Broadway to Watch
Everyone from Cher to King Kong will take center stage this season on Broadway
From Cher to King Kong, the upcoming season on the Great White Way is filled with star power and spectacle.
By GORDON COX
There’s always a moment, sometime in the spring, when the theater industry looks ahead and thinks, “Oh, it’s shaping up to be a quiet season.” But then dominos fall, long- gestating plans click into place, surprises arise and suddenly you’ve got a slate as busy as the still- developing 2018-19 lineup, now increasingly crowded with splashy musicals, risky new plays, big-name stars and promising breakout talents. It’s the kind of season where even the certified superstar Cher isn’t the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
As it turns out, the gorilla isn’t actually 800 pounds — he weighs 2,000 pounds and he’s the title character of “King Kong.” The ambitious new musical, starting previews Oct. 5 at the Broadway Theatre (one of the few Great White Way venues big enough for it), brings Kong to massive life with a sophisticated combination of puppetry styles that range from marionette to bunraku to animatronics, all manipulated by a team of 14 puppeteers. Capitalized at a reported $35 million, “King Kong” is one of this season’s biggest bets.
Backed by Global Creatures, the Australian production company behind hit arena spectacles including “Walking With Dinosaurs,” “King Kong” has a major asset in Kong himself, the manmade creature that won raves in the musical’s 2013 premiere in Australia. What’s more of an open question is the rest of the show, which has been in development for a decade and gone through a number of creative teams that have included such high-profile theater names as Craig Lucas, Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman.
“This is a completely different version,” says Carmen Pavlovic, CEO of Global Creatures and also the producer of the buzzy “Moulin Rouge!” musical, bound for Broadway next season. “When we left Australia, I felt very certain that we’d created a puppet that worked as a character interacting with a human cast onstage. What I felt less good about was the storytelling.”
The process since then has seen the current creative team — composer Eddie Perfect and playwright Jack Thorne (“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”) — jettison the 1933 film’s love story and keep the focus on Kong and on actress Ann Darrow (played on Broadway by Christiani Pitts). “Ann’s victory will be that she’s changed as a person from knowing Kong,” Pavlovic says.
A few blocks away, another musical will be giving audiences a spectacle of a glitzier sort. That’s “The Cher Show,” which is bringing the star’s life story to the stage with three different actresses playing Cher, a string of the performer’s hits, a book by “Jersey Boys” Tony winner Rick Elice, and a mountain of fabulous costumes by Bob Mackie.
For Broadway regular Stephanie J. Block (“Falsettos,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”), who plays Cher alongside Micaela Diamond and Teal Wicks, part of the challenge has been to strike a balance between the glamorous icon and the down-to- earth woman.
“Cher is not an ‘either- or,’” Block says. “She is an ‘and.’ She’s over the top and totally grounded. She’s all performance, and yet humanity. But both sides of that coin are big. She doesn’t do anything small!”
The other musical on tap for the fall — “The Prom,” about an Indiana highschooler who’s barred from bringing her girlfriend as her date, and the Broadway stars who decide to help her out — is a little more under the radar than Cher and a giant gorilla. But then, the first show that director- choreographer Casey Nicholaw and book co-writer Bob Martin (here working with songwriters Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin) collaborated on, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” was under the radar, too — and it went on to become a Tony-winning success.
All those shows join a 2018-19 musical slate that already includes “Pretty Woman” (mixed reviews, but big-money box office) and the blink-and-youmissed-it disappointment of “Gettin’ the Band Back Together.”
And then there are the new musicals readying for the spring: “Tootsie,” a new take on the 1982 movie that updates the gender-bending story and moves the action to the New York theater industry (and just premiered in Chicago); “Be More Chill,” the Joe Iconis musical arriving on Broadway powered by a fervent, youthful fan base; and “Beetlejuice,” soon to bow in D.C.
The latter has music by Perfect, the Australian composer who, as the songwriter on “King Kong” too,
makes his Broadway debut this season with not one but two different scores — one modern and anthemic (“Kong”) and one wildly eclectic (“Beetlejuice”).
“I’ve been hooked on Broadway since my parents taped a radio simulcast of the 1982 production of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Sweeney Todd,’ with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury, onto two cassettes and stuck them in the tape deck of the family Kombi Van,” he says.
Meanwhile, the 201819 season offers more evidence that, contrary to popular belief, the new play isn’t dead on Broadway. Alongside such starry revivals as “The Waverly Gallery” (with Elaine May, Joan Allen and Lucas Hedges), “Torch Song” (Michael Urie, Mercedes Ruehl), “King Lear” (Glenda Jackson, Ruth Wilson), “True West” (Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano) and the now- closed hit “Boys in the Band” (Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer), there’s a robust crop of fresh works.
A couple of them have the benefit of familiar titles, including “Network,” coming this fall in a stage adaptation starring Bryan Cranston and staged by hot European director Ivo van Hove; and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a new version of the famous Harper Lee novel adapted by Aaron Sorkin and headlined by Jeff Daniels. Others, however, will be entirely new to Broadway-goers.
“The Ferryman” lands in New York after major success in London, and marks a Broadway return for playwright Jez Butterworth after “Jerusalem” and “The River.”
“The thing I’m looking forward to is being back in town with a big gang,” Butterworth says, and he’s not kidding. In contrast to the three- character show “The River,” “Ferryman” has a cast of more than 30, plus four babies, a goose and a rabbit.
Other new plays touch on timely themes. There’s “The Lifespan of a Fact,” which follows the exchanges between a writer and a fact checker. “It’s timely in the fact that we’re talking about truth and fact, and even mentioning those words is a political act now. Which is mental,” says Daniel Radcliffe, who stars with Bobby Cannavale and Cherry Jones.
“American Son” confronts even more urgent issues: Kerry Washington and Steve Pasquale play a divorced couple waiting in a police station for news of their missing teen son. “You have four characters, and you can see America through the lens of all those different perspectives,” says director Kenny Leon.
In “Ink,” the origins of the Murdoch media empire come into focus in James Graham’s U.K. hit, whereas the just- opened “Bernhardt/hamlet” looks further into the past — specifically to 1899, when the great actress Sarah Bernhardt decided to play the title role in “Hamlet.” Theresa Rebeck’s new play, with Janet Mcteer as Sarah, finds plenty of contemporary resonance in a backstage story of a woman boldly claiming a role more traditionally occupied by a man.
Also on tap this season is some straight-up comedy in “The Nap” by “One Man, Two Guvnors” playwright Richard Bean, and the emotional drama of “Choir Boy,” Tarell Alvin Mccraney’s well-reviewed Off Broadway play about identity, sexuality and prep school. Then there’s the appealing wild card of a new work by Taylor Mac, the Macarthur-winning creator of “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.” His latest, “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” stars Andrea Martin and one of Broadway’s biggest draws, Nathan Lane.
That newly announced show is mostly a mystery, for now — just one more tantalizing project to look forward to this season.
Star on the LooseIt takes 14 puppeteers to operate the titular star of “King Kong.”