Times Square can thank New York's smaller stages for coming productions of Grey Gardens, Spring Awakening and The Little Dog Laughed — the products of Playwrights Horizons, Atlantic Theatre Company and Second Stage, respectively. Meanwhile, The Times They Are A-Changin', Butley and Company were put together in San Diego, Boston and Cincinnati.
Then, of course, there's old London town, which is always good for a Broadway show or two — in this case the musical Mary Poppins and Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia, which is so long it will have three openings, begin during the High Holy Days and not end until Lent.
Ironically, the only world premiere to grace Broadway this autumn is The Vertical Hour, the work of a British playwright (David Hare) and British director (Sam Mendes). The star's American, anyway. She's Julianne Moore, which goes a long way toward explaining why this new work — about an American war correspondent-turned-academic whose convictions are challenged — is bowing on Broadway at the Music Box Nov. 30. It will be the first Hare play to debut on Broadway.
But, getting back to those Off-Broadway and regional testing grounds, theatergoers can thank these seedbeds for one of the most artistically challenging and adventurous musical seasons in recent memory, in which inspiration has been drawn from Bob Dylan, Frank Wedekind and The Maysles Brothers. These unlikely sources led to, in order: Twyla Tharp's The Times They Are A-Changin' (previewing at the Brooks Atkinson from Sept. 25); Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's Spring Awakening (starting at the O'Neill Nov. 17); and Scott Frankel, Michael Korie and Doug Wright 's Grey Gardens (beginning Oct. 3 at the Walter Kerr) — a triumvirate of musicals which will doubtless provoke much of the season's critical dialogue.
Not one of these three received universal praise when they were unveiled. Yet critics could not deny the innovation and originality on display. Neither could they ignore, in the case of Gardens, the achievement of Christine Ebersole, who found that ever-elusive thing, the "Role of a Lifetime," in her dual part: self-indulgent socialite "Big Edie" Beale in the show's 1941-set first act, and the stymied eccentric "Little Edie" Beale in 1973-set second act. Joining her in the ramshackle manse of the title (also the name of the Maysles documentary of the Beales, which gave birth to this musical), as Act Two's "Big Edie," is Mary Louise Wilson . Michael Greif directs Grey Gardens , which is a bit ironic, since Spring Awakening, the other daring musical born Off-Broadway last season, was the one that was frequently compared to Greif's most famous credit: Rent . Indeed, if Jonathan Larson's East Village bohemians live in Fin de siecle 19th-century Germany, they might sing and act the way the kids do in Michael Mayer's production. They're not being denied artistic expression here, just a crucial "birds and bees" talk from their parents. But, oh what havoc that omission wreaks on these angsty schoolkids. And critics remarked that, a century of so later, a willed ignorance of sex hasn't quite gone out of fashion among certain segments of society.
The Times They Are A-Changin' is, of course, Tharp trying to do for Bob Dylan what her Movin' Out did for Billy Joel — that is, fit the songwriter's canon into a narrative and then set the story ablaze with electric choreography. Billed as a coming of age story set in a traveling circus, the show apparently has been much changed since its debut at San Diego's Old Globe.
Not new, but still bold in conception, will be John Doyle's new production of Sondheim's Company (beginning Oct. 30 at the Barrymore). New Yorkers are familiar with Doyle's Big Idea—the actors are also the orchestra. Tuba-toting Victorians impressed in Doyle's Sweeney Todd, which gave Sondheim a (not so rare) critical and (rare as hen's teeth) commercial hit last season. The director tested this version out in Cincinnati, where it was hailed enough to smooth the way to Broadway. Stars include Raul Esparza and Barbara Walsh.
Company has been on Broadway twice before, but A Chorus Line has visited but once. Of course, that visit lasted 15 years and only ended in 1990. The new revival, produced by Michael Bennett associate and prominent entertainment lawyer John Breglio, will answer the question of whether Broadway needs a new production of the classic show. Reviews and audience reaction during a tryout in San Francisco gave some reason to answer in the affirmative. Previews begin Sept. 18, making the show the first big musical opening this autumn.
