There is much I love about going to the theater by myself, not the least of which is the chance to chat with seat mates who start out as strangers, but end up being lovely company pre-show and at intermission. A recent experience offered up just such a treat. We may never have exchanged names, but we exchanged theater personalities! And something we talked about has prompted this post...straying from the Broadway beat and finding a rhythm in the many small theaters and productions all over NYC that offer exciting opportunities to experience theater in more intimate settings, and often with fresh and unique voices!
Turns out that my Atlanta friend (AF) and I have each discovered, over the course of multiple theater trips, that while we definitely make time to see the major productions at the Broadway theaters, we've had some of our most treasured experiences at the Off Broadway shows we've seen. It is certainly more easily accomplished when you have numerous opportunities to be in NYC, but I think I can comfortably say that if you do a little research before you come to the city, you may find a fantastic opportunity awaits to see your favorite star in a tiny theater; or an early production of a story you loved that may not ever be suited for a major production. AF shared a wonderful memory he has of seeing a production of Bluebird that changed the way he thought about theater.
So you’re heading for New York City, and you want to include some theater while you’re there. All the big musicals spring to mind: The Lion King, Wicked, The Book of Mormon, Mamma Mia, Chicago, Kinky Boots, Pippin. Or perhaps you’ve heard of some big name stars in plays: Orlando Bloom in Romeo and Juliet, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz in Betrayal, Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan in Waiting for Godot.
My mantra is to go see what appeals to you; you'll get no judgment from this corner. But theater tickets can be pricey of course, making choosing just one or two all the more difficult; which in turn makes doing some advance research into the shows you’re considering, all the more important. Most of those I’ve mentioned above are wonderful choices (though not all for all!). However, here’s another option that’s worth exploring before you commit to one of the big ticket shows: check out some of the numerous Off Broadway theaters, for an often quite unique and intimate theatrical experience. And you may just get to see a famous actor up close without taking quite such a big financial hit!
By the way, the term “Off Broadway” does not refer to geographic location, but to the size of the house and to what contracts/agreements govern its productions. If a theater is an Off Broadway theater, it has between 100-499 seats (fewer seats than 100 would be considered Off Off Broadway; and 500 seats or more are Broadway theaters). There are Off Broadway theaters just down the block from the largest Broadway venues. Many of these theaters are wonderful spaces, offering new work, with great sight lines and lower ticket prices. This means you may get to be one of the first to see a show that the world will be talking about next year. For example, New York Theatre Workshop has launched several big Broadway hits, including Tony winners, Once and Peter and the Starcatcher. Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre was the original home of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, last season’s Tony-winning play starring David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver.
The New York Theater Workshop (fictionalized as the Manhattan Theatre Workshop in the television series Smash), has an impressive track record in nurturing and growing new shows, some of which you've watched be awarded with Tonys. Two shows with that distinction are the musical Once (Best Musical, 2012), still running at Broadway's Jacobs Theatre, and Peter and the Starcatcher (Best Play nominee, 2012 and winner for costumes, set and sound), which ran on Broadway, is currently running Off Broadway again, and is also on tour (as is Once).
One of my most thrilling experiences was at Cherry Lane Theatre, Off Broadway’s oldest continously running theatre, sitting just 15 feet away from Vanessa Redgrave as she starred with Jesse Eisenberg in the play he wrote, The Revisionist. Cherry Lane is a charming venue, near Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, that may be used by more than one theater company during the year.
Vineyard Theatre, near Union Square, is another one that ranks high on my list. Their shows over the past couple of seasons have featured well known actors such as Kate Mulgrew, David Hyde Pierce and Anthony LaPaglia. One of my recent favorites was Now. Here. This. (from the creators of [title of show]), which offered poignant, spot on commentary on being a human, accompanied by terrific music!
Likewise, it was exciting to see Bebe Neuwirth and Christina Ricci in a production of my favorite Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at Classic Stage Company, a flexible space that accommodates creative staging. Currently playing at Classic Stage is a production of Romeo and Juliet, which includes rising star Elizabeth Olsen and Grey’s Anatomy’s T.R. Knight in the cast.
