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amBroadway | Moving from Broadway to Off-Broadway

26 – The company of Rock of Ages
The company of “Rock of Ages.”
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Is a Broadway musical still a “Broadway” musical after it packs up and moves Off-Broadway?

In recent years, an odd, seemingly counterintuitive trend has emerged in which commercially successful shows close on Broadway and then reopen Off-Broadway – perhaps a bit downsized in form, but with generally the same production values and cast quality as before.

It essentially began in 2009 when “Avenue Q” closed after a six-year run on Broadway and then moved to New World Stages, the midtown multi-theater Off-Broadway complex. “Avenue Q” (which premiered Off-Broadway in 2003 before it transferred to Broadway) went on to run for another 10 years at New World Stages.

Broadway shows that followed in the path of “Avenue Q” and moved to New World Stages include “Rent” (albeit in a reconceived production by the same director), “Peter and the Starcatcher,” “Jersey Boys,” “The Play That Went Wrong” (which is still running), and “Rock of Ages” (which, ironically, originated at New World Stages in 2008 before transferring to Broadway).

“Kinky Boots,” which won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Musical and ran for six years on Broadway, just resumed performances at Stage 42, another commercial Off-Broadway venue in midtown that has recently hosted revivals of the Broadway musicals “Fiddler on the Roof” (the Yiddish-language version, which will return in the fall) and “Smokey Joe’s Café.” “Kinky Boots” is an unusually large show for Off-Broadway, with a 25-person cast that includes veterans of the Broadway production.

The Broadway-to-Off-Broadway trend contrasts with the standard practice n which hit shows that are produced Off-Broadway by not-for-profit companies then transfer to Broadway for commercial runs. Recent examples include “Kimberly Akimbo (which was produced Off-Broadway by Atlantic Theater Company last winter and will transfer to Broadway in the fall) and “A Strange Loop” (which was originally produced Off-Broadway by Playwrights Horizons in 2019).

While not-for-profit Off-Broadway companies continue to produce plenty of exciting plays and musicals, the commercial sector of Off-Broadway has fared poorly and countless commercial Off-Broadway venues have closed over the past two decades. It is virtually inconceivable today that a new hit Off-Broadway show will stay Off-Broadway rather than go to Broadway.

On the other hand, shows like “Kinky Boots” already have Broadway brand recognition, which sticks around for the trip to Off-Broadway, where production costs are less expensive and theater real estate is less in demand. (Of course, the opportunity for profit is more limited since Off-Broadway theaters have no more than 499 seats.) Having a New York production can also enhance the brand value of shows that have other ongoing national and international productions.

If the lines between Broadway and Off-Broadway continue to blur, perhaps new shows will once again be able to succeed commercially Off-Broadway, which could make a huge difference in expanding theater to accommodate more diverse subject matter, audiences, and voices.

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