Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Arena Stage’s Tony Awards Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Halfway up the stairs leading to Arena Stage’s theaters is a square pedestal, on top of which sit two Tony Awards. One, given in 1976, is a non-competitive award that honors the nation’s best regional theater; Arena was the first theater to receive it. The other, awarded this past June, is a Best Musical award for Dear Evan Hansen. Arena presented the world premiere of the musical in D.C. in 2015, and produced it on Broadway in association with its commercial producers. 

At the 2017 Tony Awards, three shows that spent significant time in D.C. were nominated for a combined 19 awards. Dear Evan Hansen won six, including Best Musical. Come From Away, presented at Ford’s Theatre in the fall of 2016, won the award for Best Direction of a Musical. Sweat, co-commissioned by Arena Stage and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, didn’t win on any of its Tony nominations, but did get the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Arena’s two Tonys, though given 40 years apart, inform the company’s role in the theater world. It was one of the pioneers of the regional theater movement and was the first regional nonprofit theater to see a show it had developed move to Broadway. Since 1968, 22 shows that Arena developed in some way have made the same move. Other D.C.-area nonprofit theaters, including Signature Theatre and Ford’s Theatre, have since done the same thing.

Regional theaters in other cities, like the La Jolla Playhouse near San Diego and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., have had similar success sending shows to New York’s commercial stages. But on a city-wide level, D.C. is more or less unmatched. 

The next show that’s poised to take New York by storm after incubating in D.C. is already being plugged on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Mean Girls, a new musical from Tina Fey, Jeff Richmond, and Nell Benjamin based on Fey’s 2004 film, opens at The National Theatre on Oct. 31 before bowing on Broadway next March. 

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That D.C. can and does support a variety of Broadway-bound productions is well-documented. But the question that remains is why? What about this city filled with bureaucrats and journalists helps producers decide whether their investments will yield a big return? 

“I think that D.C. audiences are the smartest in the country,” says Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith. “They’re able to take in any type of material, except for shows that go backward and forward in time—they have more of a problem with that. They’re very literate and so they understand nuance better than any audience.”

Paul Tetreault, director of Ford’s Theatre, echoes her sentiments. “I think [producers] feel that the reaction of D.C. audiences is not terribly dissimilar from New York audiences,” he says. “For them, I think they could see if something takes off here, they’ve got a good read that that might happen in New York.” 

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Producers have sought the opinions of Washington-area audiences for close to a century. Show Boat, considered the grandfather of the contemporary American musical, premiered at The National Theatre in 1927. At that time, commercial producers—the deep-pocketed people funding these shows—would send a show to a smaller city like D.C., Boston, or Detroit, and tweak it for several weeks before its official Broadway opening. In addition to Show Boat, some of the shows seen by audiences at The National before becoming Americana include West Side Story and Hello, Dolly

Regional theaters, which generally operate as nonprofit organizations, began to emerge in the middle of the 20th century. Arena Stage was founded in 1950 by Zelda Fichandler, her husband Tom Fichandler, and Edward Mangum. In 1968, a show that originated there was the first to make the leap from a regional theater to Broadway. 

But that production of Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope nearly ruined the company. After playing to rapturous reviews in D.C., commercial producers sent the show (and many of the cast members, who belonged to Arena’s resident acting company) on to New York, forcing Zelda Fichandler to essentially rebuild the company and its team of designers. Arena received no financial support from Sackler, even though the play ran for more than a year on Broadway and won the Tony for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1969. 

“That’s a real wound in the organization’s past,” current artistic director Smith says now. “It was the first show that went out of the resident theater movement that moved to Broadway, but it was not a pretty story.”

The Great White Hope at Arena Stage, 1967 Credit: Fletcher Drake

Arena Stage learned from that experience, however, and continued to work with commercial producers to develop shows that would eventually go to Broadway. Between 1969 and 1985, 12 different shows with roots at Arena made the jump. When, in 1976, the American Theater Wing decided to honor regional theaters with an annual award, it was hardly surprising that Arena received the inaugural trophy. Fichandler had figured out how to export theater and dozens of other artistic directors would follow her path.

