Where Do Broadway Plays Come From?

January 28th, 2013 Comments Off on Where Do Broadway Plays Come From?

As I write late in the evening prior to the second TEDx Broadway conference, I find myself wondering how much the presentations tomorrow will focus on plays, which have become the poor stepchild of The Great White Way.

Over the summer, I wrote about Narrow Chances For New Broadway Musicals and considered Do Revivals Inhibit Broadway Musicals? I counted the most produced playwrights in recent years in The Broadway Scorecard: Two Decades of Drama and, responding to what I saw at a glance as some misguided copy in the promotion of tomorrow’s event, I spoke out strongly with the declaration False Equivalency: Broadway Is Not The American Theatre.  Embedded in these posts were data, analysis — and my opinion — depicting Broadway as it is, not as some might perhaps wish it would be. As I noted in these posts, musicals dominate Broadway, both new and revivals, with roughly 80% of all Broadway grosses coming from musicals, even if the number of plays produced in most seasons outnumber new musical productions. Plays are admired, but when it comes to defining Broadway, the musicals by and large grab the lion’s share of money and attention.

That said, there’s one more, rather simple, data set that’s worth having in mind as tweets, blogs and news reports slice and dice tomorrow’s event (and I’ll be among those doing so). Here’s a listing of the Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and the Tony Award winners for Best Play, from 1984 to the present. I’m not suggesting that these awards are the final word on plays of quality, and awards success hardly guarantees box office success, but the two prizes provide a manageable universe for study. Why 1984? It’s an arbitrary choice, to be sure; it’s also the year I graduated college and went to work in the professional theatre, a microcosm of the celebrated plays of my theatrical career.

Pulitzer Prize Tony, Best Play
2012 Water By The Spoonful Clybourne Park
2011 Clybourne Park War Horse
2010 Next To Normal Red
2009 Ruined God Of Carnage
2008 August: Osage County August: Osage County
2007 Rabbit Hole The Coast Of Utopia
2006 no award The History Boys
2005 Doubt Doubt
2004 I Am My Own Wife I Am My Own Wife
2003 Anna in the Tropics Take Me Out
2002 Topdog/Underdog The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia
2001 Proof Proof
2000 Dinner With Friends Copenhagen
1999 Wit Side Man
1998 How I Learned To Drive Art
1997 no award The Last Night Of Ballyhoo
1996 Rent Master Class
1995 The Young Man From Atlanta Love! Valour! Compassion!
1994 Three Tall Women Angels In America: Perestroika
1993 Angels In America: MA Angels In America: MA
1992 The Kentucky Cycle Dancing At Lughnasa
1991 Lost in Yonkers Lost in Yonkers
1990 The Piano Lesson The Grapes Of Wrath
1989 The Heidi Chronicles The Heidi Chronicles
1988 Driving Miss Daisy M. Butterfly
1987 Fences Fences
1986 no award I’m Not Rappaport
1985 Sunday In The Park With George Biloxi Blues
1984 Glengarry Glen Ross The Real Thing

The honored plays above, shorn of duplicates as well as the years the Pulitzers honored musicals, make up a total of 43 different works that were recognized for achievements in playwriting in 29 years. Only nine works appear on both lists and The Pulitzers are only for American plays, which helps to reduce duplication.

Now here’s the key question: how many of those works actually had their world premieres on Broadway? The answer: only five. Those plays were Rabbit Hole, Lost In Yonkers, The Goat, The Last Night Of Ballyhoo and M. Butterfly. The others all began in not for profit U.S. venues, as close as Off-Broadway or as far as Seattle, or in subsidized or commercial venues in Ireland, England, and Europe. That’s not to say that there weren’t worthy plays that weren’t recognized which may have been produced directly on Broadway, but the ones that reaped the conventionally accepted big awards didn’t begin there. In the Pulitzer list, there are many that never played Broadway, at least in their original incarnations, as I discussed in At Long Last Broadway.

So as the future of Broadway is a subject on many minds in the next 24 to 36 hours, it’s worth remembering that strikingly few new plays debut there, as they commonly did in the days before the resident theatre movement really bloomed. If plays are to make their marks in Broadway history under the existing models of production, they need to be discovered, birthed and nourished elsewhere. National and international recognition may still be New York-centric, but the most honored works start overwhelmingly just about everywhere other than Broadway. Could that ever change? Should it? And if the answer is yes, then how?


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