The Spring Broadway Preview: The Musicals

Spring Broadway Preview, Part One: The Musicals

The first half of the 2013–2014 season was dominated by Shakespeare and the classics, but musical theater fans can take heart: There are 10 musicals, including four revivals, slated to open on Broadway between now and the close of the season at the end of April.

Of course, with the long-running hits shows still around, there isn’t really a shortage of musicals on Broadway: The romance of The Phantom of the Opera has endured for a quarter century; Bob Fosse’s signature choreography has kept Chicago sizzling since 1996; Julie Taymor’s transformative stagecraft in The Lion King has been enthralling audiences since 1997; the popularity of ABBA music in 2001’s Mamma Mia! has crossed over to multiple generations; Wicked recently celebrated a box-office record-breaking decade; Jersey Boys has been ruling since 2005; the 1980s glam-metal rock scene has been resurgent since Rock of Ages came along in 2009; The Book of Mormon has been poking cheeky fun at religion since 2011; two widely different hits from 2012, Once and Newsies, have created their own cult followings; and the hits of the past season — Kinky Boots, Matilda, Motown the Musical, Cinderella and Pippin — are still audience favorites. Now, the new crop of 2014 musicals, which join the holdovers from last fall (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, After Midnight and A Night With Janis Joplin) promise to suit a variety of musical tastes.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, a biographical musical about the poignant life and successes of the Brooklyn-born singer and songwriter, just opened earlier this month. Jesse Mueller, who was nominated for a Tony Award for On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, plays Carole King, and Jake Epstein plays the singer’s former husband and writing partner, Gerry Goffin. Written by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Douglas McGrath and directed by Marc Bruni, the show charts King’s life from the start of her career in 1958 to the release of her Grammy Award–winning album “Tapestry” in 1971, and draws from her extensive catalog of hits, which includes “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “A Natural Woman.”

Four-time Tony nominee Kelli O’Hara (last seen on Broadway in Nice Work if You Can Get It) is the star of The Bridges of Madison County (starts January 17), based on the romantic bestseller by Robert James Waller. The tale of Francesca Johnson, the Italian-born Iowa housewife who has an intense four-day affair with a visiting National Geographic photographer, is best known from the 1995 Clint Eastwood movie version starring Meryl Streep. The musical version sets the passionate love story against the broader scope of the heroine’s life in the 1960s farming community, giving voice to her family and friends as well. The score is by Jason Robert Brown (Tony Award–winning composer and lyricist for Parade and Drama Desk award winner for The Last 5 Years) and the book is by Marsha Norman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1983 play ’Night, Mother and a Tony Award for her musical adaptation of The Secret Garden. The part of Robert Kincaid, who is on an assignment to photograph the covered bridges in the area, is played by Steven Pasquale. The production is helmed by Bartlett Sher, who previously directed O’Hara to great acclaim in The Light in the Piazza and the Tony-winning revival of South Pacific.

Surprisingly, romance is also the spark for the new musical Rocky (starts February 11). “People misremember it as a boxing story,” says director Alex Timbers, referring to the Oscar-winning 1976 movie written by and starring Sylvester Stallone, about the Philadelphia boxer who gets an unexpected shot at the world’s heavyweight championship title. “It is this beautiful underdog story about two damaged people — Rocky and Adrian — who, through their love for each other, find hope and dignity.” The musical has stellar writing credentials: a score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), the award-winning duo responsible for Ragtime and Seussical as well as several Off-Broadway favorites; and a book by Thomas Meehan, Tony winner for Annie, The Producers, and Hairspray. Director Timbers, last represented on Broadway with the Tony-nominated Peter and the Starcatcher, says he aims to capture the gritty visceral world of the fight clubs as well as the “sense of intimacy” and “the long poetic scenes” from the movie where you “connect with the characters on a personal level.”

Ever since Beauty and the Beast, which debuted on Broadway in 1994, the Disney company has supplied the Great White Way with musicals based on their animated and live-action movies. The latest is Aladdin (starts February 26), based on the 1992 animated feature inspired by the Arabian folktale from One Thousand and One Nights. The score is based on the original Oscar-winning music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Tim Rice and the late Howard Ashman, and incorporates a new book and additional lyrics by Chad Beguelin (recently represented on Broadway with Elf). Riding the magic carpet together are Adam Jacobs, as the street kid who discovers a magic lamp, and Courtney Reed, his love interest, Princess Jasmine. The production, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (codirector and choreographer of the Tony-winning The Book of Mormon) also features Jonathan Freeman as the evil Grand Vizier Jafar, performing the role he originally voiced in the movie.

