It’s hardly surprising to learn about a hit Off-Broadway show moving to Broadway. It’s been happening for years, both with shows that began at not-for-profit companies or as commercial ventures. Open small, get great reviews and sales, move beyond the confines of a much smaller theatre to reap the recognition and rewards of a Broadway berth, which then secures a long life for the show in regional, international and amateur and school markets.
In most cases, the Off-Broadway to Broadway transfers happen pretty quickly, to seize upon momentum. If they don’t happen in the same theatrical season (vaguely defined by awards timelines), then they turn up the following year. The lag-time between the Playwrights Horizons production of Clybourne Park and its Broadway run was longer than the norm (with numerous regional productions blooming in the gap).
But when Beth Henley’s The Miss Firecracker Contest was announced for Broadway this spring, it joined a subset of shows that took protracted paths to the Great White Way. In the case of Miss Firecracker, it took more than 25 years – and it also marks Henley’s Broadway return after a hiatus of 30 years, ashocking gap for a major author.
This ultra-late path to Broadway is a slow-building trend to be sure, but in the past dozen or so years, some 20 shows that met with acclaim and countless productions after their Off-Broadway success have turned up on Broadway for the first time. In most cases, by the time they get there, they’re considered part of the theatrical repertoire to the extent that they’re revivals making their Broadway debut. In many cases, the Off-Broadway hits spawned movie versions, without a Broadway imprimatur.
Some of the examples: Margaret Edson’s Wit, Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, David Mamet’s Oleanna, Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories, Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain and Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio. Even the musical Little Shop of Horrors finally made its way from downtown to uptown, but after a hiatus of more than two decades.
What’s driving this stealth trendlet? There are several factors. One is simply that over time, even without Broadway status, the shows have grown so much in recognition that they’re not necessarily the risky prospects they once were (Wit, for example, sought a Broadway house back in the day, but no one would book it). Though most weren’t star vehicles in days gone by, a number were star-makers; Miss Firecracker launched Holly Hunter to stardom, just as Daisy did for Morgan Freeman; now that they’re recognized as having roles stars covet, which explains Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in the recent Daisy run. And with the aforementioned recognition that has built up, especially after film adaptations, the titles are simply more “marketable,” meaning producers don’t have the same uphill climb that they might with a wholly new work – although the fact that the movies are so indelibly etched that shows compete with those, rather than original productions.
Another key factor is that the environment that enabled shows like these to run for several years commercially Off-Broadway has largely evaporated. That’s not to say there are no commercial play productions Off-Broadway, but the prevailing wisdom is now that you can only succeed financially by taking a hit from The Atlantic or The Public to Broadway; that the economics simply don’t favor an intra-Off move.
I don’t have any particular reservations about this practice, since it’s typically one or two shows a year at most. It is worth noting that the majority of these plays had very small casts and required minimal scenery; by enlarging them to the scale of a Broadway house, there’s always the risk that the intimacy which may have helped them become hits in the past may be lost along the way.
What would prove truly exciting would be if producers looked beyond the iconic Off-Broadway successes and explored works which, for one reason or other, didn’t have long runs and didn’t move anywhere, despite being praised in their day. I bet a quick read of Theatre Worlds (or my Playbill collection) from the 80s and 90s could turn up a number of forgotten gems. It’s worth remembering that John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves, originally produced Off-Broadway, only found its place in the canon of major works after the Lincoln Center Theater revival in the 80s; Sam Shepard’s True West suffered from a troubled production at The Public in its New York debut, only to be a hit less than 10 years later when the Steppenwolf production came to town, though in that case, again Off-Broadway.
When Miss Firecracker was announced yesterday, I spotted several comments in my Twitter feed from those who were pleased for the opportunity to see the play on stage for the first time, and indeed it’s less of a known quantity than most of the shows I’ve cited. Their comments reminded me that I’ve been around long enough that these are, for me, unquestionably revivals, as I saw many of the original productions. I recall going into Miss Firecracker unaware of Holly Hunter and walking out with a serious crush; when I saw Rosemary Harris in The Road To Mecca last year, I often confused people by mentioning having seen Julie Harris in the same role in a regional production almost 20 years ago.
So today’s Broadway is now, on occasion, a home for yesterday’s Off-Broadway hits. There’s a certain irony baked into that, as well as a longing for the bygone Off-Broadway environment, but I’ll look on the bright side: these plays are proof that you don’t always need Broadway to be a success. But that opens up new questions as well: what other shows might be rediscovered, and 20 years from now, will today’s Off-Broadway prove to have been comparably fertile?
P.S. Cloud Nine, anyone?