Attention must be paid to Broadway soon, where 17 shows will open within a mere six weeks, starting with a revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death Of A Salesman” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield on March 15. But the action until then has been Off-Broadway, and especially on a single block, thanks to the opening of the Pershing Square Signature Theater Center.
Pershing Square is not an address. It is the name of a hedge fund that donated $25 million to the non-profit Signature, helping it to keep ticket prices for initial runs of all its shows for the next decade to $25. This is an extraordinary achievement in itself, given that the average orchestra seat in the Broadway theaters just a few blocks away costs at least four times that, and top price for a ticket to “The Book of Mormon” is currently almost $500 – 20 times more expensive right now than the price of a ticket to a Signature show will be in 2022.
Signature began two decades ago with what turned out to be a powerful idea. It dedicated each season entirely to the work of a single living American playwright. The approach resurrected – or ignited for the first time – the reputations of several writers, most notably Horton Foote.
Its new home, designed by Frank Gehry and costing $66 million, has three stages, which is allowing the theater company to expand its mission. It still devotes each season to a single playwright, although for the first time, that playwright is not an American. Signature is presenting three plays by South Africa’s most famous playwright, Athol Fugard, who turns 80 years old this year, starting with the 1961 anti-apartheid play that launched his international career, Blood Knot
But the Signature Theater Center is also presenting “Hurt Village” by Katori Hall, best-known for her play about Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Mountaintop,” which was both on the West End and on Broadway. Hall is one of five young playwrights whose work will be featured at the theater over the next five years. The third Signature stage is offering Edward Albee’s “The Lady From Dubuque” featuring Jane Alexander
That one block includes Theatre Row, with six legitimate stages for rent, and 11 resident theater companies, including the Hollywood-heavy New Group. Next door is Playwrights Horizons, which over the last four decades has presented the work of some 375 playwrights, providing premieres for such memorable plays as Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife, Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy, and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, a production of which is opening on Broadway at the Walter Kerr on April 19.
Most noticeable on this street is Manhattan Plaza – aka “Broadway’s Bedroom” – an apartment building complex that since 1977 has provided subsidized housing for some 1,200 performing artists. It is easy to argue – as its developer would surely do – that the residential building was the pioneering catalyst, though it took another fifteen years for the concerted effort by the state-sponsored non-profit development corporation, The New 42nd Street, to begin constructing and reconstructing legitimate theaters on 42nd Street west of Broadway.
It is unlikely that any of these theaters will be nominated for my Pinterest board on The World’s Most Beautiful Theaters, which range from the oldest surviving indoor theater in the world, the Olympic Theater in Vicenza, Italy
to the National Theater of China in Beijing, which was completed last year. Only two theaters in New York have made the list, Radio City Music Hall and the Belasco. Forty-Second Street itself remains a paradoxical aesthetic draw; its ugliness is its appeal. Now its two traditional uglies -- busy and garish; scary and abandoned – have been supplemented by impersonal and corporate.
What’s happening inside these theaters, though, is far more thrilling, and it is not a fluke. For all the outsized attention to Broadway, there are quiet booms happening throughout the city, not just on 42nd Street, even something of a theater building boom.
There is the Fourth Street Cultural Districtin the East Village, which includes both La Mama ETC – founded and led until her death by Ellen Stewart -- and the New York Theater Workshop – the home of the original production “Rent.” The New York Theater Workshop will double the number of its shows that have transferred to Broadway, with the opening this season of both Once (opening on March 18th) and Peter and the Starcatcher (opening on April 15th.)
Lincoln Center is constructing a $41 million theater on the roof of its Broadway house, the Vivian Beaumont, for its most experimental work (which until now has been presented at the Duke, on 42nd Street.) LCT3 will debut in June with a new played entitled “Slowgirl.”
Then there is the $48-million theater set to be completed in 2013 for the Theatre for a New Audience as part of the promised Brooklyn Academy of Music Cultural District. This theater’s chairman of the board of directors, Theodore C. Rogers, may be explaining why so much building is going up: “We realized we needed a permanent home if we were ever going to be a theater of consequence and of meaning.”
Jonathan Mandell is a theater critic and journalist in New York City. For up-to-the-minute New York theater news, views and reviews, follow him on his Twitter feed at @NewYorkTheater