There was a time, not all that long ago, when summer theatergoing in Manhattan amounted to two free productions of Shakespeare in Central Park.
Now late June and July matter -- big-time.
Contrary to the dearly-held belief that New Yorkers prefer sand between their toes to culture in their heads this time of year, July has turned into a hub for theatrical adventure that, more and more, defies the primordial impulse to get out of town.
First came the Lincoln Center Festival, which started an eclectic, international, multi-arts series in 1996 and continues in its 20th year as boldly as ever.
Then three years ago, Encores!, the popular winter series of semi-staged Broadway revivals at New York City Center, initiated a summer spinoff, Encores! Off-Center, to do the same for musicals from Off-Broadway and experimental spaces. Under the inspired artistic direction of Jeanine Tesori (composer of Broadway's "Fun Home"), these three weekends each July -- plus dazzling preshow "lobby events" -- have become major must-sees of the entire year.
And remember when Broadway openings came to a thudding halt at the late-April cutoff for Tony eligibility and didn't resume until the fall? Gradually, a few brave -- if often foolhardy -- producers have taken advantage of abruptly vacated theaters to introduce new shows. Unless they offered a TV star on hiatus for the tourists, these premieres -- remember last summer's "Holler If Ya Hear Me," based on music by Tupac Shakur? -- seldom had the traction to make it to autumn.
So what's new on Broadway this summer? How about "Hamilton," the most eagerly anticipated Off-Broadway transfer in recent memory, which begins previews July 13, opens in early August and is already an astoundingly hot ticket.
Here is a brief overview of July enticements. Visit individual websites for program specifics, locations and prices.
LINCOLN CENTER FESTIVAL, July 6-Aug. 2 (lincolncenterfestival.org)
For theatergoers who felt a bit left out last summer, when the festival favored ballet and opera, attention has been paid with an especially rich theater lineup.
Things start with what promises to be a major happening, "DruidShakespeare: The History Plays" (July 7-19). This is another ambitious import from the Druid Theatre Company of Galway in the west of Ireland. In the '90s, the company, directed by Garry Hynes, introduced New York to Martin McDonagh's bloody and outrageously impolite "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and the two subsequent works of his Leenane Trilogy. And in 2012, the Lincoln Center Festival brought DruidMurphy, three works by Tom Murphy, the Irish playwright celebrated at home and little known here.
With DruidShakespeare, Hynes and playwright Mark O'Rowe have digested and edited Shakespeare's three Henry plays and "Richard II" into a two-part, seven-houroffering. Since these four history plays involve England and Ireland, the Druid tackles them as a special challenge.
Drama at the festival continues with "Ubu Roi" (July 22-26), the boundary-pushing Cheek by Jowl's adaptation of Alfred Jarry's satire that opened and closed the same night in 1896 and is considered a precursor to Theatre of the Absurd. As customary with this international touring company, the production (in French with English supertitles) is directed by Declan Donnellan and designed by Nick Ormerod.
Other highlights include an unlikely adaptation of "Kafka on the Shore," the wondrously multi-leveled best-selling novel by Haruki Murakami (July 23-26), an adaptation of Strindberg's "Miss Julie" from the Theatre of Nations, Moscow (July 27-Aug. 2), "Ramona" from the popular Gabriadze Puppet Theatre of Georgia (July 27-Aug. 1).
ENCORES! OFF-CENTER, June 24-July 18 (nycitycenter.org)
In 1998, William Finn opened "A New Brain," a show that not enough people besides me loved. This was the first musical created by the composer-lyricist-author and his collaborator James Lapine in the six years since Finn won two Tony Awards for "Falsettos." This was also the musical that, in a program note, explained that Finn had been mistakenly diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor a week after the Tonys -- which explained the long absence and the story line. Finally, this terrific show gets another chance (June 24-27), this time directed by Lapine and starring Jonathan Groff.
Each of her two previous summers, Tesori has produced a very special one-night-only centerpiece. The first year had Sutton Foster in Tesori's "Violet," which transferred to Broadway. Last year, we had "Randy Newman's Faust," with Newman as his droll and beguiling self as the devil on the piano.
This time, the one-night event has stretched to three performances over two nights (July 1-2), we assume by ferocious popular demand. It's hard to know which is more surprising -- Jake Gyllenhaal in a musical or Jake Gyllenhaal playing the ultimate pop-culture nerd, Seymour, in "Little Shop of Horrors." Not only that, but Ellen Greene, the original Audrey in the 1982 Off-Broadway hit and the 1986 movie, will again be the flower-shop heroine with the flesh-and-blood eating plant.
The series ends with "The Wild Party" (July 15-18) starring Sutton Foster. This is the "Wild Party" by Andrew Lippa that opened in 2000, not to be confused -- but forever confused -- with the musical that opened that same strange season with the same name and source (a 1928 narrative poem) but a score by Michael John LaChiusa. Theater partisans argued nonstop about which was better, the Lippa or the LaChiusa, though neither ran very long. Maybe Tesori could do the other one next year and let the fights begin again.
"Hamilton" isn't even the only show to dare to open during tourist season. Jim Parsons is already playing the title character in the irreverent "An Act of God," which opened May 28. And keeping with the religious theme, though surely not the tone, comes "Amazing Grace" (opening July 16), described as an epic musical love story about the life of the former slave-trader who wrote the words to the Christian hymn.
July is also the month for the 12th annual New York Musical Theatre Festival (July 7-27, nymf.org) and the 15th Midtown International Theatre Festival (July 13-Aug. 2, midtownfestival.org). And the massive New York International Fringe Festival doesn't even start until August.