Another returning guest left the Broadway table even more recently than Chorus Line. The British mega-musical Cats and Miss Saigon left town in 2000 and 2001 and haven't been heard of since. But Les Miserables, which closed in 2003, was barely gone three years before Cameron Mackintosh announced it was coming back for seconds. A six-month encore starts Oct. 24. Making the venture a little more interesting for theatre diehards is a fresh, young cast led by Alexander Gemignani (as Jean Valjean), Norm Lewis (Javert) and Daphne Rubin-Vega (Fantine).
Mackintosh isn't just trucking in past glories this season. He is partnering with Disney to produce Mary Poppins, the first show to open at the New Amsterdam since The Lion King . (It begins previews Oct. 14.) The huge musical, directed by Richard Eyre and choreographed and co-directed by Matthew Bourne, and with name recognition to beat the band, represents both producing entities' clearest shot at a Broadway blockbuster in years. Ashley Brown is the nanny with the multi-purposing umbrella. Also in the cast are Gavin Lee (as chimney sweep Bert), Daniel Jenkins (as Mr. Banks) and, arguably Broadway's finest voice, Rebecca Luker (as Mrs. Banks).
Other musicals expected on Broadway this fall are High Fidelity, which is based on the book and movie of the same name and will test its stuff in Boston (music is by Tom Kitt, with lyrics by Amanda Green); and a limited run of Dr. Suess' How the Grinch Stole Christmas , beginning Oct. 25, because, well, it's Christmas, and something's got to fill the Hilton Theatre until The Pirate Queen arrives in 2007.
Among the fall's plays, the 800-pound gorilla is Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia . (Or is it the script that weighs 800 pounds?) Stoppard's look at Alexander Herzen, Ivan Turgenev and all their nutty, thinky, 19th-century Russian pals is a triple-decker and will get three openings at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont. The first part, Voyage, begins Oct. 17. Director Jack O'Brien has congregated a nice Anglo-American affiliation of pale, dark-haired actors to execute the drama, including Billy Crudup, Richard Easton, Josh Hamilton, David Harbour, Ethan Hawke and Brían F. O'Byrne.
Alongside Utopia, every other play looks kind of dinky. But they all have something going for them. A Booth Theatre revival of Simon Gray's Butley brings Nathan Lane back to Broadway in a the meaty role of a cracking academic. Nicholas Martin directs. Previews begin Oct. 25. Rising English playwright Simon Mendes da Costa's Losing Louie will open the season at Manhattan Theatre Club's Biltmore Theatre on Sept. 21. Among the actors playing two generations of family members meeting 50 years apart in the same bedroom will be Matthew Arkin, Mark Linn-Baker, Patricia Kalember, Michele Pawk and Ana Reeder. Offering laughs is Douglas Carter Beane's first Broadway credit, The Little Dog Laughed. Last season's Off-Broadway hit will reach the Cort Theatre on Oct. 26. The dog is apparently laughing at Hollywood and its hypocritical, power-mongering, truth-bending, amoral ways, best personified by star Julie White as a Mack truck of an agent dead set on speeding her load (a prized actor client) to stardom.
The Roundabout Theatre Company will serve up one seldom-seen heavy hitter: Heartbreak House, Shaw's meditative comedic digression on matters of love, loyalty, want, fantasy and the Death of Civilization. This lu-lu of a play needs expert players to pull it off, and director Robin LeFevere has harnessed at least one: Philip Bosco, perhaps America's leading Shavian actor. Previews begin Sept. 15.
Finally, as the first show of the fall, comes Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!, the actor-ventriloquist's solo piece about his art form, his mentor and his career — just to ensure that the season isn't without dummies.
(Robert Simonson is senior editor of Playbill.com.)