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Next to Normal at Arena

D.C.’s Arena Stage has been doing its fair share of boasting lately. In less than two months, goes the hype, not one but two Arena shows will be running simultaneously on Broadway. As if that weren’t enough, Arena is calling itself the first regional theater to claim this honor twice, having sent a pair of shows to Broadway in the 1979-80 season as well.

What’s their secret? What makes Arena Stage and D.C. in general such an attractive launching pad for a Broadway show?

Quality of production departments,” says Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith. She credits the staff, many with decades of experience at Arena, for putting “Principles over personalities.” Take that, Broadway!

33 Variations celebrated its world premiere at Arena in August 2007. The Broadway version stars Jane Fonda as a music historian trying to deduce why Beethoven, after initially refusing to compose variations on a waltz, obsessively wrote the titular thirty-three. In the spirit of Tom Stoppard‘s Arcadiaand Indian Ink, 33V creates parallel contemporary and historic worlds to unravel an academic mystery.

Next to Normal, which opens on tax day, presents a nuclear family facing a case of mental illness initiated by a traumatic event. Although it’s a musical, this show about bipolar disorder, drug abuse (prescription and otherwise), and death eschews a toe-tapping score and a feel-good ending: N2N literally zaps any Broadway formulas.

“Each of these projects are unusual theater pieces and shows the range of the work we produce at Arena. New York is always looking for strong projects on subject matter that hasn’t been seen before,” Smith wrote in an email.

While I know Broadway is more than its hackneyed image of outrageous chorus numbers strung together with implausible love stories and sophomoric humor, I haven’t found many Broadway plays that deal with chronic illness (RENT notwithstanding). Yet Arena is sending New York two shows centered on sickness. Just as Beethoven dealt with deafness, Fonda’s character in 33V is stricken with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Maybe all this talk of health care coming out of Washington is infecting spheres beyond politics.

To be fair, N2N actually premiered at New York’s Second Stage (Off-Broadway)—so Arena is more of its foster parent. In fact, the show’s five Helen Hays nominations are in “non-resident production” categories (Best Show, four acting nominations including one for Alice Ripley). Nonetheless, Smith is proud that while already known for producing new work, Arena also “gives new work a chance to become completely formed in the first, second or third production.

Yet all this success makes me wonder about another fantastic Arena musical that premiered last year, The Women of Brewster Place. This stunning adaptation of Gloria Naylor‘s best-selling novel dazzled audiences with a powerful fusion of drama, music, artistry, and raw talent. But audience reaction and critical acclaim aren’t enough to bring a show to Broadway, Smith says—you need commitment from the producers to take it to the next production.

Arena is generally a producing house geared towards a D.C. audience. (Although this season, while renovating its main stage in SW D.C., it’s importing a boatload of shows.) Yet, for 33V and N2N, Arena partnered with NY producers with an eye towards Broadway: Tectonic Theater/Moises Kaufman (of Laramie Project fame), and David Stone, respectively. In May, Arena welcomes yet another “pre-Broadway engagement”, Looped, which replaces Arena’s canceled Sweet Bird of Youth.

Of course, Smith also credits Arena’s success to “a very bright, intelligent audience that can understand and fall in love with any type of great theater.” Aw, shucks.