Where did you see that play before? Maybe on Broadway, maybe on a national tour or maybe when it had its world premiere at one of Connecticut’s major regional theaters.
Several theaters in the state — from the community-based Capital Classics and Bradley Playhouse to West Hartford’s professional small theater Playhouse on Park and the grand Waterbury Palace Theater — are all offering fresh productions of shows that were seen in Connecticut before anywhere else.
Connecticut has been an important incubator for New York shows for at least a century. The Shubert Theater in New Haven became renowned for hosting tryouts of big Broadway-bound plays and musicals. One of its first world premieres was the Al Jolson hit “Robinson Crusoe Jr.” in 1916. Everyone from Rodgers & Hammerstein to Tennesee Williams to Neil Simon birthed shows there.
Out-of-town tryouts at theaters like the Shubert still happen occasionally, but it’s more likely that such large venues will be used these days to ready national tours of shows that have already been on Broadway. “Matilda” and “Jersey Boys” had their pre-tour “tech rehearsals” at the Shubert, and the Waterbury Palace Theater and the Oakdale Theater in Wallingford have launched tours as well.
Starting in the 1960s, the burgeoning regional theater movement became the launching pad for numerous shows that headed to Broadway (or many other cities) and became important, established works that are still revived today. Some of these were already planning their New York runs and using the regional theaters for finetuning, while others got to Broadway based on the enthusiasm they generated at their premieres.
Hartford Stage falls in both camps: “Anastasia” already had Broadway in its sights when it premiered there in 2016, while “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” in 2012 gained momentum from its Hartford run that got producers interested. The Yale Repertory Theatre sent landmark plays by August Wilson and Athol Fugard to New York, while the Long Wharf Theatre got especially good at providing the U.S. premieres of notable British plays, then transferring those productions to Broadway.
As plays and musicals that were first developed in Connecticut succeed, drawing larger and more diverse crowds, they invariably find their way back here.
This month, you can find four shows that famously premiered in Connecticut hitting local stages again.
Neil Simon’s comedies, dramas and musicals were such a steady presence that a Broadway theater was named after him. But those New York hits had to start somewhere, and in many cases, they had their pre-Broadway tryouts at the Shubert in New Haven.
“The Sunshine Boys” premiered there in 1972, starring Jack Albertson, Sam Levene and Lewis J. Stadlen. Other famous casts included Tony Randall and Jack Klugman (for a Broadway revival), “M*A*S*H” co-stars Jamie Farr and William Christopher (in a 1990s tour), Walter Matthau and George Burns (in the movie version) and Woody Allen and Peter Falk (in a TV movie). The Bradley Playhouse production stars local actors Michael Celularo and David S. Hopcroft.
The play is one of several Simon wrote about the personal lives and workplace hijinks of professional comedians. The playwright wrote for the TV variety series “Your Show of Shows” starring Sid Caesar and Imogen Coca, an experience he fictionalized in his play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” He also wrote “45 Seconds from Broadway,” about a New York comedian. Loosely based on the vaudeville team of Smith & Dale, who famously didn’t get along, the play is about the tense yet hilarious reunion of the long-split comedy team of Lewis & Clark, for a TV special.
“The Sunshine Boys” runs Jan. 20-29 at the Bradley Playhouse, 34 Front St., Putnam. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. $23, $20 seniors/students/military/first responders. thebradleyplayhouse.org.
One of the many classic musicals that had its world premiere at New Haven’s Shubert Theater en route to Broadway, Lerner & Loewe’s adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion” had a legendary tryout in 1956 that began with Rex Harrison refusing to come out of his dressing room on opening night.
The 2018 revival at New York’s Lincoln Center, directed by Bartlett Sher, tries to redress the show’s power balance by pointing out the danger, rather than humor, of Henry Higgins’ insults and giving Eliza Doolittle a certain amount of class from the get-go, even before she’s transformed into “a lady.” The national tour of that production visited The Bushnell in 2021 and in 2022 was back at the Shubert, the theater where “I’m Getting Married in the Morning” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” were first heard ever. It’s at the Waterbury Palace Theater Jan. 24-26 at 7:30 p.m. $45-$85. palacetheaterct.org.
Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” debuted at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2015, and also had roots in a Yale project from 14 years before that.
“Indecent” was inspired by a play Rebecca Taichman created for her thesis project in the directing program at the Yale School of Drama (now the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale). “The People vs. The God of Vengeance” used transcripts from a real-life court trial where a Jewish theater production in New York was accused of obscenity. The censorship was in part due to Sholem Asch’s “The God of Vengeance” depicting a lesbian relationship and set in a brothel, but anti-Semiticism and politics were also factors.
Taichman’s project interested Vogel, a Pulitzer-winning playwright who chaired the playwriting program at the School of Drama from 2008-12 and has taught at the school on and off for decades. Besides her own singular poetic dialogue, Vogel added a love story, backstage drama, klezmer music, dancing and generations of Jewish history to the story. “Indecent” premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2015. It moved to Broadway with some of the same cast in 2017.
Playhouse on Park, which regularly stages dramas with Jewish themes (most recently “Two Jews Walk Into a Bar,” “A Shayna Maidel,” “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “My Name is Asher Lev”), is presenting “Indecent” Jan. 25 through Feb. 26. The director is Kelly O’Donnell.
“Indecent” is as stirring and topical as ever. When a student production of the play at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in Jacksonville, Florida was canceled due to its alleged “mature content,” Playhouse on Park’s cast and creative team issued a video expressing solidarity with the students.
Playhouse on Park is known for the elaborate lobby displays it does to accent each of its mainstage shows. The “Indecent” display will feature items from the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford, including sheet music and advertisements from Yiddish theater shows in Hartford in the early 20th century and information about Hartford-raised entertainer Sophie Tucker.
Performances are Jan. 25 through Feb. 26: Tuesdays at 2 p.m., Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $45-$55 ($42.50 to $52.50 for students, seniors and military). playhouseonpark.org.
Capital Classics, which does outdoor Shakespeare shows in the summer at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, has started spending its winters doing contemporary American social-issue dramas.
This year it’s Quiara Alegría Hudes’ “Water by the Spoonful,” which happened to have its world premiere in 2011 at Hartford Stage. The theater commissioned Hudes to write it while she was there as part of an Aetna New Voices Fellowship.
The play is about an Iraq war veteran — whose father fought in Vietnam and whose grandfather fought in Korea — coming home to Philadelphia. “Water by the Spoonful” is actually the middle play in a trilogy, but it’s by far the best known of the three, usually gets staged by itself and works as a stand-alone drama of self-discovery, overcoming adversity and coming to terms with family.
“Water by the Spoonful” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012. For its “Contemporary Classics Conversations” series, Capital Classics offers discussions not just after but during each performance, with guest speakers leading talks at intermission as well.
The play is directed by Christopher Andrew Rowe and the discussion theme is “From Adversity We Advance.” Performances are Jan. 25-29 in the Hoffman Auditorium at the University of St. Joseph, Wednesday through Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. $20, $14 students, seniors, and groups of 10 or more. capitalclassics.org.
Reach reporter Christopher Arnott at firstname.lastname@example.org.