Lights Up: Broadway's New Season Is Bigger Than Ever

11:29 AM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

Although the 2016/2017 Broadway season has only just begun, it's already shaping up to be one of the most interesting (and crowded) seasons in recent memory. Thirteen new musicals have already been announced, ranging from long-anticipated adaptations to tales ripped from history to wholly original stories. And that's not even counting the revivals. Let's break down some of the most exciting musicals headed to Broadway this season.

The adaptations

As always, many of the new musicals arriving on Broadway this season are "new" only in the sense that they have not been stage musicals before; this season will see adaptations of everything from a gangster film to a children's book to an animated classic.

In the category of "Really? They're making this a musical?", we have A Bronx Tale - yes, based on the DeNiro film about 1960s mafia, with a score by Alan Menken, composer of your childhood. Go figure. There's also an adaptation of Groundhog Day, transferring from the West End and starring Tony nominee Andy Karl. Joining it in crossing the pond is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with two-time Tony winner Christian Borle as the titular candymaker. Charlie seems poised to fill the gap left by the January 2017 closing of Matilda, not just as another Roald Dahl adaptation but as a similar family-friendly yet off-kilter show with just a hint of magic. But Bronx may struggle to find an audience - anyone remember Bullets Over Broadway? - while Groundhog Day will have to work outside of usual musical theatre structures to capture the quirky comedy of the film.

In a welcome development, three female-driven transfers are likely to dominate discussion in the spring. Amelie, adapted from the 2001 romantic comedy film, only just announced its Broadway opening, following a well-received run at Berkeley Rep in 2015. With Hamilton Tony nominee Philippa Soo taking over as the titular character, the adaptation enters a crowded season with momentum from both her ascent to theater stardom and the Berkeley production's strong reviews.

Among theatre fans, War Paint perhaps comes in with the most prestige of the adaptations. With a story drawn from a 2004 book and 2007 documentary and with a creative team including Doug Wright and Michael Greif, the story of the rivalry between Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein is tailor-made for theatergoing audiences. And if the drama wasn't enough, there's also the divas: the Chicago production starred (as will the Broadway production) Christine Ebersole and theatre's reigning queen Patti LuPone.

For audiences beyond typical theatre crowds, however, the adaptation that is drawing the most attention is Anastasia, the long-awaited adaptation of the 1997 animated musical. Original songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty return, adding to the beloved existing score, repurposing songs (notably transforming a campy villain song into a haunting paean to a lost homeland), and reworking the story along with writer Terrance McNally to develop a more historical and character-driven tale. In such a crowded season, it may take a property with this kind of appeal and talent to break through the crowd.

The revivals

Let's be frank for a moment here. Last season's revivals were a nonstop string of brilliance, from the thoughtful bittersweetness of Fiddler on the Roof to the gleaming, precise joy of She Loves Me to the poignant, earth-shattering The Color Purple to the bilingual production of Spring Awakening that managed the rare trick of perhaps being thematically more powerful than the original. This season, it looks like we're paying the price for all that creativity last season: a woefully thin revival category that seems to think we're all longing for the 1980s.

Opening this past summer was Cats, and the overwhelming question I found myself asking was "why?" Out of all the '80s megamusicals, Cats is the most '80s: more of a revue than a musical, with a cast performing what amounts to near-plotless interpretations of poems while wearing spandex, fur, and heavy makeup. As far as I can tell, no one was clamoring for a Cats revival, except perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber himself. In case one British megamusical wasn't enough, though, spring will bring over the West End revival of Miss Saigon, the emotional if culturally problematic reimagining of Madama Butterfly. The buzz surrounding this revival is good, at least regarding its stars Jon Jon Briones and Eva Noblezada, who are reprising their roles from London. Rounding out the '80s theme of the season is Hello, Dolly! led by Bette Midler. Only time will tell if this decidedly old-fashioned show will win over audiences today.

