Broadway’s 2019 was one of lofty highs: the sumptuousness of Hadestown, the twin shocks of Oklahoma! and Slave Play, the marvelous risk-taking of What The Constitution Means To Me and Gary: A Sequel To Titus Andronicus, the belly laughs of Tootsie, the star-making arrival of Tina‘s Adrienne Warren and the star-confirming stands of American Utopia‘s David Byrne, The Sound Inside‘s Mary-Louise Parker and The Betrayal‘s Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Cox and Zawe Ashton.
Of course there were disappointments – Be More Chill deserved a longer run, Tootsie a larger audience and LBJ a worthier successor to Robert Schenkkan’s captivating All The Way than Robert Schenkkan tepid The Great Society.
But let’s look forward. What does 2020 hold? Here are some upcoming productions and performances I’m either excited or curious about, or both.
Jukebox musicals usually hold little charm for me – even superior examples such as Tina: The Tina Turner Musical and Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations hit their marks only when extraordinary performances combine with greatest hits to drown out predictable books that reduce life stories to beats and sentiment. But the new year has a ringer in the wings: Girl From The North Country, Conor McPherson’s reimagining of the Bob Dylan songbook, was staged Off Broadway at the Public Theater last year. Like the Alanis Morissette musical Jagged Little Pill, Girl invents an entirely fictional tale to accompany familiar tunes, but where Jagged is overwrought and shouty, the Dylan project is heart-wrenching and gorgeous, a Depression Era-tale of Americans adrift in new poverty, lapsed purpose and broken communities. With nearly all of the Off Broadway cast making the move to the Belasco Theater this February, the only question is whether this delicate, poignant and thrilling production retains the full power of its Off Broadway staging. I can’t imagine a scenario in which it wouldn’t.
Where Beetlejuice Ends (Maybe) & Mrs. Doubtfire Begins Movie-to-stage adaptations are tricky things, to say the least, a point underscored in 2019 by the strange, surprising sagas of Tootsie and Beetlejuice. Both productions upended expectations: Tootsie by delighting critics with a refreshing, bracingly funny take on a decades-old cross-dressing comedy that few would have guessed had anything left to say. But audiences didn’t bite. The only new 2019 musical to offer any real Tony competition to the brilliant Hadestown, the $20 million Tootsie often struggled to make more than half of its weekly box office potential. Tootsie ends it run Jan. 5, having played just 293 regular and 25 preview performances at the Marquis Theatre.
Beetlejuice has had a much different journey, though might end up at the same place – without a Broadway home. Critics weren’t overly impressed by the boisterous adaptation of the 1988 Michael Keaton comic chiller, but word of mouth, social media and some clever, customized performances on television, from the Tony broadcast to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, resulted in steadily improving box office (some weeks to $1M and more) and an enthusiastic (and young) fan base.
Then the ax fell. The production announced in early December that it was being bounced from its Winter Garden venue on June 6, 2020, to make way for the highly anticipated and sure-to-be-a-smash revival of The Music Man starring Hugh Jackman. Though Beetlejuice already has a national tour scheduled, producers have said they’d try to find a new Broadway home. It’s a crowded Broadway market right now, and Beetlejuice would need a long-term residence to recoup its investment. A move in 2020 won’t be easy, but Beetlejuice has beaten the odds before.
And now along comes Mrs. Doubtfire, the Broadway-bound musical adaptation of the 1993 Robin Williams film comedy, a production that probably can’t escape seeming like another test both of the movie-to-stage concept and, as importantly, of whether today’s audiences buy into the theatrical tradition that men in dresses are just inherently funny.
Reviews of Mrs. Doubtfire in its pre-Broadway Seattle engagement have been mixed but encouraging. Deadline’s sister publication Variety noted that while the show needs editing and more consistent humor, audiences are “responding favorably,” prompting an extension of the engagement into January.
Mrs. Doubtfire, directed by Jerry Zaks, with book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, and music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, begins Broadway previews March 9, 2020, at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, with an opening night set for Sunday, April 5. Rob McClure – late of Beetlejuice – plays the title role.
