Broadway Gets A House For Real, Live American Playwrights

Jeremy Gerard

After 10 months of renovations and upgrading, the house lights came up Monday morning inside the Helen Hayes Theatre, at 589 seats Broadway’s smallest and newest landmark venue.

The stage was filled with board members and staff from the latest owner, the nonprofit Second Stage theater company, as well as local politicians who’d been in instrumental in carving a substantial amount of money for the Hayes out of the city budget.

Jeremy Gerard

There were rousing speeches, a proclamation from Mayor Bill de Blasio declaring it “Second Stage On Broadway Day,” multiple thank-yous and a photo-op with Manchester By The Sea writer/director Kenneth Lonergan and Michael Cera, Chris Evans, Brian Tyree Henry and Bel Powley, the cast of Lonergan’s Lobby Hero, which will re-open the theater in the spring in a revival staged by Trip Cullman. Then a prop looking much like a mousetrap on steroids was rolled out and artistic director Carole Rothman, who co-founded the company 40 years ago with Robyn Goodman, flipped the switch.

The timing of the Hayes reopening probably could not have been better: Plays in general and new plays in particular have become an endangered genre on Broadway. Long-running musicals that lock up big theaters for decades have forced producers to book smaller houses for musicals, which stand a better chance than straight plays of turning a profit (star-driven limited runs, such as Denzel Washington in the upcoming revival of The Iceman Cometh, being the exception).

Second Stage’s founding principle was to give American plays a second look; that has evolved, along with the itinerant company, to embrace new plays and musicals, several of which (Next To Normal, Dear Evan Hansen, Everyday Rapture) later moved to Broadway.

Jeremy Gerard

With the restoration by Ambassador Theatre Group of the Hudson Theatre, the total number of Broadway houses is currently 41; only shows presented in those theaters are eligible for Tony nominations, which is a significant factor in attracting talent. Nonprofit companies have become a major force within the district, accounting now for six Tony-eligible houses: Three operated by the Roundabout Theatre Company (the American Airlines, Studio 54 and the Stephen Sondheim); and one each by Lincoln Center Theatre (the Vivian Beaumont) and the Manhattan Theatre Club (the Samuel J. Friedman), along with the Hayes.

Board chairman Stephen C. Sherrill led the proceedings, introducing New York City Council speaker Corey Johnson, cultural affairs commissioner Tom Finkelpearl, council member and ubiquitous culture activist Jimmy Van Bramer and borough president Gale Brewer, all outspoken arts supporters. They noted that the city had covered more than $13 million of the cost of purchasing and renovating the Hayes, which was purchased from private owners for $25 million and sparked an ambitious building and endowment campaign that brought the total price tag to more than $64 million.

“My husband and I love the theater,” Van Bramer said. “We absolutely love the theater and come all the time – and yes, that means that I’m gay, just in case there’s any confusion about the situation.

“And the Speaker didn’t mention it but he, too, is a gay man,” Van Bramer continued, to cheers and laughter. “And let me just say, if you love theater, love the arts, it is a very good thing that the Speaker and the Chair of Cultural Affairs are gay men.” (For the record, he also misattributed a quote – “politics is show business for ugly people” – to Barack Obama; it was actually Clinton Svengali Paul Begala who said it.) He also mentioned that Second Stage board member Brooke Shields, who was in attendance, has made the effort to come to his office to speak on behalf of the project.

Lynn Nottage Jeremy Gerard

Board member and two-timer Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage (Ruined, Sweat)  introduced Rothman explaining that Second Stage gave her first professional production. It had been a long and often frustrating, not to mention litigation-mined route from Second Stage’s decision a decade ago to acquire the Hayes, through a global financial crisis, the unanticipated success of Rock of Ages, to this morning.

Rothman paid necessary  and deserved homage to architect and set designer David Rockwell, who oversaw the renovation and has designed Lobby Hero as well. The Hayes has had many names (and is sure to get another when a donor comes forward) and served many purposes since it was built near the beginning of the last century. It’s been faithfully but unfussily restored to its jewel-box graciousness. It’s also, fortunately, still too small to be of much interest to commercial producers, which should help in keeping Second Stage true to its promise of bringing exclusively the work of living American theater makers to Broadway.

To that end, Second Stage’s second Broadway production will be Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, directed by Anna D. Shapiro and starring Armie Hammer and Tom Skerritt; it will mark the first play by an Asian-American woman to be produced on Broadway.

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