Ford’s Theatre, which reopened as a National Historic Site and working theater in 1968, did just that. In 1971, the musical revue Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope premiered at Ford’s and appeared on Broadway the following year. As the regional theater movement grew and evolved, shows traveled to cities around the world. Arena staged productions in Moscow, Leningrad, and Hong Kong, while Ford’s collaborated with other regional theaters in Los Angeles and East Haddam, Connecticut. 

By the 1980s, however, Broadway was changing. Dreary, big-budget musicals imported from London like Cats and Les Miserables, rather than the more intimate shows that can work in 500-seat theaters, found commercial success. No Arena shows produced between 1985 and 2007 went to Broadway. Under the direction of Smith, who assumed her current position in 1998, Arena started sharing new American works with New York audiences again in the mid-aughts. In late 2008, the musical Next to Normal, about a woman’s struggle with bipolar disorder, played at Arena before moving to Broadway and winning three Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize. 

On the other side of the Potomac, around the same time, another ambitious theater company was also building its Broadway bonafides. Signature Theatre started producing shows in an Arlington middle school in 1990. In 2006 it moved into a state-of-the-art facility in Shirlington, and the next year presented Saving Aimee, its first musical that would subsequently move to Broadway, albeit five and a half years later. (It finally made it to Broadway in 2012 with some financial help from lead producer and now Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick, where it ran for 29 performances.) 

Glory Days, another Signature musical, went to Broadway in 2008, and The Visit, presented at Signature in 2008, followed in 2015. Less than 20 years after its founding, Signature won the 2009 Regional Theater Tony. Shakespeare Theatre Company picked theirs up in 2012.

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Come From Away at Ford’s Theatre, 2016 Credit: Carol Rosegg

The business of producing a show that moves from a regional theater to Broadway has evolved over time. Commercial producers frequently pitch directors, but the artistic staff of regional theaters also attend workshops and festivals to identify pieces they’d like to work on.

When producers shop shows to regional theaters, they offer what’s called enhancement money, a specific sum that the regional theater will receive to present the show. “A lot of theaters jump at that because they see that as a way of sort of surviving,” says Tetreault of Ford’s Theatre. “I’m only interested in that if I’m interested in the show … I don’t care how much money they’re going to give me if the show is a piece of crap.” 

In the case of Come From Away, Ford’s wanted to be involved with the show after seeing a workshop of it in 2014, but commercial producers had already acquired it. The musical chronicles what happened in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland in the hours and days following the September 11th attacks, when 38 planes full of passengers landed there due to the closure of U.S. air space. It premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse, but when producers decided to present it on the East Coast, in a city that had been directly impacted by 9/11, they contacted Tetreault. “The fact that it was going to Broadway was interesting to us, but we would have done it even if it wasn’t going to Broadway,” he says. “We believed in the piece and it was very much in the wheelhouse of our mission.”

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The enhancement funds that come with these shows aren’t as significant as one might assume. Ford’s received about $500,000 for Come From Away, and while that amount of money helps the theater execute the show the way they want to, it doesn’t significantly alter the theater’s operating model. Tetreault says that Come From Away’s success has made his board eager to find and develop another hit,

Smith tends to agree. She says she receives 10 to 15 calls a month about shows that producers want to bring to Arena, but unless it’s a story she wants to tell, she won’t pursue it. 

The timing of these shows can also benefit regional theaters, whose subscriptionseasons usually run from early fall through late spring. (Subscribing to a theater means a patron pays a fixed amount for tickets to a set number of shows over the course of a year.) Broadway-bound shows usually need more scheduling flexibility, particularly when it comes to lining up the personnel they want, and at Arena, they often run in the summer.

“This has really given us an opportunity to get close to being year-round in producing, which is important,” says Edgar Dobie, Arena Stage’s executive director. “When we’ve got these three beautiful facilities here, you like to see the building itself lit, with two or three of the theaters operating at all times. The fact that there’s an appetite to do this kind of work with us, and that we’ve found a way to do that and that it moves on is important.”

Once a regional theater agrees to produce a show with commercial backing, its leaders figure out a profit-sharing or royalty agreement. As it runs, the producers may invite critics from New York, in addition to the local papers, to see the show and help them anticipate future results. Then, depending on what stages are available, the shows might go straight to Broadway or do another short run at another regional or nonprofit theater. 