Reunions Broadway’s upcoming year promises some very intriguing re-teamings. Here are a few I look forward to:
- The Minutes, previewing at the Cort on Feb. 25 with an opening night set for March 15, will pair playwright Tracey Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro, both Tony Award winners for 2008’s August Osage County;
- Broadway’s greatest ongoing collaboration between actress and director continues with Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, starring Laurie Metcalf and directed by Joe Mantello. In recent seasons the two delivered top notch Broadway productions (Three Tall Women, Hillary and Clinton), and this time around they’ll have help from Rupert Everett, Russell Tovey and Patsy Ferran. The revival of Edward Albee’s masterpiece begins previews at the Booth on March 3, opening April 9;
- Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse first co-starred in Paula Vogel’s How I Learned To Drive in Mark Brokaw’s 1997 staging that remains one of the most unforgettable Off Broadway productions of its era. Now, 22 years later, the duo are re-creating their roles (again under Brokaw’s direction) of an abuse survivor (Parker) and her once-beloved predator uncle (Morse), offering what promises to be a fascinating exploration of how two decades might shade and transform the actors’ approach to these very thorny, complex characters. And if you didn’t see the original production, don’t worry – Parker, Morse, Brokaw and Vogel will tell you everything you need to know. Previews begin March 27 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, with opening night on April 22.
Old Shows, Fresh Takes Daniel Fish’s radical reworking of Oklahoma! in 2019 was a gut-punch, brilliant and visionary. Two new revivals might provide the new year with just such boundary-pushing. First is director Ivo van Hove’s West Side Story, which promises the director’s trademark use of multi-media, a cast of Broadway newcomers and the gutsy decision to ditch Jerome Robbin’s beloved choreography for a new take by the remarkable Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. The show is in previews now at the Broadway Theatre, opening Feb. 20.
Another reworking is director Marianne Elliott’s take on Company, the groundbreaking musical by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth. For this production, Elliott gender-switches the central role of Bobby to Bobbie, to be played by the fantastic Katrina Lenk (The Band’s Visit). Patti LuPone reprises her Olivier Award-winning London performance as Joanne (yes, she sings “The Ladies Who Lunch”). Company begins previews March 2 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, opening March 22.
Broadway’s Thriller If Mrs. Doubtfire is set to wade into the pool of shifting social attitudes, MJ The Musical could splash up a tidal wave. One of the most popular musical icons of the 20th Century – and the most divisive of the 21st – Michael Jackson is getting his own jukebox musical. On first consideration, the concept seems ill-timed, at best. This year’s HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, chronicling two men who say they were groomed and molested as children by Jackson, delivered what many would have thought was a fatal blow to the King of Pop’s reputation, notwithstanding Dave Chappelle‘s skepticism and the vehement denials of the Jackson Estate, a producer of MJ.
But there are other reputations to consider with MJ, and they’re exemplary, worthy of the benefit of the doubt. The book of the musical is written by Lynn Nottage, winner of not one but two Pulitzer Prizes for drama (Ruined, 2009, and Sweat, 2017). The director and choreographer is Christopher Wheeldon, who won a Tony Award for his 2015 choreography of Broadway’s An American in Paris. Ephraim Sykes, who was Tony nominated this year for his performance in Ain’t Too Proud and was an original cast member of Hamilton, will play Michael Jackson. Sykes is a performer whose time for the solo spotlight has come.
Exactly how, if, to what extent and how convincingly MJ addresses the molestation accusations won’t be known until audiences get a look (previews begin at the Neil Simon Theatre on July 6, with an opening of Aug. 13). What we do know is that the musical centers around rehearsals for Jackson’s 1992 Dangerous World Tour and features more than 25 Jackson songs. Sykes has told Essence magazine that he hopes “to show how human [Jackson] truly was,” and that, “hopefully we can all have a little bit more empathy with him, his downfalls, his demons, his struggles…”
Aside from whether the show works or not, MJ promises to offer a glimpse at how a top-flight creative team navigates some of theater’s foundational questions, of commerce and art, of fact and fiction and how perspective and affinity shape each, and of who, when all is said and done, is worthiest of our devotion. A decade after his death, Michael Jackson isn’t going anywhere, but neither are his accusers. How Broadway deals with that is a story in and of itself, waiting to be written.