type of roar usually associated with Broadway musicals. Last year’s Tony-winning Best Play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is selling out nightly. To Kill a Mockingbird is the first Broadway play to gross over $2 million in a single week. The sheer star power of big-name celebs in limited engagements hasn’t hurt: Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, and Matt Bomer in the star-studded cast of Tony-winning revival The Boys in the Band; the trifecta of Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, and Daniel Radcliffe in Lifespan; and stage veterans like Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in Hillary and Clinton, Nathan Lane in Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, and Glenda Jackson in King Lear.
“I do think that one of the great reasons that people come to Broadway and have always come to Broadway is to see stars,” says Silverman. (Data from The Broadway League demonstrate that the no. 1 reported driver in show selection for plays was to see a particular performer in a show.) “That is part of the delight, to be in the room with an actor that you have only seen before on a screen, who then you can see in the flesh.”
Most of these stars began in theatre and excel on stage. Kerry Washington, who starred in (and produced) American Son, made her Broadway debut in Race long before hitting big with ABC’s Scandal. “It helps at the box office that she’s a name in this play,” McCraney says of Washington, but “she’s a person whose initial instances and inclination in the art form came from the stage.”
Plays are also harnessing the impact of an established title, some combining the power of a star and a brand, like the adaptations of the Oscar-winning film Network and America’s most beloved novel Mockingbird, starring Bryan Cranston and Jeff Daniels, respectively. As Harry Potter and the Cursed Child did last season, creators push the boundaries of imagination using an enduring brand as a launchpad for theatrical innovation that make plays an event.
“You need something that brings people in to have that experience they can’t have any place else,” says Tony-winning playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein, whose Torch Song returned to Broadway this year. “I see plays as the thing you can only get in the theatre.”
Be it star power, name recognition, or just compelling material—plays such as What The Constitution Means to Me, Choir Boy, The Ferryman, and more made a splash without an established title or big name attached—it’s all in service of exposing more people to the necessary stories, fresh voices, and the art of theatre. And audiences have responded with a renewed hunger.
“Part of the resurgence of plays is because people are desperate to figure out how to live in these times and how to come together and understand ourselves and our culture,” says Silverman. Our nation pulses with the need for “catharsis and escapism, but also understanding and also resistance—those tools belong to theatre so singularly.”
But plays can provide that no matter the stage, so why is it important to produce on Broadway? “It’s about how many people are coming in the door, seeing the story, and being impacted by the story,” says TDF Executive Director Victoria Bailey.
That exposure also feeds the pipeline of artists. Silverman counts Lisa Kron’s Well as the play that launched her career and McCraney feels Choir Boy has opened a door to a potential Broadway future.
Put simply, “you can reach a broader audience on Broadway,” Fierstein states.
As Broadway continues to evolve, no doubt the fate of the play will follow suit. This year’s crop of artists is hopeful. “I think we’re on a great trajectory,” says Lee. “What I hope this is heralding is that Broadway’s core values are shifting just a little bit,” adds Silverman.
“There’s always a tricky little walk there between art and commerce,” says Fierstein. But Silverman thinks this season is proof we can walk that tightrope. “People are investing in artists that they’re excited about and taking financial risks on them and trusting artists to continue to bring exciting work to them,” she says. “Broadway’s the biggest stage we have. It’s the biggest risk and it’s the biggest reward.”