59E59, in Midtown East, provided me the opportunity to see Michael Learned up close in The Outgoing Tide; a well-received revival of Stephen Schwartz's musical Working; and in just a few weeks I'll see Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in All That Fall. The theater space is just the right size of small, and has great sight lines from all points.
Closer to Midtown Manhattan (the location of the Theater District) is Second Stage Theatre, which features new plays and musicals, along with other work. The new stage musical adaption of the film Little Miss Sunshine is currently running, for example. And Second Stage was the home of the wonderful Benj Pasek and Justin Paul musical, Dogfight, which premiered in 2012, and starred the current Wicked team of Lindsay Mendez (Elphaba) and Derek Klena (Fiyero).
The Signature Theatre, on W42nd St., has several spaces in its Pershing Square complex that allow it to present various types of shows, including two traditional theater spaces and some flexible black box spaces as well. Betty Buckley recently starred in Horton Foote’s play Old Friends there. I was truly honored to see her on stage from the second row!
Playwrights Horizons is a wonderful place to discover new work, both musicals and plays. Last season's new musical Far From Heaven brought us Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale on stage together, performing a score by Broadway's Grey Gardens team, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie (that show ran at Playwrights Horizons before moving to Broadway in 2006). O'Hara and Pasquale are soon to be seen headlining the Broadway production of Jason Robert Brown's new musical The Bridges of Madison County, beginning previews in January '12.
New World Stages has 5 different stage spaces that can accommodate a wide range of shows, including productions of long-running shows (Avenue Q; Rent; Gazillion Bubble Show) and shows that transfer from other theaters (Peter and the Starcatcher; Murder For Two). I've had some marvelous experiences seeing such shows as Freud's Last Session, Bare and The Two-Character Play with Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif.
When people think of Lincoln Center, they likely think about big shows in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre (War Horse, for example), as well as operas, ballets, symphonies; all of which are specialities of this wonderful venue. But I love the two small theaters at LC Theater: The Mitzi Newhouse and LCT3. The Newhouse was home to the Off Broadway premiere of the recent Broadway hit, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which won the Tony award for Best Play in 2013. LCT3, which presents its shows in the Claire Tow Theatre, an intimate black box space, focuses on work by new artists.
Other theaters to explore for new work, revivals, special events, and more, include:
Each of these great theaters present varied and interesting seasons, and I always check out their offerings when I'm choosing what to see.
But my favorite Off Broadway venue of all is probably the venerable Public Theater near Lafayette Square, founded by Joe Papp in the 1960s, and inaugurated with the original production of the musical Hair. Papp’s mission was to bring theater to as many people as possible, especially those in the local community, and those for whom ticket prices are often out of reach. He began the annual summer tradition, Shakespeare in the Park, during which The Public produces two free shows each summer in the lovely outdoor venue in Central Park, The Delacorte Theatre. One is generally a work of Shakespeare with a twist; the other might be a revival of a well-known musical. The presentations this past summer were Comedy of Errors starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and a new musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost.
The Public Theater has five different theater spaces, from a traditional house, to flexible spaces, in which developmental work can be tested in what are sometimes called “lab” or “workshop” presentations. The tickets for these are often quite inexpensive, at $15-35, and you might see some leading stage performers too. These labs may move forward to full stage productions, such as this season’s new musical, Fun Home, which I saw in its lab form last year, and is now running in a full production in The Public’s main stage space to rave reviews. The Public also has a concert entertainment venue called Joe’s Pub, and a full restaurant that serves both before and after shows.
Keep in mind that Off Broadway shows may not have the same frequency of performances, and may have a different schedule than the traditional Tuesday through Saturday evening performances, and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees, common to the Broadway shows. This can work to your advantage, as I’ve seen small productions with 5:00pm performances on some days, that don’t conflict with other shows.
For an easy reference of the Off Broadway theaters, check out my Stage Directions: Find a Theater: Off Broadway page. All of the theaters I’ve mentioned are easily accessible by subway, and each has their own website that will provide you with information about their current and upcoming seasons. Also, Playbill.com has full listings of both Broadway and Off Broadway productions with synopses and ticket information.
So find your way Off Broadway, and enjoy some new theater adventures!