New York and San Diego’s Symbiotic Theatre Relationship

About a month ago, I returned from a theatre trip to New York. My primary purpose in going was to review the Broadway opening of Allegiance, a musical that had its world premiere production at the Old Globe. It was my first (and who knows, maybe my last) review of a Broadway opening, and there were conventions to be followed.

First, I needed to be certified to cover the opening. That task proved to be difficult, but thanks to help from the Globe’s Susan Chicoine it got done.

Then, there was seeing the show itself. In San Diego, press mostly attend opening night performances, but that’s not true on Broadway. Rather, the final previews are designated as press performances, to give critics a chance to write and have their reviews available as the show opens. In fact, there’s a stipulation that a review can’t be posted before a particular time on the day of the official opening. Allegiance opened on a Sunday evening, which is commonplace on Broadway. I saw the Saturday matinee. Jim Hebert, the critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune, saw the Saturday evening performance. I wrote Saturday evening and Sunday morning, saw a matinee performance on Sunday, and then had my review ready to post after the opening night performance began.

In case you missed it, here’s a link to that review.

Since I was going to be in New York, I arranged to see several other Broadway productions while there. Almost all of them were musicals, and collectively they provided several insights into the San Diego theatre scene.

  1. San Diego is a good place to start. I mean, for all of performers, creatives, and shows. It was wonderful to see the good work that had been done on Allegiance since it played here, breaking box office records at the Old Globe. The revisions did not change the basic direction of the show, but they did provide clarification for both the story and the relationships among the characters. Not all shows do this work (and some that do make the show worse, apparently), but Allegiance did and the work was to its benefit, I think.

It was also interesting to see the Broadway work of several performers and creatives who have also worked in San Diego. Chief among these is Alex Brightman, who is the new break-out star of the musical, School of Rock. Based on the Jack Black film, this musical takes the story and the two songs featured in the film and adds music by, all of people, Andrew Lloyd Webber, creator of Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Jesus Christ, Superstar, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, among others. Alex has the Jack Black role and his manic energy allows him to outshine a bunch of talented 10 and 11-year olds who comprise the rock band he forms at a posh private school.

Other San Diego alums whose talents are conspicuously on display are Beth Malone (Tony™ Award nominee for the musical, Fun Home), who has done starring roles at Moonlight Stage Productions and San Diego Musical Theatre, and Jon Rua, who impressed in the La Jolla Playhouse run of Hands on a Hardbody and the Old Globe production of Somewhere, and who is understudying Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star of Broadway’s biggest hit, Hamilton. By the way, Sam Gold (Tony™ winner for directing Fun Home) will be remembered here for his smart Old Globe production of August: Osage County. And, I just missed seeing the first preview of the new revival of Fiddler on the Roof, starring UC San Diego grad Danny Burstein.

  1. Diversity reigns on Broadway right now. Broadway is about selling tickets. In general a show doesn’t get to stick around without keeping ticket sales up, and chat boards are filled with weekly speculation about how various shows are doing financially. Shows have to appeal to more than one type of audience in order to make it. Portraying diverse stories or reaching out to audiences that may not patronize Broadway regularly is a way of keeping a show healthy, financially.

Right now, the “king” of Broadway is Hamilton, a musical that recounts key moments from American history through the eyes of people of color. The music is hip-hop, the cast is deliberately diverse, but the costumes are from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, at the beginning of the grand experiment called the United States of America. Hamilton is also that Broadway rarity – a show where the book, music, and lyrics are all written by one person: Lin Manuel Miranda. It’s a stunning achievement for not only Mr. Miranda but also for Broadway itself. And, tickets are next to impossible to get.

But, diversity popped up as a theme in nearly everything I saw. Allegiance features a mostly Asian-American cast, and given that there are few musicals in the canon that feature performers of Asian ancestry Allegiance will surely provide an outlet for those performers once it becomes available for regional and non-professional production. Interestingly, one of the other historical musicals featuring Asian-American actors, The King and I, is currently being revived in a sumptuous production at Lincoln Center. The private school featured in School of Rock has a diverse group of students enrolled. And, Fun Home focuses on the coming of age of a lesbian woman who realizes that her father is gay.

San Diego theatre clearly has a commitment to diversity, but that commitment is often left to certain small companies – Diversionary, which focuses on stories with lesbian or gay characters, Moxie, which focuses on stories by and about women, and Mo’olelo, which focused on stories by and about people of color. Unfortunately, Mo’olelo’s board recently suspended the remainder of its season and will cease operations for six months in an attempt to find a way forward. Of the larger companies, San Diego REP seems to have the deepest commitment to diversity; it’s a company that takes significant chances with its programming, compared to others in town.

I’m not certain that San Diego theatre companies trust that telling stories about diverse characters and experiences will be money-makers. By contrast, Broadway thinks, at least at the moment, that diversity sells.

3. Many children are appearing on Broadway currently. Three of the six productions I saw (School of Rock, Fun Home, and The King and I) featured children as performers. In The King and I, Anna, the teacher, has a son who accompanies here to Siam, and the King has several wives and many children. Anna’s son has a substantive role, but the King’s children are there to be cute. Cuteness also prevails in School of Rock, where the children are late elementary/middle school aged. Each child in the class has a contribution to make, but the ones who actually play in the rock band have to be talented rock performers (and, they are). Still, Andrew Brightman and the other adults have to work hard not to be upstaged (and Brightman, for one, works very hard).

The show that uses children most substantively is Fun Home. A family drama set to music, the production features the children of the family, two boys (Oscar Williams and Zell Steele Morrow) and three versions of Allison, the protagonist: the adult Allison (Beth Malone), small Allison (Gabriella Pizzolo) and Medium Allison (Emily Skeggs). Each of the three versions of Allison is important to the show, and small Allison’s song, “Ring of Keys” will break your heart.Shows featuring children may just be incidental to what’s on in New York right now, but seeing so many made me realize that San Diego has a whole bunch of marvelous theatre training programs for children and youth. These programs are both school-based and community-based, and they regularly produce highly competent performers. Most of the children involved will gain confidence and the ability to understand and build a character as part of this education, but some will go on to university theatre programs or will try their hand at professional theatre. And, since Andrew Lloyd Webber has already made rights available for School of Rock to be performed by youth theatre groups, look to see that show popping up, perhaps even before the Broadway run is over.

Finally, I left out the one non-musical production I saw, King Charles III. A London sensation, King Charles III, imagines the reign of the current Prince of Wales following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Mike Bartlett’s play is an authorial tour-de-force, written in blank verse and drawing parallels to Shakespeare’s histories (think Richard II and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2) and tragedies (think Macbeth, King Lear, and even a little Hamlet). It’s got palace intrigue, royals behaving badly, and many other delights. Note to Old Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein: this one would be a draw, especially if directed by former Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Adrian Noble. But, it’d also work in ion Theatre’s 49-seat space, directed by either Claudio Raygoza or Glenn Paris.

While New York theatre continues to be in a league of its own, San Diego theatre both benefits from what goes on in New York but also contributes to it. This symbiotic relationship helps to keep the local theatre scene one of the most vibrant in the country.



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