After departing Arena Stage in August 2015, for example, Dear Evan Hansen ran at New York’s Second Stage Theater from March to May 2016 and eventually opened on Broadway that November. Come From Away left Ford’s in October 2016 for a run in Toronto and opened on Broadway this past March. Because the shows that come through regional theaters are still in development, their journeys to New York can take longer. 

Mean Girls, which will run at The National Theatre, a commercial theater, has mostly been workshopped in New York, but fans have known since last October that it’s coming to D.C., and that it will eventually run on Broadway in 2018.

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At a theater like The National, which is managed by a for-profit company but is technically a nonprofit entity, commercial producers make an agreement with the theater’s operators to rent out the theater for as long as they want as opposed to giving out a lump sum of enhancement money. It’s then up to the producers to figure out how to fill more than 1,500 seats. The National sells subscriptions to its Broadway series,  allowing audience members to pay a set amount for tickets to the shows it brings in each year, but because it’s so much larger than other stages around town, there are simply more tickets to sell. 

Operated since late 2012 by Jam Theatricals, a Chicago-based company that manages Broadway subscription series in 30 cities throughout the nation and has produced a number of shows on Broadway, The National Theatre remains popular with producers seeking a traditional out-of-town tryout. Most recently, a post-Wicked Idina Menzel starred at The National in the world premiere of If/Then in 2013.

Part of that has to do with its size. Seating 1,676 patrons, the National is significantly larger than Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage (680 seats) or Ford’s Theatre (655 seats), but smaller than the Kennedy Center Opera House (2,364 seats). It most closely mimics a Broadway house in terms of size and layout—for comparison, the August Wilson Theater, where Mean Girls will play in New York, seats approximately 1,228. 

“The size of the stage and the seating area at The National is very similar to that of many Broadway theaters that these shows will be performing in once they get to New York,” says Steve Traxler, Jam Theatricals’ co-founder. “A try-out or premiere at The National helps replicate the Broadway experience better than most theaters and it gives the creative team a pretty accurate idea of how their show will look, feel, and operate once it’s in a Broadway theater.”

Because a larger venue exists in D.C., most of the significant touring productions—the Hamiltons, Book of Mormons, and Wickeds that attract huge audiences for years—end up playing the Kennedy Center, leaving the National with huge gaps in its schedule. The shows that do come to The National these days often stay for shorter periods than they did in the past. When Les Miserables came to the National in 2006, it stayed for more than six weeks. When it comes this winter, it will leave in less than three. Beyond Mean Girls and Les Mis, the National will welcome the touring company of Something Rotten, a well-reviewed musical comedy about Shakespeare’s fictitious competitors, for 16 shows in February, and Waitress, the musical based on the 2007 film, for a few dozen shows in May and June. Jam Theatricals produced both Something Rotten and Waitress on Broadway.

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That D.C. has a good theatrical ecology, which is to say many stages of different sizes, matters, Smith says. “You don’t see that in very many cities, that kind of ecology. Some places like L.A., it’s mostly theaters that seat 100 people, and then you’ll have a big theater like the Ahmanson. …Here, you’ve got Arena and Shakespeare as large theaters, you’ve got Ford’s, that’s probably right underneath that or maybe they are up there too. Then you’ve got medium-sized theaters: Studio and Woolly and Signature and Round House and Olney. And then you’ve got a lot of small theaters.” 

Being less than 250 miles from New York is an added perk. “Nobody really likes to stray too far from home,” Dobie says, and it’s easier for everyone involved to hop on a train than it is to fly to the West Coast. D.C.’s deep bench of union actors and technicians also makes it possible for producers to recruit a talented company and crew with relative ease, should they need to. Come From Away’s cast was mostly intact when it arrived at Ford’s, but the show’s creative team filled one role and all the understudies with D.C. actors. 

Washingtonians have sophisticated taste too, in part because they have more opportunities to see theater. Shows like Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen, which had no major stars attached, were bolstered by positive reviews and word-of-mouth praise from audiences who saw the shows as they developed. 

