There are a thousand ways a show makes it to Broadway. Sometimes, a show even gets picked up out of f**king nowhere (A Doll’s House: Part 2). But in most cases, it’s a combination of talent, potential, money, and sheer dumb luck.
For every Off-Broadway hit that transfers to Broadway, even and especially when that move initially seemed unlikely (read: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Oh, Hello, or The Encounter), there are even more worthy Off and Off-Off Broadway shows that will simply never draw the kind of ticket sales necessary for a Broadway run.
We’d all like to live in a world where some niche one man show is getting nominated for Tony awards, but in the meantime here are ten New York productions from the past year we would love to see get Broadway-level attention.
The comedy world is colliding with the New York theatre scene in a way we haven’t seen since the early days of the Second City on Broadway. Mike Birbiglia and Chris Gethard’s respective one-man shows at the Lynn Redgrave Theater would be a perfect antidote for a Broadway that is still on the wavelength of the rehashed SNL characters of Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me. Birbiglia’s ruminations on the nature of jokes, centered around an ill-fated hosting gig at the Independent Spirit Awards, and Gethard’s story of his history with mental illness, had much in common with the earnest cliche of the one-person performance. They were also really, really, really funny. Birbiglia has toured enough around the country to maybe, maybe pull the tourists needed to succeed on Broadway, but Gethard remains true to his roots as a punk rock UCB brat. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it would be nice for these guys to have a little mainstream success without the requisite “special surprise guests.”
This, on the other hand, simply wouldn’t make any sense. Unless a Broadway theater is willing to go full Great Comet and more, turning the space into a tiny but lavish dining room and only selling forty tickets a night, the Irish Repertory Theater’s immersive adaptation of Joyce’s novella (penned by Pulitzer-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon) is likely to stay right where it is. That’s a shame, because more people deserve to experience this fantastic production, which surpasses its theatrical gimmick and places the audience fully in the teeming joy and infinite sadness of life, as it is lived, and recorded by James Joyce.
The premise of Bess Wohl’s ingenious Small Mouth Sounds — in which a group of six seek inner peace at a week-long silent spa retreat — is both too fascinating to pass up and too weird to sell, at a certain point. This exposes the limitations of commercial theatrical enterprise at its worst, because you were unlikely to leave the theatre more affected this year than you were after Small Mouth Sounds (technically Ars Nova’s production ran last year, but 2016 was graced with an extended engagement at the Pershing Square Signature Center in the fall). It breaks my heart that we likely will not get a chance to experience that crushing, freeing silence in a massive Broadway space any time soon.
Another Ars Nova production makes the list, this time courtesy of co-creators and stars Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard. Underground Railroad Game was the brutal education we deserve but so rarely give ourselves on the history of slavery and our own history of discussing and unpacking its legacy. It may have been couched in sketch-comedy, tonally, but in the end that just made it a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Underground Railroad Game ultimately navigated the treacherous territory it promised, albeit in ways we never expected. If a longer, commercial run isn’t the way to get this brief, seventy minute masterpiece in more people’s eye-holes, a filmed special or album or something else has to be.
Anna Deavere Smith has become a one-woman American theatrical institution without Broadway’s help, thank you very much, and I see no need for that to change now. Still, I can’t help but feel bitter that her latest piece of documentary theatre, which compiles five years of verbatim interviews into a scathing critique of the school-to-prison pipeline, will reach the majority of its audience through the inevitable PBS segment, which will neither do justice to Smith’s power as a performer, nor get the (predominantly white) viewership out of the comfort of their living rooms. Smith deserves a massive, packed house, and not only because her urgent take on this aspect of institutionalized racism is more relevant than ever. In fact, to say that it is “more relevant than ever” is to suggest that it was every any less relevant than it is right now. The fact that “more relevant than ever” will be many people’s assessment of the piece speaks to how badly we all need to see Smith do this piece at once, live and in person. Maybe she’ll get that at the Kennedy Center, but not on Broadway. That sucks.
Robert Altman said: “most of my films I call arena films. I deal with a confined arena… and try to cover every aspect of it.” A fully explored, and in this case quite literal, arena is not the only Altman-esque aspect of Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, in which nine teen soccer girls nail his signature overlapping dialogue with peerless aplomb. The Playwright’s Realm’s production featured some of the most confident ensemble work in recent memory, while never betraying the delicate dance between chaos and order at the heart of all youth sports. A play with an all-female ensemble, written by a woman, and directed by a woman, absolutely, absolutely can be and needs to be on Broadway. So its inclusion on this list is cheating, sort of, because I fully expect this show to transfer eventually, just not yet. Once DeLappe’s profile as a writer expands, and it will, The Wolves will be a sure thing. I guess I just wanted an excuse to gush about it for a little bit. Sue me.
I’m not shy about my love for this show, and I’ll admit I’m still holding out for a miracle. After all, if The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee can pull off a transfer, maybe Cyclone can, too. But Spelling Bee did not share Ride the Cyclone’s morbid fascination, which works against it commercially but will make this story of high school choir students singing for the opportunity to come back to life after a grotesque roller coaster accident a cult darling for years to come. A Broadway transfer would also probably necessitate the replacement of a few Chicago and New York cast members with TV actors or Snapchat stars or something. No thank you. This cast was perfect, let’s keep it intact.
We always knew there was a substantial crossover comedy/Broadway fanbase out there, Oh, Hello just proved its existence. What better way to follow up than with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade’s long-running improv/theatre mashup? Gravid Water, created and directed by Stephen Ruddy, operates on a deceptively simple premise: scenes from great plays are performed by one famous actor and one dynamite improviser. The actor follows the text to the letter, the improviser has no idea what they’re getting into. Yes, the misunderstandings that ensue and need to be worked through are as entertaining as you’d expect, but that does not communicate the dizzying comedic highs this show hits, nor the bizarre and satisfying new contexts provided to the represented plays. Unfortunately, you immediately hits a logistic dead-end in trying to stage this on Broadway: once you do a scene once, that’s it. I doubt anyone will volunteer to organize five new scenes with ten new performers eight separate times a week. Oh well. Just to see the show on January 30th at UCB Chelsea. You’ll see what I mean.
This was not the first Richard Nelson play-cycle to pitch a regular family up against the America of that moment. His Apple Family quartet focused on three Chekhovian sisters living through the 2010 midterm elections, the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the 2012 presidential election, and the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination. But in The Gabriels, Nelson crafted a far more nuanced and contained tableau of American life than anything we’ve seen from him before, or anything else that tried to capture the shitshow that was the 2016 presidential election. Hungry, What Did You Expect?, and finally Women of a Certain Age (which opened on Election Night, and ended without revealing the victor) reflected our hope and heartbreak back at us with unparalleled precision. Though the trilogy as a whole is too large to live in New York outside the Public, no other new plays this year breathed such life and relevance into the tired, old family play by, in the words of Ben Brantley, “capturing the elusive, expansive comic sadness we associate with [Nelson’s] beloved Chekhov. That Chekhovian sense of time fading even as we inhabit it…”
Graham Techler is a New York based writer and performer. You can follow him on twitter @grahamtechler.