After a frightening week for New York theatre, a spot of good news is in order, no?
Well, you’re in luck: A Strange Loop, winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, will open on Broadway later this spring, according to veteran producer Barbara Whitman. The musical, written by Michael R. Jackson (no relation), will play the Lyceum Theatre, with an exact start date yet to be announced.
Buzz has been fizzing in New York ever since the musical’s 2019 Off Broadway premiere, a collaboration between Playwrights Horizons and Page 73 Productions. That production sold out in a heartbeat, and veteran producer Barbara Whitman was already planning next steps to shepherd it to the Great White Way, announcing a pre-Broadway run at Washington DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre just days before the industry shut down in March 2020.
Now, a year and a half later, that run is in progress, and it’s received another slew of rave reviews. It also marks the first new musical production – and the first direct pre-Broadway engagement – for the venerable DC company in decades. (The DC production is running through January 9.)
Apart from its strong critical reception, A Strange Loop is historic in more ways than one. It is the first musical by a Black writer to win the Pulitzer, and the first that had not yet played a Broadway stage. It is also, in no uncertain terms, brilliant.
However, it doesn’t necessarily fall into the bounds of “traditional” Broadway fare, as a self-referential, unflinching examination of race, gender, sexuality, beauty standards, and religion. Described by its own lead character, it is: “a black, queer man writing a musical about a black, queer man who’s writing a musical about a black queer man who’s writing a musical about a black queer man, etc.”
MORE FOR YOU
The Music Man it is not. And honestly? Thank goodness. If live theater is going to come out of the pandemic swinging, it needs more than just dusty revivals to entice buyers.
The good news? Original content sells. While conventional wisdom holds that big brands and adaptations are safer bets in commercial theatre, the hard data belies that narrative. Since 2015, one in three original musicals on Broadway turned a profit. But familiar adaptations like Frozen and Tootsie? Only one in eight.
Notably, several recent shows point to increased appetite for unconventional, even challenging material. Genre-buster What the Constitution Means to Me was a massive box office hit, and Slave Play catalyzed an entire generation of young theatergoers, so much so that it booked a return engagement this winter.
The multi-million-dollar question is the pandemic, and its effect on the Broadway market. While current sales data is topline only, four shows have already announced months-early closures: three plays, one musical, all of them new, original material. Meanwhile, the base price for an orchestra seat at The Music Man is…over $600.
However, other shows provide more hopeful data. The original musical Six has been selling even better than it was before the pandemic, and like A Strange Loop, it released a tremendous cast recording before its Rialto bow, which provides a vital buzz-building tool among musical fans.
At this point its anyone’s guess what the world will look like come spring, or how badly the Omicron variant will affect live entertainment. Broadway has some of the most stringent testing and safety guidelines in the country, and theater owners are not considering another full industry shutdown; the Governor’s office doesn’t seem to be, either. But shows are cancelling performances with alarming frequency, often minutes before the curtain is slated to rise, and in the middle of the lucrative holiday season.
For now, the show will go on, as safely as possible. Fingers crossed that by the time A Strange Loop lands in New York, it will receive audiences befitting a seminal work.