Some audience members become so devoted that they become an extended part of the show’s family, according to Dear Evan Hansen producer Stacey Mindich. “They saw it first, they were proud of that. They came to Second Stage because they wanted to see how it was developing and they just about flipped out when we got to Broadway, so I feel like the Washington community really supported us and is now very proud of us.” 

Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage, 2015 Credit: Margot Schulman

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Even with the support of commercial producers, there’s no guarantee that discerning D.C. audiences will love what they see. In 1996, after Whistle Down the Wind, an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about children who meet a fugitive and think he’s Jesus, tried out at The National, Washington Post reviewer Lloyd Rose described it as “just dull.” The producers and creative team decided to cancel its already scheduled Broadway engagement. 

More recently, shows that resonated in smaller D.C.-area spaces never quite found their footing on Broadway. The Velocity of Autumn, an intimate, two-actor play at in Arena’s 514-seat Kreeger Theater in 2013, lasted only 22 previews and 16 performances after moving to Broadway’s 766-seat Booth Theatre in April 2014. That was long enough for actress Estelle Parsons to earn a Tony nomination for her role, but without huge ticket sales, producers couldn’t subsidize the cost of a longer run.

The cautionary tale for the D.C. region has, since 2008, been Glory Days, an intimate musical sent from Signature Theatre to Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre. It opened and closed on the same night. Originally conceived by composer Nick Blaemire and book writer James Gardiner, who now works as Signature’s deputy director of creative content and publicity, it told the story of four high school friends who meet a year after graduating to reflect on the ways they’ve changed. Blaemire and Gardiner first showed their work to Signature’s artistic director Eric Schaeffer while participating in a musical theater master class at the Kennedy Center. He was so impressed that he became a fairy godfather of sorts, helping them create a fully formed musical and eventually offering them a spot in Signature’s 2007-2008 season.

Glory Days at Signature Theatre, 2008 Credit: Scott Suchman

Its world premiere was met with positive reviews from local critics, as well as a pair of young producers, John O’Boyle and Ricky Stevens. They secured funding and a stage, and by the time the show closed at Signature on February 17, the cast and crew knew the show would be in previews at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre at the end of April. In roughly eight weeks, the brand new musical was ready for its big debut, a condensed time frame that sounds crazy to Gardiner in retrospect.

“At the end of the day, when Broadway comes knocking, you don’t go, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I’m not ready.’ You go, ‘OK, great!’ But I wish we had had another production of it outside of Signature to really fix the issues that we saw with the show,” he says.

A deathly review from the New York Times cemented its fate, and O’Boyle and Stevens decided to close the show after 17 previews and one official performance.

Bad fortunes on Broadway don’t necessarily mean a show will never be seen again. One Night with Janis Joplin, a musical revue nurtured at Arena Stage before producers took it to New York in 2013, ran for only a few months at the Lyceum Theatre, but a touring production continues to stop in cities throughout North America. On November 19, local fans can see it at the Music Center at Strathmore.

And while sending a show to Broadway gives a regional theater some cachet with casual observers, it’s no longer the only way to share a show with a wider audience. This fall Schaeffer and Signature associate artistic director Matthew Gardiner traveled to Seoul to direct and choreograph a Korean-language version of Titanic, which Signature presented in late 2016. Also in 2016, Arena Stage worked with Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre to co-produce the world premiere of Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story. Photograph 51, commissioned by Prince George’s County’s Active Cultures Theatre in 2008, tells the story of Rosalind Franklin, the woman who helped discover the structure of DNA, and starred Nicole Kidman when it was performed in London’s West End in 2015. 

That a wide variety of audiences are seeing these works in different parts of the world is, in some ways, more important than the cultural clout that comes from a New York run.

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Mean Girls’ publicity campaign is in full force around D.C. It’s in social media feeds and on bus wraps and street signs. And given its source material and creators, it’s likely to succeed here and in New York, even if reviewers hate it. After all, Legally Blonde, a show with similar source material and diehard fans rode that kind of acclaim to an 18-month run in 2007 and 2008. 

That’s not to say that Mean Girls is the show to see during this theater season. With the creative leadership and insight of D.C.’s theaters, audiences can find whatever kind of show they want—be it classical theater in a small space or large auditorium, a silly musical or a political drama—on any given night.