Indie Theater on Broadway?

During the years I wrote about NYC theater on nytheatre.com, I often found myself enormously disenchanted with Broadway. The lack of risk-taking, the reliance on hype and known quantities, and the increasing commercialization (not to mention ticket prices) all rankled badly.

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Michael Esper, Dick Latessa, and Linda Lavin in The Lyons

But, at its best, Broadway is the pinnacle of American theater. And sometimes artists and producers do take risks and bring work there that — except for the economics — meets all the criteria of indie theater. By which I mean, the work is artist-driven (as Kirk Bromley explained, “Theater that is done to please the audience as the artist imagines it”); and that the work challenges audiences, its creators, and, most important, the status quo. And when that happens, we get pure magic.

Here are a few examples (annotated with some excerpts from my reviews):

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (2000): “….it’s just possible that, after you experience the extraordinary ending of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, you will have a renewed appreciation for the very idea of theatre. Tomlin and Wagner achieve connection to their audience in a visceral, wonderful way. A playwright friend of mine told me he could never imagine writing an ending as good as this one, and, with due respect to his talent, he’s probably right.”

Movin’ Out (2002): “The genius of Movin Out’ is the way the songs and choreography mesh. Tharp interprets Joel’s music with astonishing acuity; yet the dances are less ‘to’ the music than in juxtaposition with them, creating a tension that burrows under your skin. Tharp establishes the show’s ground rules with a prologue to ‘It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,’ introducing us to the band and the principals and getting us acquainted with a form that feels strange for about two minutes and then becomes comfortable: an abstract kind of theatre that’s aware of itself as formalized band and ballet corps, yet at the same time feels like a bunch of pals from the neighborhood jamming and cutting up on someone’s front lawn.”

Passing Strange (2008): “Passing Strange is my favorite new American musical of recent vintage; certainly the most thrillingly adventurous and high-energy-pull-the-audience-out-of-their-seats-and-up-on-their feet show to arrive on Broadway in quite some time. It feels more like Hair than anything in between 1967 and now, mainly because—and this is probably the main reason I love it so much—it doesn’t care one bit what a musical is supposed to be like. Stew and Heidi Rodewald, the authors of Passing Strange, and director Annie Dorsen have exactly zero Broadway musical credits among them before this. And it shows, in their ability to challenge and subvert expectations left and right, constantly keeping us alert and engaged and involved and utterly wrapped up inside this remarkable, singular, very personal, very empathetic musical play about growing up, growing into ourselves, and being precisely that person that we alone are meant to be. Form and content are in perfect harmony, for this show is precisely the show it alone is meant to be, and not like any other.”

A Catered Affair (2008): “…as in real life, almost all of the events and insights of A Catered Affair come gradually, and with an impact that builds and grows rather than overwhelms. The show boasts a beautifully constructed book by Harvey Fierstein, which melds seamlessly with John Bucchino’s spare, rich score. This is a show where people generally talk until mere words can’t convey what’s inside them, and only then do they start to sing: the most effective songs come exactly at the places where characters burst beyond the walls they’ve built around themselves.”

The Lyons (2012): “I love The Lyons. Now that may seem surprising, for this new play by Nicky Silver is not particularly a lovable play. (In fact, in some respects, it’s a little bit creepy.) But unlike every other new play I’ve seen on Broadway this season (indeed, in many a season), The Lyons isn’t content to just accept, reinforce, and/or report the status quo. No, this is a play meant to make you feel uncomfortable even as you howl with laughter at its outrageous goings-on; it’s a play meant to provide a sharp jolt that might cause you to reconsider what you thought you knew about American families and, more generally, America itself. It’s a play that’s unconventional in its structure and a little bit subversive in its message; the kind of play they don’t generally produce on Broadway nowadays.”

These are five sterling exemplars of indie work on Broadway in this century. Can you think of more? Please comment!

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