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Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get enthusiastic about things
This week, TDF Stages Editor Raven Snook geeks out (via Facebook Messenger) with Christina Trivigno, TDF's Director of Digital Strategy and a bona fide theatre nerd.
Today's topic: Do Broadway shows lose anything when they transfer Off-Broadway? And which closed Broadway productions deserve to be resurrected Off-Broadway?
Raven Snook: This Geek Out/Freak Out is inspired by the '80s jukebox musical Rock of Ages. The show's had quite the journey. It began Off-Broadway in 2008 at New World Stages, then transferred to Broadway where it played at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and then the Helen Hayes Theatre before closing in 2015. Now it's back on the very same Off-Broadway stage where it started for its 10th anniversary.
Christina Trivigno: And I saw the show at all of those theatres. I saw it the other week at New World Stages anew, and it looks just as awesome as it did in its other forms. Some jokes have changed and they swapped one song, but I think the intimacy of New World Stages really works for the show.
Raven: I had the same experience with Avenue Q. I saw it when it started at the Vineyard Off-Broadway, then twice on Broadway, and I revisited the show at New World Stages before it closed this past May. It felt like such a full-circle moment, and I have to say, it didn't lose anything for me in any of its moves.
This brings up an important point: Shows that were originally conceived for a more intimate house, like Rock of Ages and Avenue Q, seem to fare well if they transfer back Off-Broadway. Most of these Broadway-to-Off-Broadway transfers have been shows that premiered Off-Broadway -- there was Peter and the Starcatcher too, which began at New York Theatre Workshop.
But with shows created for Broadway, how much do they need to get stripped down? I'm thinking of Jersey Boys, which I saw on Broadway (the first preview!), though I admit I haven't seen Off-Broadway at New World Stages yet. Have you?
Christina: I have not. I think we should go see Jersey Boys :).
Raven: It's a date! When Jersey Boys reopened Off-Broadway, we interviewed the director Des McAnuff, who also staged it on Broadway and at California's La Jolla Playhouse, where the show had its world premiere in 2004. He pointed out that bringing it to New World Stages felt "kind of like going back to its roots" because its current 499-seat theatre is comparable in size to La Jolla. As he said, "You don't need to have 2,000 seats for it to land."
I think that's key: It's hard to scale a massive Broadway spectacle for an Off-Broadway theatre. Could you imagine King Kong at New World Stages? Although the giant ape certainly would be even more intimidating.
I know from interviewing the director of the New World Stages production of The Play That Goes Wrong that they're using the same Tony-winning Broadway set. The houses may be smaller, but I think the stages are close to the size of some of the smaller Broadway theatres. We wouldn't even be having this conversation if New World Stages didn't exist.
Christina: Apparently Rent had a stint at New World Stages but I have zero recollection of that even happening.
Raven: Oh I do -- I even wrote about it. But that was a bit different, it was a revival, not a transfer. It opened three years after the Broadway production closed, and although it had the same director, Michael Greif, he said he wanted to "reexamine" the material, and I recall it being quite different from the Broadway mounting. It only lasted a year. Mj Rodriguez from Pose played Angel!
Here's a question, and a well-timed one because so many Broadway shows are closing this month: Which recently closed/about to close Broadway shows would you like to see transfer Off-Broadway? My top pick is Kinky Boots. I saw it three times: twice on Broadway and once in London. I know in many ways it's a spectacle, especially "Everybody Say Yeah" on that conveyor belt. But I think what makes the show special is its heart and its characters and its costumes. You don't need a big theatre for any of that.
Christina: Yes, Kinky Boots I think could be amazing in a small space, but they would probably have to cut cast size to make it work. I could easily see Waitress and Beautiful, which are both closing soon, move into smaller homes.
Raven: I bet the aroma from the baking pies in Waitress would smell even yummier Off-Broadway! I was actually quite surprised that The Band's Visit didn't try moving back Off-Broadway. It was born there at the Atlantic Theater Company, and I felt like there were still many people hoping to see it.
Christina: I saw it on Broadway, but not at the Atlantic. I think The Band's Visit would be amazing in a more immersive setting, like if the performers were singing around you at times, the way they did at the recent Sweeney Todd.
That said, as difficult as it is to turn a profit on Broadway, the financials Off-Broadway seem even more challenging in some ways. I was actually talking with a playwright recently about how hard it is. You have fewer seats and the price point is lower, but often you have large casts -- maybe not Broadway big, but not four people either. I think a big part of the reason these Broadway-to-Off-Broadway transfers work is that they were hits, which turned them into brand names. So you can't just transfer a Broadway production that only did so-so, no matter how worthy. It needs to be a show tourists have heard of. I suspect a lot of out-of-towners seeing shows at New World Stages don't even realize that's Off-Broadway. Some New Yorkers don't even know! When those manhole fires forced all the New World Stages shows to cancel back in February, all the news outlets called them "Broadway shows." I think Broadway is shorthand for theatre in Midtown Manhattan to a lot of people. Maybe the folks seeing Jersey Boys and The Play That Goes Wrong at New World Stages think they're seeing them on Broadway.
Christina: You may be right. Also, I wonder about ticket prices. Do audiences subconsciously agree to pay more for an Off-Broadway show if it was once on Broadway? Like they'll pay $80 for Jersey Boys because it won the Tony Award for Best Musical. But that same price for a show that's only played Off-Broadway would seem like too much of a risk.
Raven: Exactly. So my dream of Broadway flop Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson being resurrected with original star Benjamin Walker Off-Broadway is not going to happen. Oh well. A girl can dream, can't she? A few years back I told director/book writer Alex Timbers that he should restage Bloody Bloody outdoors at some kind of political protest. Maybe he could pioneer the trend of Broadway-to-Off-Off Broadway transfers.
Which closed Broadway productions do you think should get a second life Off-Broadway? Let us know in the comments.
Top image: PJ Griffith, CJ Eldred, Mitchell Jarvis, Jeannette Bayardelle and Kirsten Scott in the current New World Stages production of Rock of Ages. Photo by Matthew Murphy.