The last time Susan Stroman collaborated with a master comedian on a showbiz musical, she hit the jackpot: The five-time Tony Award–winning director-choreographer scored her greatest hit to date working with Mel Brooks on The Producers, a six-year megahit that won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards in 2001. This season she is working with another comic genius, Woody Allen, and the musical is Bullets Over Broadway (starts March 11), which pits the murderous dealings of the Mob against showbiz egos in a backstage comedy set in 1929 New York. The book for the new musical is written by Allen himself, adapted from the 1994 movie he cowrote with Douglas McGrath; the score incorporates popular songs from the 1920s and 1930s. Zach Braff (Emmy nominee for Scrubs) makes his Broadway debut as the novice writer forced to make compromises in order to get his play produced on Broadway. Three-time Tony nominee Marin Mazzie (Kiss Me Kate, Ragtime, Passion) takes on the juicy role of the aging diva Helen Sinclair (played in the movie by Dianne Wiest) and Nick Cordero plays Cheech, the hit man with an uncanny knack for playwriting.

If/Then (starts March 5) is something of a rarity on Broadway: a musical written originally for the stage. The show marks the much anticipated return of Idina Menzel, best known for creating the beloved Elphaba in Wicked a decade ago. Written by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics), the Pulitzer Prize–winning team who wrote Next to Normal, If/Then is about chance and possibilities in the life of Elizabeth, an urban planner approaching 40 who, after a failed marriage, now faces a new beginning in New York City. Menzel plays two versions of her character — Liz and Beth — in twin story lines that represent alternate realities. The production reunites the Tony Award–winning singer and actress with her castmate Anthony Rapp and director, Michael Grief, from her debut musical, Rent. The company also includes LaChanze, Tony winner for The Color Purple, James Snyder (Cry-Baby) and Jerry Dixon (Once on this Island).

Of the four musical revivals slated for this season, Les Misérables (starts March 1), of course, hardly needs any introduction. This production, however, is a reimagined version of the landmark musical written by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Herbert Kretzmer, which has been running continuously in London since it opened in 1985. The defining stage design element of the original production, a revolving turntable that represented a highlight of theatrical technology of the 1980s, has been replaced with 21st century digital technology; the current production design utilizes a series of images inspired by novelist Victor Hugo’s own paintings to propel the epic story. Iranian-Canadian actor and singer Ramin Karimloo makes his Broadway debut as Jean Valjean and Will Swenson (Priscilla and Hair) plays his nemesis, Javert.

A little-known but well received 1997 Off-Broadway musical, Violet (starts March 28) gets a fresh lease of life on Broadway this season. Based on Doris Betts’s short story The Ugliest Pilgrim, Violet is about a disfigured young woman from North Carolina who makes a journey to Oklahoma in 1964 hoping to be restored to beauty by a faith healer. Violet’s life and aspirations change after she meets a young black soldier, who is himself dealing with the racial prejudice of the era. The libretto is written by Brian Crawley and the gospel, rock, and R&B score is by Jeanine Tesori, a three-time Tony Award nominee for Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline, or Change, and Shrek the Musical and composer of the recent Off-Broadway hit Fun Home. Sutton Foster, who starred in Millie and Shrek and who received a Tony for the recent revival Anything Goes, plays the lead in the Roundabout Theater Company production, directed by Leigh Silverman.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (starts March 29) marks the arrival of another scarred heroine on Broadway. The punk-rock musical, written by actor-playwright John Cameron Mitchell and composer-lyricist Stephen Trask, began life in various downtown clubs in the mid-1990s before settling into a sensational two-year-plus Off-Broadway engagement in 1998. Tony Awards show host and How I Met Your Mother star Neil Patrick Harris will take on the part originally played by Mitchell — the titular Hedwig, an androgynous rock star from East Berlin who is determined to overcome a botched transgender surgery and reunite with the glam rock icon he/she helped to create. The production is directed by Michael Mayer, Tony Award winner for Spring Awakening and Drama Desk winner for American Idiot.

Some three decades before young Hedwig made her journey out of Communist East Berlin, the indomitable Sally Bowles was exploring divine decadence at the Kit Kat Klub in 1930’s Berlin. Oscar nominee (Brokeback Mountain) and Golden Globe winner (My Week With Marilyn) Michelle Williams makes her Broadway debut playing Sally in a new revival of Cabaret (starts March 21). John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff’s famous musical, based on Christopher Isherwood’s novella Goodbye to Berlin, charts the life of the entertainer and aspiring star Bowles against the backdrop of the rise of the Nazis and the escalation of anti-Semitism in prewar Germany. Alan Cumming, star of the last revival in 1998, reprises his Tony Award–winning performance as the Emcee in this production, which is again directed by Sam Mendes.

Visit us again on January 27th for Part Two of the Season Preview: The Plays.

Learn More About Beautiful: The Carole King Musical