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Give Our Regards To Broadway

SAN FRANCISCO

November 1, 2006

As if we didn't have enough good theater around here: these days we're getting high-profile musicals and star-laden dramas before they hit New York. Applause, applause-in spite of the duds.

Until the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed all eight of the city’s downtown playhouses, San Francisco ranked right up there with Manhattan as a national hub for large-scale theatrical extravaganzas. One observer felt it was the only city in the country outside New York in which “a high-salaried player could be assured a long and lucrative run.”

The promise of big salaries and long runs may have crumbled along with the buildings, but San Francisco has regained its status as a topflight theater town. Today the city has around 160 theater companies—and there are more than 400 in the Bay Area as a whole, which makes it the largest center for the performing arts after New York and Chicago. Clearly, you could go to the theater six nights a week for a year and never see the same production twice. You probably couldn’t even keep up with the “don’t miss” plays, since this region has more than its share of talented actors, inspired directors, and lively, innovative theater groups. Even so, when it comes to big, splashy musicals and “important” dramas with star-studded casts, most Broadway producers long regarded San Francisco as just another stop on the touring circuit for cookie-cutter reruns of Les Misérables and Cats. The closest we’d get to a famous name was seeing a celebrity from a ’70s TV show starring in Annie Get Your Gun.


That’s all changed, though. Ever since Mamma Mia! opened here in late 2000, followed by Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway-style La Bohème (2002) and the Wizard of Oz–inspired Wicked (2003), the musical chestnuts have been joined by a slew of world and U.S. premieres—many shows (like these three) headed to Broadway after a San Francisco tryout. On top of that, we’ve been getting exclusive engagements of new plays, such as Tony Kushner’s incandescent Caroline, or Change, fresh from New York, with the original casts largely intact. 

This can arguably be explained in three words: Carole Shorenstein Hays. Hays, a San Francisco native (her father is real estate magnate and Democratic powerhouse Walter Shorenstein), is a Tony Award–winning producer and the artistic director and a founding member of the city’s Shorenstein Hays Nederlander organization. For years, its Best of Broadway series focused primarily on presenting Broadway hits (and chestnuts) in San Francisco while producing major projects in New York. Now, however, Shorenstein Hays is prolifically developing shows here, too. Over the last couple of years, SHN’s three major commercial houses—the Orpheum and Golden Gate theaters, on Market Street, and the Curran, next to the newly renamed American Conservatory Theater, on Geary—have hosted no fewer than seven world premieres.

In a world dominated by Manhattan-based, male impresarios, Shorenstein Hays is the only female commercial producer in the country to own so many major theaters and work regularly on both coasts. (She has just opened a New York office for her production company.) She’s won five Tony Awards for Best Play, commercial theater’s top honor, beginning back in 1987 with August Wilson’s Fences. With her mix of artistic chutzpah and business drive, she’s one of Broadway’s boldest and most respected producers. And now we’re reaping the benefit.

SHN has been able to get shows like Martin Short’s Fame Becomes Me to premiere here this past spring, rather than in L.A. or Chicago, because it’s been willing to share the financial risk in terms of expenses, for example. Shorenstein Hays’s 30-year friendship with the lead producer of A Chorus Line had a lot to do with its world premiere here this summer.

Her efforts don’t always meet with success, of course. Producing New York ventures like last season’s Julius Caesar, starring Denzel Washington, and 2004’s Caroline, or Change blasted holes in SHN’s coffers. (Caesar was drastically uneven, but Caroline, with its quirky musical score and internalized drama, more likely faltered because it didn’t fit peoples’ expectations of what a musical should be.) Of recent Broadway-bound productions in SHN venues, the overwrought and largely tuneless Lennon was more Livermudlian than Liverpudlian, with its deference to Lennon’s relationship with Yoko Ono over his work with the Beatles, while Lestat, Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s take on Anne Rice’s popular Vampire Chronicles, lacked teeth. Both shows closed roughly a month after opening in New York. The Mambo Kings never even made it there.

Nevertheless, Shorenstein Hays’s instincts are often right. Early on, her insistence on cuts and a new ending took Fences, a play no commercial producer would touch back then, to Broadway glory. More recently, the team behind last season’s exhaustive and exhausting Fame Becomes Me disagreed when Shorenstein Hays proposed trimming it to 90 minutes, but by the time the show opened on Broadway, it was 90 minutes long. And if the lush, multiple-Tony-winning musical The Light in the Piazza, which launched its national tour here in August, is anything to go by, Best of Broadway’s new lineup should more than make up for last season’s duds.

Many of us are particularly excited this month about seeing Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s 2005 Pulitzer-winning drama set in a 1960s Catholic school in the Bronx, because Shorenstein Hays managed to persuade Cherry Jones to reprise her Tony-winning role as Sister Aloysius. That was no easy task: this superlative actor has never gone on the road with a New York production. (And she’ll be appearing in conversation with actress Linda Hunt for City Arts & Lectures at the Herbst Theatre on November 27.) Shorenstein Hays won one of her Tonys for producing this play; its director, Doug Hughes, also took home a Tony.

Later this month we’ll see the U.S. premiere of Edward Scissorhands, British choreographer Matthew Bourne’s adaptation of Tim Burton’s 1990 film about a boy with garden shears for hands. Bourne’s freewheeling take on Swan Lake turned him into a dance-world deity in the mid ’90s, and the 10th-anniversary production enthralled audiences here this past spring. Bourne’s cutting-edge aesthetic does seem well suited to the job of retelling Burton’s dark fairy tale in movement and music, though the production received mixed reviews when it opened in London. In December, Jersey Boys, a jukebox musical about early-’60s rock ’n’ rollers Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, arrives in an exclusive engagement direct from New York, although not with the New York cast.

More great performances are headed our way next spring with the revival of Edward Albee’s 1962 classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, starring Kathleen Turner and former San Franciscan Bill Irwin—who won the Best Actor Tony—as jousting partners Martha and George. Assuming the venom is still coursing through their fangs, the production should delight and appall local audiences as much as it did those in New York.

So yes, you could spend every evening watching and applauding good local theater. But it’s thrilling to get a first look at high-profile, Broadway-bound productions, not to mention sample some of Manhattan’s most lauded shows. We theater lovers want it all. And lately, it seems we are close to getting it.

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