American directors bring Broadway to life

Pictured from left: Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas Pictured from left: Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas in "An Enemy of the People" at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, directed by Doug hughes . Photo Credit: Henry Leutwyler

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Linda Winer Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer.

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987. ...

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While assembling the Broadway list of fall openings, I began to notice a -- a what? -- a trend? Should we just call it a shift in the wind? Is it genuine enough to constitute a new reality? Anyone feeling frisky and/or reckless enough to call it a Golden Age?

Whatever anyone chooses to label it, this much is clear. A significant number of American directors are now working regularly, and with distinction, on Broadway. Men and even a few women who primarily used to direct Off-Broadway and in regional theaters now make up a deep, strong, go-to bench for almost all the Broadway plays.

It wasn't long ago -- really, just the '80s and '90s -- when three out of every four Tony nominations for play director often went to Brits. Trevor Nunn wasn't just staging English plays and mega-musicals. He was hired to do Tennessee Williams and even "Oklahoma!" David Leveaux was brought over to direct Eugene O'Neill and even "Fiddler on the Roof." Peter Hall, Nicholas Hytner, Jonathan Miller, Howard Davies, Sean Mathias, Richard Eyre, Anthony Page -- you get the idea.

For many real and imagined reasons, the Broadway once identified with historic productions by Elia Kazan, Ellis Rabb and José Quintero decided that only the English could be trusted with serious work that could speak to mainstream audiences.

What changed? Why is this season -- like other recent seasons -- so rich with the potential of Doug Hughes ("An Enemy of the People," "The Big Knife"), Daniel Sullivan ('Glengarry Glen Ross" starring Al Pacino, "Orphans" with Alec Baldwin), Pam MacKinnon ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"), Jack O'Brien ("Dead Accounts" starring Katie Holmes, "The Nance" with Nathan Lane), Joe Mantello ("The Other Place" starring Laurie Metcalf), Bartlett Sher ("Golden Boy"), Moisés Kaufman ("The Heiress" with Jessica Chastain), Lynne Meadow ("The Assembled Parties") and new kid in town Sam Gold ("Picnic").

I'm guessing that what changed, for American directors as well as American plays, is the growth of the nonprofit Broadway theater.

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What is this? To oversimplify a messy and controversial distinction, the unromantic truth is that Broadway is defined by its contract. Commercial Broadway operates on one kind of contract. The nonprofit Broadway -- an extension of Off-Broadway and the resident theater nonprofits -- has a different, less lucrative contract and, presumably, a mission beyond making hits.

The nonprofits offer a number of productions each season. Commercial landlords want a smash that runs forever. Either way, if you work in a Broadway house you are eligible for a Tony. If not, not.

New York currently has three big nonprofit Broadway institutions. Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont has been designated Broadway for as long as I can remember, but the company also branches out often to traditional Broadway houses. The Roundabout Theatre now controls three nonprofit Broadway theaters -- the American Airlines, Studio 54 and the Sondheim. Manhattan Theatre Club, a major Off-Broadway institution for more than 35 years, branched out with its own Broadway venue, the renovated Biltmore, now called the Friedman, in 2003. (Second Stage Theatre is preparing to take over Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre.)

So what makes a Broadway director? As MTC artistic director Meadow told me in a phone interview before the opening of Hughes' bristling staging of "An Enemy of the People" at the Friedman, "What it takes to be a Broadway director is to direct on Broadway."

She is not being flip. Many of the same talented directors -- including Hughes, Sullivan and Mantello -- worked at her Off-Broadway venue over the years. The successful shows often transferred to Broadway. But now she has the opportunity to hire them directly for the big house, something she says she is "most proud of being able to do."

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When Todd Haimes, artistic director of the huge Roundabout operation, came to New York 20 years ago, he saw "our whole generation of directors going to Hollywood." He set up a program for "associate artists," which gives stipends to a number of directors. "We hoped that, if they felt they had a home," he recalls, "they'd stay in New York."

His first stipend went to Scott Ellis, now associate artistic director and rehearsing the new revival of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Hughes is now called resident director, while six others, including Mark Brokaw, Scott Elliott and Sam Gold, are associate artists. "When they become very successful financially, we don't need to pay the stipend," says Haimes. "They stay permanently on the list and we can give the money to somebody younger."

André Bishop -- artistic director of the Lincoln Center Theater and, before that, Playwrights Horizons -- takes an even longer view. He considers these strong directors a "tribute to nonprofit theaters all over the country." He doesn't just mean Chicago, though that city's contribution -- including everything by director David Cromer -- is obvious.

"Bart, Jack, Dan and Doug all worked in theaters around the country. They're really at ease in an incredible variety of forms -- not just classics but new work," Bishop marvels, noting that American nonprofit tradition goes back less than 50 years, while London theater has centuries upon which to draw. Eventually, many directors from the resident theaters came to New York because, as Bishop sees it, "We had all these opportunities for them. They are a continuation of the line of American theater tradition that we don't always think about. It's great that it's happening."

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Less great is my inability to mention all the other directors who are making my life more interesting these days. The list is heartening and long.

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