NEW YORK CITY: Second Stage now has a third stage. After years of legal wrangling and fundraising—not to mention waiting out the final lighter-lifts of a popular jukebox musical—the Off-Broadway company has acquired the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway for the sum of $24.7 million, and will begin a $58 million renovation next year, with a planned inaugural season of programming of contemporary American plays in 2017–18.
Second Stage’s name originally referred to second productions, as its founding mission was to give new (and newish) plays a life beyond their world premiere. The theatre has since evolved into offering seasons mixing world premieres, young plays early in their post-premiere life and contemporary revivals—and even the occasional musical—at a 296-seat midtown space and a 108-seat uptown theatre. The Hayes, Broadway’s smallest house, currently seats 597, though Second Stage artistic director Carole Rothman said this week that after renovation, the seating will be closer to 575.
As Second Stage becomes the fourth nonprofit theatre with a berth in New York’s commercial theatre district, the question is: Will it succeed in bringing new American plays to Broadway? Others of its ilk largely don’t: Roundabout Theatre Company has a robust new-play program in its Underground series and at its Off-Broadway space, the Laura Pels Theatre, and Lincoln Center Theater schedules stage new works at its Off-Broadway Newhouse stage and its small incubator LCT3. But both companies tend to reserve their large Broadway houses for large-scale revivals, typically but not exclusively musicals. Only Manhattan Theatre Club has a strong track record of programming new work both on its Broadway and its Off-Broadway stages.
Where will Second Stage fit into this ecosystem?
“Our mission is to do plays by living American writers,” said Rothman. “That includes both new plays and second-stage plays.” That doesn’t necessarily mean only young or emerging playwrights, she added, quipping that it could include “barely living playwrights.”
What a Broadway stage will cheifly afford Second Stage, Rothman said, is flexibility.
“To be honest, we’ll be able to take shows that had a run at our 43rd Street and say, ‘Let’s just move this into the Hayes,’ ” she said. “There have been plays in the past where, just as we were ready to close them, the sales were taking off.” She mentions Gina Gionfriddo’s prickly 2009 comedy Becky Shaw, whose audiences were “building and building” near the end of the show’s run, which had to end because Second Stage runs a subscription season, and the next show was ready to go in. Much the same happened, she said, with Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, in 2011, and with last year’s The Last Five Years. “We were turning people away, but if we’d had another theatre, we could have said, ‘Let’s just move it and let it run for a little longer.'”
Speaking of the Jason Robert Brown musical, will Second Stage be tempted by its new Broadway address to simply strike up the band? After all, the hit show that kept the company’s purchase plans on ice for so long, and led to a legal battle with the theatre’s owners over financing, was Rock of Ages, which closed a four-year run in January.
“In general, I think we’ll do plays,” said Rothman. “I don’t wanna say we’d never do a musical, because as soon as you say never, something comes up. But it’s unlikely we’ll do too many musicals at that space—it would have to be an extraordinary circumstance that would make us consider that.”
Second Stage’s past with musicals is checkered: It famously had good fortune with Next to Normal, which transferred to Broadway in 2009 and won the Pulitzer, but more recently ran aground with plans to host the U.S. premiere of the Duncan Sheik musical American Psycho when commercial producers, basking in the glow of a successful U.K. tryout, opted to aim directly for Broadway next fall.
If Psycho producers happen to be looking for a theatre, they might consider that, while waiting to beging renovations, Rothman will be renting the Hayes.