Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. BUTTERFLY) is in rehearsals for the Broadway premiere of his latest play CHINGLISH following a hugely successful run in Chicago at the historic Goodman Theater. DHH has graciously agreed to blog weekly throughout the rehearsal process to give our readers a glimpse into how a major theatrical production comes to life. Today, the start of rehearsals for the Broadway premiere.
“They say the neon lights are bright On Broadway/They say there’s always magic in the air”
– “On Broadway” (Mann/Weil/Lieber/Stoller)
It’s the Great White Way. It’s the Main Stem. It’s one of the world’s most recognizable brands. It’s Broadway, a mythic word which conjures images of musicals, chorus girls and boys, bright lights, and flashy marquees. This week, my new play, CHINGLISH, began rehearsals to open on October 27 at the Longacre Theatre. On Broadway.
To those of you who followed my CHINGLISH blogs from Chicago (links to the Chicago blogs below), thanks for supporting us in our premiere production. When we last left off, our show had opened to great reviews in the Windy City, and our producers had announced we would be moving to Broadway. In the weeks that followed, CHINGLISH ended up becoming the most successful play (not musical) produced in the history of the Goodman Theatre. The show’s run was extended an additional week by popular demand. Its closing performances were attended by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (former Chief of Staff to the POTUS).
Needless to say, our cast left the Goodman on a high. A few weeks later, nominations for Chicago’s major theatre award, the Jeffs, were announced, and we were honored with four: Best Play Production (Large Theatre), Director for Leigh Silverman, New Play, and Leading Actress in a Play for Jennifer Lim.
So we were a hit in Chicago. But, as I wrote in my final Chicago post, New York is a whole ‘nuther horse race. Most plays and musicals that make it to Broadway have done well someplace else. But fewer than a third will become “hits.” The remaining 70% or so will be labeled as “flops.”
Broadway is essentially a district in Manhattan that holds a lot of theatres: around 40, in an area of roughly 30 square blocks. The smallest Broadway theatre holds 500 people; the largest, about 1900. To have a play produced “on Broadway” simply means that a producer rents one of these theatres, and puts a show into it.
It’s a business. A show has to sell enough tickets each week to cover its running costs. Hopefully, it makes enough money to pay back the initial investment, and even turns a profit. These lucky productions — between twenty percent and a third, depending on who you ask — are called “hits.” Otherwise, the show “closes,” or goes out of business, having lost some or all of its initial investment, and becomes a “flop.”
Does Broadway represent the “best” of American theatre? Well, that depends how you define “best.” A show gets on Broadway because some producer believes it has a chance of making money there. But, in my opinion, artistic quality and commercial viability are two very different things. Sometimes they overlap, but not necessarily. Most of the shows I admire most never make it to Broadway. Instead, they’re produced Off-Broadway, or at one of our country’s regional theatres, in a not-for-profit setting.
Still, most of us who work in the theatre do have the dream — however irrational — of getting to Broadway. Perhaps like indie filmmakers who look down on mainstream studio “crap,” but still hope to have their movies released by a major someday. Stuart Ostrow, who produced my first Broadway show, M. BUTTERFLY, used to say that opening a show on Broadway was “firing a shot heard around the world.” I think that’s still true today. It’s the closest theatre artists get to becoming part of America’s pop culture mainstream. Very exciting. And terrifying.
CHINGLISH has moved from its regional production to Broadway with unusual speed. So the past few months have been very busy: marketing meetings, poster designs, budgets, contract negotiations. Leigh and her designers looked at the production to decide how they could take it to the next level. I went over the script to see what I could improve from Chicago.
And of course, we needed to assemble our Broadway cast. I’m proud to say that almost everyone from Chicago is coming to Broadway, including all of our Asian actors. There’s been a lot of talk lately about “star” casting on Broadway. Most commercial plays, like movies, feel they need a box office name to sell tickets. Which sometimes leads to movie actors with little to no theatre experience ending up on Broadway.
I have to give our producers a lot of credit. Look, if George Clooney wanted to do CHINGLISH, they weren’t gonna say no. I mean, they’re not stupid. But, since the beginning, they’ve told us that they consider the play to be our star, and they’ve held true to their word. So, with the exception of one actor, Angela Lin, our entire cast will be making their Broadway debuts. Which is really rare these days, and kinda thrilling. Our cast and creative team met the press on our first day of rehearsal, September 12.
Here’s a video from that event. (Yes, I’ve gotten a haircut since then.)
That same day, our marquee went up at the Longacre Theatre. Here we go! With any luck, we’ll last long enough on Broadway to make the Great White Way a little less white.