The city used to have a promotional slogan around this time of year. It bragged “New York Is a Summer Festival.” This was considered absurd on at least two levels. First was the timing. It came out during John Lindsay’s administration in the mid-’60s, when everyone knew that long, hot, violent summers were likely to be anything but festive.
On a less sober level, the ad campaign became a bad joke because, culturally speaking, New York has always been a festival all year long. Weren’t summer festivals meant to happen in places that don’t have every kind of artistic and entertainment happening all around town, every day? Who would be foolish enough to make a festival here? Besides, doesn’t the entire theater audience, then as well as now, heed the primordial summer impulse to get out of town?
Of course, against all such logic, a number of creative types have been foolish enough to challenge the accepted idea that at this time of year, New Yorkers prefer sand between their toes to culture in their heads. It may be time to dig out the old banners because, face it, New York really is a summer festival now.
The Lincoln Center Festival has become an inextricable part of hot-town city life by boldly filling July with eclectic weeks of international and avant-garde arts. Also, this is the fourth year that New York City Center’s Encores! series of semi-staged musical revivals has dominated summer adventure with off-Broadway and offbeat revivals in Encores! Off-Center.
Not to be left out are the New York Musical Festival (July 11-Aug. 7, nymf.org), the Midtown International Theatre Festival (July 16-Aug. 7, midtownfestival.org) and the massive New York International Fringe Festival (Aug. 12-28,fringenyc.org). And the Public Theater’s beloved free Shakespeare in the Park, which on June 26 closes its all-woman rethinking of “The Taming of the Shrew,” continues with “Troilus and Cressida” (July 19-Aug. 14, publictheater.org).
Here is a brief overview of some major enticements. Visit individual websites for program specifics, locations and prices.
ENCORES! OFF-CENTER, July 6-30, nycitycenter.org.
It’s somewhat weird to feel mournful for an institution that has only been alive for three brief seasons. But that’s how alive, how fully formed this series has been since the first day of founding artistic director Jeanine Tesori’s administration. But this is both the end of that era and the start of a new one.
Tesori, Tony-winning composer of “Fun Home” and the Tony-nominated “Violet” and “Caroline, or Change,” is leaving the summer adventure she built into one of the most exciting series of the entire year. She wants to return to writing, but will remain artistic adviser while Michael Friedman, composer of the wildly imaginative “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” seems like a worthy successor.
Her final summer begins July 6-9 with “Runaways,” the 1978 musical about troubled teens by Elizabeth Swados, the downtown musical-theater pioneer who died last winter. Also from the late ’70s is “Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” (July 27-30) by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman (“Little Shop of Horrors”).
In addition to nonstop panels and preshow performances, each season has included a special one-night event. First was Sutton Foster in “Violet,” which transferred to Broadway. Then was “Randy Newman’s Faust,” with the droll and beguiling creator at the piano as the devil. Last summer’s special, which stretched from one night to three performances, is one of my favorite lifetime theater memories: an irresistible Jake Gyllenhaal and Ellen Greene, the original Audrey, in “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Tesori’s one last special will be “Off-Center Jamboree!,” a July 16 concert with Foster, Jonathan Groff and others, with Tesori on the piano. Who knows? Maybe audiences will demand they do more than one night of this one, too.
LINCOLN CENTER FESTIVAL, July 13-31, lincolncenterfestival.org
For its 21st year, the festival opens its lens to include star-driven British Shakespeare, Broadway by way of Japan, classic Noh drama, a historic re-creation of a French classic and an enticing oddity from London.
A highlight is bound to be Tony winner Jonathan Pryce as Shylock in a production of “The Merchant of Venice” from Shakespeare’s Globe, which last sent Broadway two terrific all-male productions of Shakespeare. Perhaps strangest of all may be “Chicago” performed in Japanese (with English subtitles) by an all-woman cast. An avant-garde London performance company called “1927” will bring its “Golem,” a combination of the Jewish myth and the digital revolution with animation, claymation, music and live actors.
From ancient Japan come two separate programs from Noh Grand Master Kiyokazu Kanze and his Kanze Noh Theatre, including “Okina,” the oldest Noh drama. We also get to see what Louis XIV may have seen in a re-creation of Moliere’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” by Paris’ celebrated Theatre des Bouffes du Nord. And, though this is ballet and not strictly theater, the National Ballet of Canada brings “The Winter’s Tale” choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, officially a Broadway creative star since opening his blazing dance-driven musical comedy “An American in Paris.”
AND, LOOK HERE, BROADWAY’S A SUMMER FESTIVAL, TOO
While Broadway used to be a tourist showcase in the hot months, a little show called “Hamilton” opened last August and changed producers’ minds. Previews begin July 12 for “Motown,” the autobiographical musical about Berry Gordy, which closed in January 2015 but promised to return.
Also back, but with new choreography, is “Cats,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega-musical based on T.S. Eliot’s children’s book. Previews begin July 14 before a July 31 opening. Let the memories begin, even when the sun shines.