A red curtain revealing Times Square in black and white
A red curtain revealing Times Square in black and white

The Many New Yorks This Season on Broadway

“This is probably a sure way to get applause in New York, but I was born in Brooklyn,” Jessie Mueller as Carole King says from the stage of the Stephen Sondheim Theatre at the beginning of Beautiful.

These are the first spoken words in this Broadway musical, which is set in locations around New York City. The line about Brooklyn does get applause, without fail.
New Yorkers may be applauding a lot this season. Nearly half the shows opening on Broadway in spring 2014 are set wholly or mostly in New York City.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” says Brian Yorkey, who, with composer Tom Kitt, has written the book and lyrics for If/Then, which stars Idina Menzel as a city planner who moves to New York. “New York is our home, and it’s what we know, and what we love.” That’s true, he says, of many of the other writers of shows set in the city this season, from Woody Allen to James Lapine.

“New York City has a long history of serving as the setting for plays, television shows, and films, and inspiring creative professionals,” says Marybeth Ihle, who credits “the city’s iconic architecture, its creative energy and the diversity of its people.” Ihle works for the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, which keeps statistics that underscore her point: There are consistently about 200 feature-length films shot in New York City every year, which is three times as many as there were 25 years ago. In the year 2000, there were about a dozen television series being shot entirely on location in New York. For the 2013–2014 television season, that number has shot up to 29. And for every show like The Good Wife, which is shot in New York but set in Chicago, there is at least one (Mad Men, Brooklyn Nine Nine, The Mindy Project ) shot elsewhere but set in New York City.

What may explain the continuing depiction of the city in art, on screen, and on stage is also what is most striking about the New York presented on Broadway this season. There is no one single New York City. There are many New Yorks, each existing as a symbol as well as a setting.

There is a New York of nostalgia: Bronx Bombers (which has closed) focused on the New York Yankees in the 1970s but ended in 2008 in the old Yankee Stadium right before its last game. After Midnight (which opened last fall) is set in Harlem’s Cotton Club at its peak in the 1930s.

There is a New York of despair: Machinal (which had a limited run) was a revival of a 1928 play by Sophie Treadwell based on the true story of Ruth Snyder, a housewife from Queens who killed her husband and was electrocuted.

There is a New York of danger: In The Velocity of Autumn, Estelle Parsons plays Alexandra, a 79-year-old artist who, in a dispute with her family over where she is to live, barricades herself in her Brooklyn brownstone armed with Molotov cocktails.

There is a New York that is both elegant and sad: Mothers and Sons, the 20th play on Broadway by playwright Terrence McNally, takes place in an elegant apartment on the Upper West Side, and begins with two of its characters standing in front of the window, looking out at a spectacular view (unseen by the audience) that takes in both Central Park and the Upper East Side. Cal, played by Frederick Weller, points out to his visitor, Katharine, portrayed by Tyne Daly, such sites as the apartment where Jackie Onassis lived, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Central Park Reservoir. Then Katharine asks where in Central Park they had the memorial 20 years earlier for her son, who had died of AIDS.

More so than most seasons, there is New York that is . . . Broadway: Three of this season’s Broadway shows take place at least in part on Broadway itself.

Act One, a stage adaptation of playwright and director Moss Hart’s celebrated 1959 memoir of the same name, follows Hart (played by Santino Fontana as a young man and Tony Shalhoub as an older adult) from his impoverished boyhood in the Bronx to his first big Broadway hit cowritten with George S. Kaufman, Once in a Lifetime, in 1930, when Hart was 26 years old. The play itself is being performed at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center, but it is set in the Bronx tenement where he lived with his family; the Times Square offices of two other Broadway theatres, the New Amsterdam and the Music Box; the Upper East Side home of Hart’s mentor and collaborator George S. Kaufman; and in two theatres that were used for out-of-town tryouts, one in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the other in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. It climaxes in the Music Box Theatre, where Once in a Lifetime debuted.

It’s the world of Broadway as it once was, says James Lapine, the play’s writer and director. “Act One takes place before the advent of television and the explosion of movies,” says Lapine. “Attending theatre was a more integral part of the culture — especially Broadway. There were 70 Broadway theatres in operation. It was a very different time. That said, the process of putting on a show has fundamentally not really changed at all.”

Bullets Over Broadway, a musical by Woody Allen set in the 1920s and adapted from his 1994 movie,  also follows a show (this one fictional) on its journey to a Broadway stage. It takes place backstage in an unnamed Broadway theatre, but it’s also set in the Greenwich Village apartment of the novice playwright (Zach Braff, in his Broadway debut), a ritzy nightclub, and street scenes of the city shown from a moving car.

A very different Broadway is depicted in the revival of the 1998 rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, starring Neil Patrick Harris as a transgender rock singer from East Germany. The original production of the musical was set in the ballroom of a fleabag hotel called the Riverview. This first Broadway production is being presented at the Belasco Theater — and that’s where it is now set as well.

There is a New York of possibilities: In If/Then, Idina Menzel portrays Elizabeth, a new New Yorker who is faced with a choice: Should she pursue love or do important work? We see her doing both, as Liz choosing love, and as Beth helping to remake the map of the city. Of course, there is not just one New York even in a single show. As Brian Yorkey puts it, the New York in If/Then is not just a place of possibilities but also “of opportunity, frustration, missed connections, beauty, joy, anger, romance, loss, and chance encounters that might just change your life.”

Yorkey and Kitt, the duo who previously created Next to Normal, set If/Then in New York, he says, for many reasons. “Tom and I live in New York City, and we wanted to write a show about people who are like the people we know, who encounter all the joys and challenges and hope and heartbreak of living in this wonderful and impossible place. Also, our lead character is an urban planner, and New York in recent years has seen some remarkable changes thanks to great city planning. And the show is about a woman who’s been living somewhere without a lot of opportunity for her, without a lot of possibility to change her life, who makes a move to find opportunity and possibility — and New York City seemed like the place for her.”

Even in shows that have nothing to do with the city, a little of it peeks out. At the beginning of Aladdin, the genie (James Monroe Iglehart) starts to pull out the magic lamp from his pocket, but “by mistake” produces a miniature model Statue of Liberty, the most common symbol of New York. “Oops, sorry. Did a little preshow shopping,” he says. One can see why he might confuse the two: New York, too, is a place where magic happens.