American Theatre Wing's Sherman Finds a Season of Passion on Broadway

Special Features   American Theatre Wing's Sherman Finds a Season of Passion on Broadway
Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyric, "In the Depression was I depressed? Nowhere near." The same could be said for Broadway this season. Anyone who walks through the theatre district would find it hard to ignore the number of marquees lit up with classic and contemporary titles. Investors seem "nowhere near" depressed about this recession.
Howard Sherman and Angela Lansbury
Howard Sherman and Angela Lansbury Photo by Aubrey Reuben

"Certainly in the past roughly 25 years it's the most openings of any season, which is pretty phenomenal," said American Theatre Wing executive director Howard Sherman at the recent 2009 Tony Award nominees reception. "'83 was the last time where we had anywhere like this many openings and that's fantastic."

Sherman, whose Wing co-presents the Tony Awards with The Broadway League, is well aware of the pundits and theatre insiders who were predicting fewer productions on Broadway this spring due to the current financial climate. But theatres are occupied. How does he explain it?

"You can say that there are up times and down times, but fundamentally, Broadway is always an enormous risk," Sherman said. "What makes it to Broadway is the result of passion. [It's] the passion of producers, it's the passion of the investors, it's the passion of the performers who want to be there. A show, in the course of its life, is ready when it's ready."

Broadway currently offers productions that some would deem financially risky. Shows like Next to Normal, Exit the King, Desire Under the Elms and Waiting for Godot broach subjects that aren't easily sold to the tourist market on which Broadway so heavily relies, and yet here they are.

"I think it's been an extraordinary year, particularly in the diversity of play revivals," Sherman said, assessing the season. "It's great when you can actually see Ionesco and Beckett in the same season, to acclaim. And Dolly Parton is her own category in and of herself. I think it once again proves the diversity of what can be on Broadway. I think there are many who like to suggest that Broadway has become enormously homogenized over the years and I think you only have to look at the listings of what was eligible for Tony Awards this year and realize Broadway can encompass an enormous amount of work say from a Rock of Ages, which uses classics songs from the '80s, to Samuel Beckett, to new work like Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Pretty. That's a wide range. "...Hopefully, that diversity spreads out...regionally, on tour, in colleges, in community theatre. What a lot of people don't realize about the Tonys is that the Tonys recognize work at the beginning of its theatrical life, especially for the new work."

Rediscovered revivals also benefit.

"I bet there haven't been a lot of literary managers and dramaturgs out there, sitting there saying, 'Let's do Exit the King,'" notes Sherman. "I suspect we're going to see more productions of Exit the King over the next few years around the country, maybe even around the world as a result of what's happened, first with a wonderful production and then secondly with the recognition it received."

Looking ahead to the 2009-10 Broadway season, Sherman is hopeful. Broadway is set to welcome musicals including Memphis, The Addams Family and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, as well as revivals of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, and premieres from David Mamet, Sarah Ruhl and Patrick Marber.

"This is still about passion and it's still about love of the art. As long as there are people out there who do have resources and know people with resources, they're going to continue to find a way to bring work to Broadway and that's good for us all," Sherman said.

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