What Seemed to Be Broadway’s Number One Priority This Year?

Special Features   What Seemed to Be Broadway’s Number One Priority This Year? In a word: authenticity.

This year, it seems more than ever, producers opted for the most genuine representation of every element in their shows. “Consultant” is the profession du jour—from Waitress’ pie consultant to Hamilton’s historical consultant—as authenticity on the stage has become the ultimate priority.

Authenticity and accuracy has permeated every aspect of storytelling this season: in the writing, the portrayals and the tiniest details. “There was a time in the world where everybody just wanted everything to be nice and perfect and fantasy,” says Stacy Donnelly, the first known pie consultant on Broadway. “Everything is so real all the time, you don’t want to be tricked. [The audience] wants to feel a real experience.”

Playwright Danai Gurira wanted to provide that sense of legitimacy. Her Broadway debut, Eclipsed, follows five women during the Liberian Civil War—four of them wives to a war lord. Interested in exploring the landscape of war-torn Africa, Gurira aimed for precision from the beginning. “There was no way I was going to create some generalized concept of girls in war,” said Gurira in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I’m deeply keen to make sure the African story is told with specificity.”

Gurira dedicated time to listen deeply to the language patterns and sound of Liberians to create truth in her dialogue. Moreover, she traveled to the country in 2007 to meet with survivors of the war and members of the women’s peace movement. Her first-hand understanding was crucial to the creation of the work.

While Lin-Manuel Miranda could not rely on first-hand knowledge to write his opus on Alexander Hamilton, he worked with the Founding Father’s acclaimed biographer, Ron Chernow. As the advisor on the piece, Chernow pointed out any errors during development, and ”commented about the portraits of the different characters, motivations, the dynamics of the different relationships, and the dramatic arc,” he said.

This year’s Allegiance upped the ante on authenticity as Jay Kuo wrote a musical mirroring the real life experiences of George Takei, who then appeared onstage to tell the story eight times a week. Chronicling the story of Japanese-Americans imprisoned in internment camps during World War II, Takei remembered being forced out of his home as a child.

Josh Segarra and Ana Villafañe
Josh Segarra and Ana Villafañe

Though Takei told his own story each night, this season witnessed dozens of actors devoted to authenticity. Tony nominee Bill Camp watched lectures on YouTube by an English professor at New York University to better understand the time of The Crucible before stepping into the shoes of Reverend John Hale. Ana Villafañe pored over video tapes of Gloria Estefan before taking to the stage as the Queen of Latin pop in On Your Feet!, and her co-star, Josh Segarra, studied every move and verbal tick of Emilio Estefan to capture his essence. Andrew Lloyd Webber and the team behind School of Rock—The Musical auditioned 22,000 kids before casting the 18 age-appropriate actors (including swings) sticking it to the man at the Winter Garden Theatre—no 17-year-olds playing middle-school music prodigies here.

For the sixth iteration of Fiddler on the Roof, the team delved into the nitty-gritty of Jewish rituals. “From the get-go we brought in scholars, who studied the shtetl, from Columbia University,” said Jesse Kovarksy, who plays the titular fidder, ”and we also had a rabbi come in and he gave us a real understanding of what it meant to be in a shtetl in 1905 and engaging in the actual correct ritualistic practices.”

“Our producer, Jeffrey Richards, rented out a Jewish deli and we all celebrated [Shabbat] together,” said Danny Burstein, who plays Tevye. According to Jesse Kovarsky, the titular fiddler, the atmosphere evoked during the show’s “Sabbath Prayer” is a directed result of the group being able “to understand what the meaning of [Shabbat] is—what the feeling of it is.”

Still, character research is part and parcel of the acting profession. What really pushed Broadway over the edge this year were the extras, the moments that producers exerted added effort to create the world in which these shows live. As they say, the difference is in the details.

The outgoing display at <i>Waitress</i>.
The outgoing display at Waitress.

Rather than using props, Waitress hired a pie consultant to bake over 32 fresh pies each week. A centerpiece of the show, some of them are eaten, but others merely sit in the display cases of Joe’s Pie Diner. Audiences might not have known the difference between an Oreo Cookie Pie prop and the fresh one onstage, but it’s about creating an aura. (Hence the aroma of pie when ticketholders enter the theatre lobby at the Brooks Atkinson and the Guest Check note they can leave on a clothespin—“order up” style—on the way out.)

As the heart of Jenna’s story, it makes sense the producers would want to go the extra mile on making the homemade treats authentic. But even the most miniscule moments receive the reality treatment in the revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Producers originally wanted a real wolf to walk across the stage of the Walter Kerr at the top of Act One. Due to the legalities of using a real wolf, animal trainer William Berloni found a purebred Tamaskan (the canine lookalike) and brought him to New York all the way from Seattle for the seconds-long cameo. The “wolf’s” stare at the audience prickles in the air, infusing it with eeriness.

These small touches leave big impressions, but also indicate a larger shift in today’s theatre aesthetic. Theatre continues to stray from the escapist pastime of the 1930s and ’40s. Audiences clamor for theatre that makes them feel, that teaches, that moves. No more make-believe—only the real thing.

Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.

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