A surprising number of breakout plays and performances have shown up this season on the Great White Way. How they got there was the subject of a panel discussion held on Nov. 13 at Fordham.
“Anatomy of a Breakout,” held onstage in the Pope Auditorium, brought together 10 collaborators from four plays that have successfully transitioned to Broadway this season.
Each of The Mountaintop, Chinglish, Lysistrata Jones and Venus in Fur, had previous runs in other theatres—either off Broadway or in other cities.
The role of star power, said panelists, has been critical in getting some productions into major theatrical runs. In the case of Venus in Fur, playwright David Ives said that the casting call for the lead female role in the original off-Broadway production attracted an unknown who was working at an Olive Garden restaurant and had only high school play experience on her resume—Nina Arianda.
During her audition, said Ives, the actress transformed so remarkably in the role that “every hair in that room stood on end.” Arianda is now reprising her off-Broadway role at the Manhattan Theatre Club to critical acclaim.
“It happens once in several people’s lifetimes where you are in the presence of someone of blinding, luminous talent,” said Ives, who said they spent six months looking for an actress to do the role. “And [now]we’re on 47th Street; I can’t explain it.”
Director Kenny Leon, who was offered the play The Mountaintop following a successful run in London, had the task of recasting it with American actors and a reconfigured ending. He tapped movie and stage actor Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Martin Luther King, Jr. and it was slated for a Broadway run.
Jackson, who heard King speak when he was a student at Morehouse College, said the role presented an opportunity to “put a human face on an icon.”
“It is about a man with fears, a man who loves his family, a man who faces death on a daily basis. It’s not about that person you see making those big speeches on television,” Jackson said. “You have the opportunity to sit with him and get inside his psyche in a lot of different ways. It’s a wonderful ride for me to be a human being for an hour and a half and realize who he was in terms of what he might imagine—a man of that stature having that weight on him at all the time. “
The story of a women’s basketball team, the musical comedy Lysistrata Jones got its start as an off-Broadway production in the gymnasium of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village.
Although casting changes are often part of a big-time transition, Lysistrata Jones’ composer Lewis Flynn said that the play is moving to Broadway this December with its entire cast and design team, in part because they all had become the best people for the project.
“When we were moving to Broadway from downtown, we didn’t think twice about bringing everyone along because there was a relationship and trust from one end of the table to the other end,” he said. ‘And, we’ve got some fancy set.”
Chinglish director Leigh Silverman said that Chinglish, which ran at Chicago’s Goodman regional theatre, was a “radical” choice to be a Broadway play because it is bilingual. However, it’s spoofing on cultural miscommunication and its international relevance makes it deserving of being seen by a wide audience.
“Never before has there been this many new plays on Broadway, and at a time when the economy is crumbling and people are out of work,” added Silverman, one of six women directors currently working on Broadway. “This is an optimistic season . . . [and]it is a time for optimism.
“It’s not a time to feel crushed,” she said.
The event was co-sponsored by the Fordham Theatre Program and New York’s Drama Desk, an organization for the professional theatre community.