If you’re setting sail on the perilous journey of adapting a long historical drama for the stage, particularly one that tries to deal with the glorious (or not) story of America’s early days, you should be very familiar with two examples from the genre that define a spectrum of possible outcomes.
On one end, HAMILTON, the international juggernaut that breathes life into history by using forms and multi ethnic bodies of the present. On the other, RED, WHITE AND BLAINE, the show staged inside of the film WAITING FOR GUFFMAN that has become a defining reference for amateur community theatre and (more subtly) oblivious historical white washing of what life on the merry frontier was like.
We’re not in Kansas any more. Doing a show in the hinterlands is one thing. But New York is a whole different deal. Normally America’s theatre capital exports plays to the rest of the country. But what if you decide instead to swim upstream and take a play from somewhere else to New York? You better have your helmet fastened and your seat belt buckled.
OSF did it with enormous, box office busting success on Broadway last season with Robert Schenkkan’s Tony-nabbing ALL THE WAY. It didn’t hurt that Bryan Cranston was attached. But such a Cinderella story is definitely not the norm. A lot of the time, that Guffman moment when Corky announces to his star struck cast that “We’re goin’ to Broadway!” doesn’t work out so well for regional AD’s.
Kid, there is no more challenging place on earth to put on a show than the five square miles of broken pavement and concrete canyons that make up midtown Manhattan. It’s crowded, it’s expensive, the critics are search and destroy ninjas and the audience has a million entertainment options. How do you convince 100 or 200 or 500 or 1200 grizzled New Yorkers to come out, night after night, to pay money for your show?
It’s gotta be good. Really good. Not just ok. Not just something mildly interesting. It has to be smart and sharp and new. It has to be New York smart. It has to be something the audience wants.
The summer season presents additional problems beyond the standard hurdles. Any theatregoer in their right mind is out on Long Island or Martha’s Vineyard hiding from the heat for several months. With a few exceptions, most of the small stage action is in the country where festivals like CATF and WTF and OSF are working their magic. August in Manhattan? It’s a desert out there, babe. Need to fill the house on a Tuesday night? Bring reinforcements.
THREESOME, the new play developed by Portland Center Stage and ACT Seattle, is finding out just how hard it can be to get traction in the New York summer theatre landscape. Now on at 59E59, a small midtown shared space which is sort of New York’s equivalent of Theater Theatre, the show got a decidedly mixed review from the almighty NYT (hovering just an inch away from a straight thumbs down, and earning the tart somewhat damning summary in the weekly Theater Listings: “more a debate about gender politics than a bedroom farce”) and a 2 star blasting from the Daily News – so far the only two mainstream media to review. I also gave the show two stars in my review, faulting it mainly for some totally implausible plot details. The acting and directing is perfectly good. The problem is the play. When what’s on the page doesn’t speak convincingly, there’s only so much you can do with that.
Apparently the New York audience agrees, and the show has been in the booth (on sale at TDF for 50% off) since opening. Heading in to the weekend, advance sales are struggling to break 40% for any given show. You can easily see how it’s selling on the 59E59 site.
The takeaway? While going to New York is certainly fun for young actors or anyone else who has never worked there before, it does not necessarily build anyone’s brand if the show gets mediocre reviews and plays to half empty houses at an unbranded space in the dog days of summer. Donors and foundations are inevitably called upon to fill the void left by low ticket revenue. But is this a path anyone wants to repeat? Why do this? This isn’t “the thrill of Off Broadway”. It’s an expensive rental with upside down financials. Does such a venture make New Yorkers want to come out to Portland to see more theatre (the way ALL THE WAY on Broadway has spiked interest in OSF), which should be one of the goals of building the PCS brand by taking a show to NYC? Not at all.
Next time, the selection of a good play at the outset is the key decision moment. It all starts with a great play. Without that – it’s just going through the motions with meager attendance and a large tab for someone else to pick up.