NEW YORK CITY: Each year the American Theatre Wing gives one “Regional Tony” to an exceptional nonprofit theatre outside New York’s commercial theatre district (starting last year, New York’s nonprofit theatres are also eligible for this honor). This year’s deserving winner is the century-old Cleveland Play House.
But today’s Tony nominations underscore one important truth about the ostensibly commercial shows that vie for the gold on Broadway: Nearly all of them can trace their beginnings to nonprofit theatres, either in the U.S. or Europe.
Consider the nominees for Best Musical: Fun Home comes directly from a run at New York’s Public Theater two years ago; The Visit has been produced by various resident theatres since the early aughts (Goodman, Signature, Williamstown Theatre Festival); An American in Paris had its out-of-town tryout in Paris, at the state-supported Théâtre du Châtelet. Of the four new-musical nominees, only the comedy Something Rotten! opened directly in a commercial run on Broadway, bypassing a planned tryout at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre.
The play nominees are all nonprofit-bred: Both The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Wolf Hall are British imports (from the National and the Royal Shakespeare Company, respectively), and both Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced and Robert Askins’s Hand to God have a strong nonprofit pedigree: The first premiered at Chicago’s American Theater Company before opening Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center in 2012, and the second enjoyed a meteoric rise from two Off-Broadway runs, at Ensemble Studio Theatre, then MCC Theatre.
Two out of three of the Best Musical Revival nominees are actually currently playing at nonprofit-run theatres—The King and I at Lincoln Center Theater and On the Twentieth Century at Roundabout Theatre Company—while the third, On the Town, tried out at Massachusetts’s Barrington Stage.
Only the Best Play Revival category, interestingly, shows signs of a counter-trend, with half of the plays nominated in fully commercial productions headlined by stars: James Earl Jones in You Can’t Take It With You and Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight (which comes from a commercial run on London’s West End). The other two had nonprofit tryout—The Elephant Man at Williamstown and This Is Our Youth at Steppenwolf Theatre Company—but they, too, were notable for being headlined by celebrities (Bradley Cooper and Michael Cera, respectively).
There were other outliers among the nominees—Sting’s musical The Last Ship, a Best Score nominee, tried out in Chicago, but not at a nonprofit; the Elisabeth Moss-headlined revival of The Heidi Chronicles opened directly on Broadway; there’s a single nomination (newcomer Micah Stock) for the hit commercial run of Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play—but by and large it’s safe to say that among the unsung winners each Tony season are the U.S. (and yes, British) nonprofit theatres where the Great White Way’s current hits are born and raised.