The names on Broadway marquees this season read like homework for a seminar in high-flown dramaturgy. At Studio 54, a revival of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is replacing Pal Joey. At the Broadhurst, Equus is being replaced by Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart. Henrik Ibsen, Noël Coward, and Eugène Ionesco are also on the new syllabus. Shrek, meanwhile, isn’t selling tickets. Do producers think theatergoers have been given brain transplants?
Not really. Broadway is just as cynical as it always was. In part, this wave of intellectualism is a reflection of the fact that tourist business is down. This is theater for the hometown audience, which tends to be attracted to more- sophisticated fare. But it’s also simple recession economics. Last fall’s revival of Chekhov’s The Seagull, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, reminded producers that a canonical play can turn a tidy profit. After all, classic drama comes cheap: There’s no orchestra to pay, no huge sets to build, and often enough the playwright’s been dead for a hundred years.
What’s more, prestige revivals draw prestige-hungry stars. Godot’s producers didn’t have to be satisfied casting Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane as Vladimir and Estragon; they could toss in David Strathairn and John Goodman as Lucky and Pozzo, too. If you can collect a few earthshaking reviews—not always a guarantee, as the Roundabout discovered when their Mary-Louise Parker–led Hedda Gabler got panned last month—you, too, can have a hit revival on your hands. Sure, you’ll never get rich off a limited-run classic, but you won’t lose your shirt either. In a recession, producers are batting for singles rather than swinging for the fences.
So a revival that in flush times might seem tiny and tourist-proof starts to seem like a pretty safe bet: Why not cast Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon in Ionesco’s Exit the King? A smarty-pants Broadway, with a little celebrity sizzle, is just what a New Yorker wants to feel good about theater again. At least until the brain-eating zombies of the Thriller musical storm the Great White Way.