City Center celebrates Off-Broadway and why that's a BFD
By Sam Perwin
New York is a theater town. As I wrote about last week, our cup runneth over with options of theatrical delights every night of the week. Broadway is obviously the biggest, brightest attraction, but these days there seems to be a general bemoaning about the lack of innovation on The Great White Way, particularly when it comes to new, non-revival musicals. There's blame to go around: it's hard to take a chance on something new when there are millions of dollars riding on it; a major portion of Broadway audiences are tourists, who really just want to see Phantom or Mamma Mia (not that there's anything wrong with that); it's easier to come up with something based on a movie than something original, etc. Every once in a while there's a break out hit (e.g. Next to Normal), but as the boys of [title of show] lamented, originial musicals on Broadway are few and far between.
Fortunately, the place where innovation thrives is in the Off-Broadway scene. Boasting season after season of new and original plays and musicals, NYC's Off-Broadway houses like Second Stages, Atlantic Theatre Company, The Vineyard, New York Theatre Workshop, The Public, and Playwright's Horizons to name a few, offer chances to appreciate new work at a fraction of Broadway ticket prices.Most importantly, though, Off-Broadway productions offer a show a chance to fail. The stakes are too high on Broadway to accept anything less than a hit. With a smaller budget, audience, and house, a show can have a limited life and not bankrupt anyone. Theater isn't always about becoming a blockbuster hit (cf. Phantom and Mamma Mia). Sometimes - and again I'll turn to [title of show] - it's better to be nine people's favorite thing than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing.
I had the pleasure to serve on an Artist's Board this year led by the awe-inspring Jeanine Tesori for City Center's upcoming series entitled Encores! Off-Center. As most (or at least most reading this blog) know, City Center's much beloved Encores! series presents semi-staged performances/readings of older, forgotten Broadway musicals. The runs are limited, the star-wattage is always off-the-charts, and sometimes these mini-revivals remind us how great a show is and it goes on to a Broadway run (some recent examples include Chicago, Gypsy, and Finnian's Rainbow). Sometimes, on the other hand, they remind you why the show never did well in the first place. This new series gives the same treatment to musicals that never got a chance to shine on Broadway, but are fiercely important nonetheless. The line-up includes the seminal Cradle Will Rock, a one-night-only concert version ofViolet starring Sutton Foster (sorry kids, that one's sold out already!), and I'm Getting my Act Together and Taking it on the Road.
All three of these shows played an important role in the history of musical theater without ever making it Broadway, and they deserve to be recognized. A cultural behemouth like City Center presenting these groundbreaking, Off-Broadway works is a step towards a greater acknowledgement of how vital Off-Broadway theater is. Best of all, most seats to these events are a measely $25. That's like two decent cocktails, or a three course meal at some places. Running with the performances is also The Lobby Project, a kick-ass collection of installation pieces, talk-balks, spoken-word poetry and more. So go, support, and tell your friends. Off-Broadway demands your attention.
 Incidentally, both Next to Normal and [title of show] started Off-Broadway (at Second Stages and The Vineyard respectively) before they transferred to Broadway.