The saving grace, at least at this point in the season, would appear to be Falsettos, a musical relatively unknown outside of theatre circles that revolves around a gay man and the tangled familial relationships that surround him. Character-driven and star-studded, it's a welcome relief from the oversized revivals that surround it, but its status as a limited run beginning in the fall may challenge it come awards time.

The originals
And yet, in an occurrence that is rarer than it should be, multiple original musicals are making their way to Broadway this season as well. Come From Away revolves around the sleepy Newfoundland town of Gander that temporarily doubled its population on September 11, 2001, when 38 diverted planes landed in its airport and stranded their passengers in the small town. Meanwhile, news about The Bandstand, a wholly original story about life in the postwar music scene of the 1940s, had trickled to a near-standstill following a well-received Papermill production in 2015; most insiders and experts predicted it was dead in the water. It came as a lovely surprise, then, that the production announced in late October that it too would be coming to Broadway this season, with Broadway favorites Laura Osnes (a two-time Tony nominee) and Corey Cott leading the way.

But the real standout and most anticipated transfer of the season is Dear Evan Hansen, a poignant and modern musical about a teenager who inserts himself into the narrative of a classmate's suicide and its aftermath. Winning raves in its recent off-Broadway production, a Broadway production debuts this fall and hopes to continue its momentum into the spring awards season.

With a book by Steven Levenson and a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (best known for their off-Broadway cult hit Dogfight and their work on the TV series Smash), Dear Evan Hansen is riding a wave of acclaim and has already been hailed as a Best Musical contender. Time will tell, but this looks to be a great year for new stories on Broadway.

The wild cards

Most of this season's shows fit into tidy categories or are coming in with some degree of predictability, whether because of their content and form or some pre-existing buzz. Even so, a few shows are still wild cards that could either soar above the competition or crash and burn. In Transit is a musical that tries to join the rise of a cappella, following an ensemble of New Yorkers as their stories intertwine. Acclaimed Off-Broadway half a decade ago, the show could either be an a cappella Love Actually or a gimmick that gets lost in the season.

It's another long-awaited transfer, however, that's garnering attention in the early half of the season, and that's the show with the season's most cumbersome (yet oddly catchy) title, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. A strange and glorious combination of EDM, folk and classical music, and indie rock, it narrates exactly what the title tells us: a small segment of War and Peace focused on Natasha's romantic dilemmas and Pierre's existential and philosophical crisis. Early praise has been heaped on its stylized, immersive production, but only time will tell if this delightfully odd show will survive long enough to get the Tony nominations that could propel it to the top.

The bottom line

It's an embarrassment of riches this season for Broadway musicals, which is both great news and worrisome news. On the one hand, it means that there will be huge onslaught of new material, which is always a beautiful thing. On the other hand, however, there are only so many theatergoers who each only have so much time and money; so many shows means that the herd is likely to be cruelly thinned, with shows that might have succeeded in a less crowded season falling victim to being just not enough to top their rivals.

Among the new musicals, Dear Evan Hansen is about as close as we can get to a safe bet for both commercial and critical success. Great Comet, though garnering strong reviews, opened early in the season and has been praised more for its style than its substance. While Anastasia's devoted fan base and wide-ranging appeal may assure some level of success, its animated origins and up-and-coming leads may make it a tough sell to critics and Tony nominators/voters. Ditto Amelie, whose quirky charms may help the show rise above or prove too twee for mainstream audiences and critics. War Paint, meanwhile, could be a surprise smash and boasts a considerable pedigree, but its reliance on star leading ladies and its insider-y topic may turn it into the Shuffle Along of this season. Notably, however, a large percentage of these new musicals are female-driven stories ranging from Russian noblewomen and their love affairs to American businesswomen to a 1940s widow and everything in between: a welcome trend in a year in which gender parity has been at the forefront of many discussion both in and outside of the arts.

In the end, this season proves one thing above all else: Broadway musical theater is alive and well and thriving, and that, more than anything, is reason to celebrate.