When people find out I’m a theater critic, there is one question they ask more than any other: “What should I see?” As Broadway revs up for its fall season, that question is hard to answer this year—not because there’s not enough to recommend, but because the next few months are so firmly packed with shows I’m truly excited to see.
For various reasons, I try not to form any judgments in advance about shows I’ll be reviewing. Low expectations can make a bad show seem better, and too-high ones can make even a good show feel like a disappointment, which isn’t fair to anyone involved. That said, critics are—despite what anyone might tell you—human beings, and it’s hard to completely avoid a sneaking suspicion one way or another. Last year, for example, it was hard not to smell a turkey cooking in Diana‘s kitchen, even before the Netflix version of it dropped with a thud. And Broadway’s 2021 comeback fall season featured a significant number of question-mark shows: relatively unknown and untested works. Some of those productions turned out to be great, others did not, but none of them caught much fire with audiences.
RECOMMENDED: A complete list of upcoming Broadway shows this fall
This fall, Broadway is playing it safer. The slate of plays, in particular, leans heavily toward the tried and true: Five of the 12 non-musicals this fall are past winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. That’s a solid safety net for quality—and it doesn’t mean that Broadway is abandoning its commitment to promoting Black artists, either. Two of the past Pulitzer winners are by African-American playwrights, and the other three have significant Black content. (In this version of Arthur Miller’s much-revived Death of a Salesman, the central Loman family is Black.) I’m especially looking forward to seeing Samuel L. Jackson and Danielle Brooks in August Wilson’s haunted, haunting The Piano Lesson, and I’m eager to see what Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Watchmen) and Corey Hawkins (In the Heights) will do with Suzan-Lori Parks’s two-hander Topdog/Underdog, which blew me away 20 years ago.
The fall season also includes Broadway debuts of two playwrights divided in age by more than six decades. Ain’t No Mo’, which made a fabulous debut at the Public in 2019, is a collection of satirical vignettes by the Black, queer 27-year-old writer-performer Jordan E. Cooper; Ohio State Murders stars Audra McDonald in a drama by the 91-year-old experimental auteur Adrienne Kennedy (Funnyhouse of a Negro). Only somewhat younger than Kennedy—though certainly no newcomer to the Great White Way—is the 85-year-old Tom Stoppard, whose new 20th-century epic Leopoldstadt might be his final new offering in a Broadway career that stretches back to 1967’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I’m seeing it this weekend, and I am grateful for another chance to grapple with the playwright’s formidable intellect.
And then, of course, there are the musicals. Here, again, Broadway is offering a roster of shows with some degree of familiarity built in—but none of them are playing it entirely safe. Two of them have previously been seen Off Broadway: the lovely Kimberly Akimbo, a coming-of-aging fable that won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award earlier this year, and the daring KPOP, a behind-the-scenes look at the Korean music industry that will be significantly retooled from the 2017 immersive premiere. I loved both of them the first time, and am glad that more people will have a chance to catch them now. The 1969 American-history musical 1776 might not seem all that audacious a choice for a revival, but the new Broadway production gives the material a Hamiltonian twist in that the Founding Fathers are all played by a diverse cast of female or nonbinary performers.
Having seen those shows already, however, I’m personally most curious about the four new-to-me musicals that will hit Broadway in the months ahead. The caveat, as is common these days, is that none of them are strictly completely new. Two are derived from hit movies: Almost Famous, adapted by the film’s original auteur Cameron Crowe with Tom Kitt (Next to Normal); and Some Like It Hot, adapted by Matthew López (The Inheritance) and comedian Amber Ruffin with the Hairspray team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The track records of those adapters gives me hope that these shows will be better than the average offerings in the film-to-musical pipeline. Also on the near horizon are two jukebox musicals of different stripes. A Beautiful Noise, The Neil Diamond Musical takes a traditional biomusical approach to its subject, played by Will Swenson; & Juliet, by contrast, uses the pop megahits of Max Martin—including “Since U Been Gone,” “I Want It That Way” and “Baby One More Time”—as the basis of an Elizabethan romp that imagines life after Romeo for Shakespeare’s no-longer-doomed heroine. Both of the latter earned surprisingly good buzz in pre-Broadway engagements.
Am I expecting too much from these autumn production? Maybe so. Pride, they say, goes before the fall. But if even half of these shows end up being as good as they seem, we’re in for a pretty wonderful ride.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.