In this instalment of my series on how to visit New York as a happily cliché tourist, we’re diving into the world of New York Theatre and what I think is worth your time as an out of towner. Check out the rest of this series HERE.
My ideal New York trip is a single weekend. Fly in after work on Friday, fly out last thing on Sunday. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for dilly-dallying. I really have to prioritize things that I do not have access to at home or in other places.
So, while there will always be a special place in my heart for those underdog Mets, they’re off the list (the Yankees are definitely off the list- their stadium is new and generic and I can see an ALE team play anyday). Gone too are not-for-profit arts organizations despite the fact that I truly believe they’re the cradle of real innovation and the heart of what “art” actually means. The one exception to this would be Shakespeare in the Park because nothing on the scale of The Public in Central Park happens anywhere near me but I’ve never been able to go in person so I can’t actually recommend it.
Like the rest of this series, this particular hot take comes with the caveat that I’m assuming you have access to other cities. If you don’t have the opportunity to see innovative not-for-profit theatre, by all means go see it in New York! If there’s no opera or ballet near you, see it in New York! It’s just that there aren’t actually that many people who don’t have some form of these things closer to them. Nearly every mid-size city in the world has indie artists, you just have to find them, and even Utah has a pretty good ballet company. The Met is not better than the COC and I’ve seen some independent New York productions that don’t hold a candle to what Hattiloo Theatre is doing in Memphis. I’m not saying there isn’t value in New York’s smaller theatre scene and its glossy prestige arts, I’m saying it’s not necessarily better than what you already have access to so I really want you to prioritize while you’re in town (and also maybe encourage you to take more advantage of what’s near you and not underestimate it just for not being New York).
What New York does have that doesn’t exist anywhere else other than London is a full landscape of commercial theatre. By this I mean large scale for-profit theatrical productions marketed to the masses and staged in 2000 seat theatres, or as it’s more colloquially known: Broadway (if you’re new to New York, note that “Broadway” the concept and Broadway the street are not one and the same; don’t get lost). This is where my New York time and money usually goes, even if I’m endlessly grumpy about the amount of money. For-profit theatre is a terrible business model where producers need a staggering number of people to pay a lot of money to see their show in order to make a profit. No matter how good the show, the only way this works is if you can rely on tourists. Most cities can sustain maybe one or two sit-down productions plus a rotation of touring shows but that’s pretty much the extent because local theatre fans will see most things once, maybe twice, but can’t fund a long-term run with a limited population. New York’s Broadway and London’s West End are established theatre tourism destinations with a constant stream of fresh audience members to buy tickets. So, while “theatre” is something I have nearly endless opportunity to experience at home or nearby, a smorgasbord of commercial theatre is (caveat for London) only in New York.
Commercial theatre for the most part breaks down into two categories: plays and musicals. I mostly avoid all plays on Broadway. Partly because a play is a far better experience in a smaller house where you can actually see facial expressions but mostly because, in order to make straight theatre (sometimes slapstick, often dark sad domestic dramas) appeal to enough people at a high enough price to make money (again, “for profit” is the key here), producers almost always recruit celebrity performers. While this is, for the most part, all well and good on the West End where the majority of their movie stars came from the theatre, in North America this usually means taking talented people from one medium and showcasing them in another where they have no training or experience. Theatre and film are different skill sets so I’m usually pretty underwhelmed with stunt casting and that’s what nearly every play on Broadway is to some extent (occasionally just a really great script will break its way through, but if you wait long enough a not for profit company will do the same script in a smaller house).
But I can’t speak for everyone. There are lots of people, especially first-time visitors to New York, for whom the concept of celebrity is a big deal. If it will mean a lot to you to be in the same room as Jessica Chastain, by all means go see her in A Doll’s House. While a star-cast play isn’t what I personally would choose, it very much falls under the “only in New York” embrace the cliché mandate of this guide so you do you.
For me, the Broadway is about musicals. They’re really expensive to produce so not-for-profits don’t do them very often and only certain shows are well suited to seeing on tour so sometimes Broadway is the only way to go. Generally there are three reasons to shell out to see something on Broadway. 1- It’s not a huge hit so it’s unlikely to tour to a city near you. 2- The original cast is still in and you really want to see them (be careful with this one; make sure you’re not going for one single performer or you might have your heart broken by an innocent understudy who didn’t mean to ruin your trip and is trying their best). 3- The production design or orchestration is unlikely to stay in tact if the show does tour.
This last one is the biggie for me. Moulin Rouge, for example, has a stunning design that spreads out through the whole theatre. There are so many elaborate elements that it’s hard to imagine that level of detail will be recreate-able for a touring show. Phantom of the Opera, which I’m still baffled to say is closing soon after running for an eternity, performs on tour with a drastically scaled down pit band so it only properly sounds like Phantom when you see a sit-down production.
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 was somehow all three of these things and spending however much I spent in order to see it on Broadway is something I will never regret. It closed quickly and was drowned out in pop culture by the previous season’s Hamilton reverberations and current season Dear Evan Hansen nonsense. It could still have a regional life of some kind (a not-for-profit Toronto production was Covid-canceled in 2021) but to date there’ve been no tours and no local productions available to me. In New York, it had a sprawling, immersive design with details stretching out past the lobby that would be impossible to duplicate. And, as a bonus, I got to see the original broadway cast.
I’m really enamoured with the talent we have in Toronto so I don’t usually really care about New York casting but sometimes it does make a difference. I saw the original Hamilton cast, which is cool if only for bragging rights. I saw most of the original Spring Awakening cast, so it’s been fun to watch them go on to huge careers. My spontaneous attendance at Newsies introduced me to all-time-love Jeremy Jordan, same with Thoroughly Modern Millie and Sutton Foster, but if I’d gotten those tickets specifically in order to see them I might have been disappointed (I’ve seen Foster’s understudy in two different shows and seen her only once). I often love understudies and hard-working tour performers who got the job entirely on merit with no thought to how much of a draw they might be (a touring Elphaba is the best Elphaba) but sometimes it’s pretty cool to match the voice in front of you with the one on the recording (I’m not too proud to admit to bursting into tears at Big Fish the Musical hearing Norbert Leo Butz in person for the first time). In the case of Great Comet, the original cast had that “we made this for you!” energy that only an original cast can have with the added star moment of seeing Josh Groban in his first Broadway show (I said at the time that it felt like seeing someone come home for the first time, it was a little bit magical). I have no patience for a famous person cast just because they’re famous but sometimes if their skillset or relationship to the material is particularly meaningful, it can be worth seeing something on Broadway for someone in particular (though, again, understudies are a thing). This goes for plays too but it’s just a harder sell for me. I might have made the trip to see Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, for instance, but Scarlett Johansson doing Arthur Miller? Maybe not.
So that’s where I spend my money, and that’s why I say you should stay in midtown and only eat at restaurants where you can be in and out by 7:30. Because Broadway is really truly only in New York.