EXCLUSIVE: Broadway’s latest venture in freaky puppetry has been making a virtue of its un-Broadway vices: No stars, not a British import, not a remake of an old movie. Not surprising, given that the producer is Kevin McCollum, a lead producer of Avenue Q, which began life at the Vineyard Theater off-Broadway (Hand To God started off-Broadway as well) and moved to Broadway in 2003, where the handmade-looking show slew the giant Wicked to walk off with the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book. An off-Broadway transfer of that show is still running.
Smart, smart-ass marketing played a key role in the success of Avenue Q, and McCollum is staying that course with a promotional campaign that flouts the usual rules by emphasizing the things Hand To God lacks. Robert Askins’ black comedy, staged by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, stars Steven Boyer as Jason, a young man coerced into performing in a church puppet show at the “Christian Puppet Ministry of Cypress, Texas.” The sock puppet on his left hand quickly turns into either a potty-mouthed bully or the true voice of Jason’s inner self, his unchecked id.
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Which is Dr. Jekyll, which Mr. Hyde is the riddle posed by the play, which began life at off-off-Broadway’s Ensemble Studio Theatre, then moved to the MCC Theatre at the Lucille Lortel in Greenwich Village last spring before taking the big leap uptown. It will follow The Elephant Man into the Booth Theatre, beginning performances on March 12 and opening on April 7.
McCollum is a prolific Broadway gambler fixated on new shows. Before Avenue Q, he co-produced the game-changing Rent in 1996; along with Hand To God, he’s producing Something Rotten, an original musical also opening this spring. I asked him about his thing for puppets.
“Puppets are the Greek masks of today,” he said. “They allow you to write about politicians and not get arrested.” Alas, one big difference between Hand To God and Avenue Q is that the new show doesn’t have irresistibly catchy songs like “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet Is For Porn.”
“With Hand To God, the puppet’s the thing — and this is a sock puppet,” McCollum said. “What I find fascinating is whether the puppet takes possession of his personality or he takes possession of the puppet. I’m not sure. Tyrone [the puppet] really grows as a character.”
McCollum has helped lead a new generation of young producers seeking to find Broadway theatergoers where none were thought to exist, through counterintuitive marketing that goes back to Rent, which billed itself as the Broadway musical for people who hate Broadway musicals. In The Heights made a star of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the theater polymath whose Hamilton is getting ready to begin performances at the Public Theater.
“We have a great new American play,” McCollum said of Hand To God. “How do I sell it? We lead with our vulnerabilities. This spring we’ll have Larry David’s new play — hey, I’ll go see Larry David anytime — and we have Disgraced, which won the Pulitzer. And us. I’m gonna remind people that this is something Broadway gives people: The opportunity to become stars. Rob is a fresh voice, writing about important things, and when you’re laughing you learn more.
“The conventional wisdom says Hand To God has nothing you expect to see on Broadway,” he added. “But the theater is where you go to be surprised. Life’s hard enough. Get out of your comfort zone and have some fun.”
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