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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Broadway musicals reinvented through nonprofit routes

Ben Platt stars in

Ben Platt stars in "Dear Evan Hansen." Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

The early season has been a bit sleepy in production of new Broadway musicals. When “A Bronx Tale: The Musical,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “In Transit” finally open after the Thanksgiving weekend, they — plus the already-opened “Holiday Inn” and “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” — will bring the grand total to just five.

As different as they are, and they could hardly be more different, all five have one thing in common. All were developed by or had early runs in nonprofit theaters around America and/or Off-Broadway. None is opening cold on Broadway and none has gone out of town for an old-fashioned commercial tryout.

Of course, the occasional journey from Off-Broadway to Broadway is as old as “A Chorus Line” in 1975 (or even “Hair” in ’68). But the development route has evolved over the years until, suddenly, a startling number of Off-Broadway theaters are working on new musicals and just about every upcoming musical of the winter-spring season was birthed in the sheltered nonprofit sector — either here or in subsidized British institutions.

We’re not laying the new burst entirely on “Hamilton,” which moved from the nonprofit Public Theater to mega-monster life in the extremely commercial world. Road tryouts are too expensive and unwieldy. So, really, what theater board wouldn’t be pressuring its artistic staff to find the next “Hamilton,” the next Tony-winning “Fun Home” — even, looking to history, the next “Falsettos” and “Sunday in the Park With George”?

In other words, nonprofit supporters are looking for the next way to reinvent the American musical theater in creatively audacious — but, you know, moneymaking — ways that can help support less financially profitable work.

Whatever the motivation, Off-Broadway theaters are diving into musical development with special gusto these days. Like so many of the shows nurtured in the nonprofits, two upcoming ones are original and serious with unorthodox themes. I haven’t seen them yet, but I suspect there won’t be tap dancing.

On Dec. 1, MCC Theater is opening “Ride the Cyclone,” a show that puts a high-school choir on a roller coaster that has a deadly accident. Lives cut short are imagined with the help of a mechanical fortuneteller. Songs are sung.

This is the New York premiere of a show developed at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater from a cabaret that originated in Canada. “It’s very original,” says Will Cantler, artistic director of MCC. “It’s a show that wants to be discovered, wants to be nurtured.”

This is only the third musical in the company’s 30-year history, but Cantler foresees more when MCC moves from its 299-seat home at the Lucille Lortel in Greenwich Village to its own new theater on the Far West Side.

“You’ll be stunned at the amount of set we’ve crammed into the Lortel,” he says with amusement. He adds that he isn’t dwelling on Broadway. “That isn’t what I do.” And yet . . . “it would be disingenuous to say a transfer isn’t in the back of my mind.”

Kevin McCollum, the Broadway producer of “Rent,” “Avenue Q” and MCC’s transferred “Hand to God,” has what’s called “enhancement money” in the show. Not long ago, such support was more of a hush-hush agreement because nonprofit theaters originally got their nonprofit status by, theoretically, eschewing the corrupting influence of programming with one eye on commerce.

Reminded that such arrangements used to be considered a betrayal of the nonprofit mandate, Cantler argues with passion. “As far as I’m concerned, the betrayal is the jaw-dropping decline in government and corporate funding. Can we continue to do honest work in association with people with commercial interests? I answer, ‘Yes.’ ”

Meanwhile, in Chelsea, the Atlantic Theater is in previews for the Dec. 8 opening of “The Band’s Visit.” Based on the film about a band made up of members of the Egyptian police force in a mix-up at the Israeli border, the show stars Tony Shalhoub, with a book by formidable playwright Itamar Moses, score by David Yazbeck (“The Full Monty,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) and direction by David Cromer, superstar director of dramas.

This show, too, has “enhancement” investors. But Neil Pepe, artistic director of the Atlantic, prefers not to name them. “To people who believe we shouldn’t have enhancement, I say, ‘Fantastic, then where is the money going to come from?’ ”

The theater, originally founded on the plays and sensibilities of David Mamet, used to be primarily a house for plays. Then came “Spring Awakening,” which thrilled Broadway with a deeply subversive classic from 19th century Germany and genuine rock by Duncan Sheik. The show won eight 2007 Tonys, including one for best musical.

The money from the hit was “so helpful in this day and age,” says Pepe. “It comes back and feeds the next generation.” Of course, no one can count on hits, nor would Pepe dream of doing so. He believes that, as long as people can stay “fully committed to the mission,” they won’t “get infected by the commercial sensibility.”

Looking forward, Broadway’s winter-spring season appears to be far perkier than the fall — and equally dependent on nonprofit development. Of the eight shows announced, only two — “Half Time” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” — are coming to Broadway the old-fashioned way.

So can musical theater survive today without the nonprofits? “I would say no,” says Pepe. “I would say that 90 percent of the shows are developed in the nonprofits. It’s inherent in the process that musicals take development. They not only take a long time, but they’re expensive and need to be, dare I say, nurtured.”

He insists they must be allowed “to blossom” without commercial pressure. “Too many people too early are tapping on our shoulder and asking, ‘Is this going to make a gazillion dollars?’ That just doesn’t help.”

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