- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

New Yorkers may still look down on Washington as a cultural backwater, but with Big Apple marquees currently lit up with four plays that started in Washington, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the nation’s theatrical center of gravity is creeping south.

The Washington area has had a rich history of homegrown transplants — everything from “The Great White Hope” and “Annie” to “King Hedley II” and “The Clean House” started here before playing in Manhattan. Yet four shows in a single season confirm that Washington has evolved beyond mere tryout town to become an incubator for new works that attract the attention of New York producers.

“33 Variations,” starring Jane Fonda in her return to Broadway after a 47-year absence, and the exhilarating bipolar musical “Next to Normal” are both recent transfers from the District’s Arena Stage. “Variations,” a cerebral play about Beethoven and the delicate strings that bind and estrange families, opened March 9 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater.

“Next to Normal” actually premiered in New York in 2007 at Second Stage Theatre and then went on to Arena Stage in 2008 for revisions and retooling before returning to New York — where it’s slated to open April 15 at the Booth Theater — with the entire Washington cast intact.

“We’re really committed to shows having a life beyond MetroStage,” says Carolyn Griffin, artistic director. “All of a sudden, Washington has become the place to launch new work.”

See list of D.C. to N.Y.C. transfers

See list of arts from D.C. to Manhattan marquee

“Usually the route after a show closes in New York is to go directly to regional theaters,” says Molly Smith, artistic director at Arena Stage. “It is very unusual that a musical gets a second chance and goes to Broadway. The buzz that ‘Next to Normal’ at Arena generated helped make that happen.”

“Rooms: A Rock Romance,” a high-voltage musical about relationships and inner demons, has moved from tiny MetroStage in Alexandria to New World Stages in Manhattan.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s world-premiere production last season of “Stunning,” a drama about the insular Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn, caught the attention of Lincoln Center, which is staging the play in June at the Duke Theatre in Times Square.

“I never anticipated an edgy piece like this would be in a mainstream theater,” says Woolly artistic director Howard Shalwitz.

The fluidity between regional theaters and New York has changed, according to Mr. Shalwitz. “New York is just one city among many now,” he says. “It is still big, but it doesn’t matter as much anymore — especially with [dramas]. This is a healthy development.”

Lower production costs are one factor in Washington’s rise as a laboratory for the development of important new work. “It is a lot cheaper than doing it in New York. For us, it is a big risk, but to New York producers, it is a small investment,” says Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of Signature Theatre, which has brought two shows to Broadway, last year’s “Glory Days” and “Never the Sinner” in 1997.

“It is more than economics,” says Miss Smith. “Working on a play outside the critical glare of New York is very important for a playwright. D.C. has a grace about it. Another big ingredient has to do with our audiences here — the most intelligent and educated in the country.”

Signature, like many other local theaters, has good relationships with overseas producers. A case in point is “The Witches of Eastwick,” the musical adaptation of the eponymous John Updike novel, which originated in London and was staged at Signature two seasons ago.

“I saw it in London, and we brought it here and did rewrites and made it darker,” recalls Mr. Schaeffer. “I thought it was going to move to Broadway and be huge. But now the production we did is on a tour of the U.K., and it is really bringing new life to the property.”

“Next to Normal” traveled a similar path. An Arena board member saw the musical in New York and alerted Miss Smith to its potential. “I called [director] Michael Greif and said we were very interested in bringing the show to Arena,” Miss Smith says. “Michael, the creative team and the cast came down, and we got to work — we made many changes in the songs and compressed the book. We went back into four weeks of rehearsal and a three-week preview period — the longest we’ve ever had since I’ve been here.”

The long preview period paid off. Audiences were enthusiastic from the beginning, and critical response was strong. Producers from New York came down during the run, including David Stone of “Wicked” fame, allowing Arena’s “Next to Normal” the opportunity to move to Broadway.

“The show has become what it was meant to become — a sung-through rock musical,” says Miss Smith.

With “33 Variations,” there were casting changes — Miss Fonda in the lead as the determined music scholar, Samantha Mathis as her daughter and Colin Hanks (Tom Hanks’ son) as her boyfriend and Zach Grenier as Beethoven — but pianist Diane Walsh, half the cast, the costumes, sets and projection design are from Arena’s production.

Miss Smith first saw the play at the Sundance Theatre Lab in 2005. “I had a few ideas, a 35-page sketch, really, and Molly saw it and immediately said she wanted Arena to be involved,” recalls playwright Moises Kaufman. “She saw the kernel of what I wanted to do.”

With his creative team, the Tectonic Theater Project, Mr. Kaufman conducted three workshops of “33 Variations” at Arena. “They were there at the scariest part of the process — when we didn’t have a play,” he says. “Arena is in every cell of this play — this is not accounting, it is organic to the work.”

Miss Griffin also saw something in Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon’s musical “Rooms: A Rock Romance.”

“Properties like this don’t come across my desk very often — a compelling story, powerful music,” says Miss Griffin. “I get at least 500 scripts a year — this one stood out.”

From the beginning, the goal was to get “Rooms” to New York. “Once the show got consistently great reviews, the investors and producers started coming down from New York,” she says. “By the end of the run last August, the move to New World Stages was arranged. It is very expensive to launch these shows, and if they can have another life, it makes perfect sense — artistically and economically, especially in these times.”

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