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Spring theater preview: Politics and poltergeists

Dramatic fireworks will light up Broadway in shows like "Hillary and Clinton" and "King Lear," but there's still room for potential crowd pleasers like the musicals "Tootsie" and "Beetlejuice."

Alex Brightman plays the title role in "Beetlejuice,"

Alex Brightman plays the title role in "Beetlejuice," a stage musical based on the popular 1988 movie. The show, which also stars Sophia Anne Caruso, opens April 25. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

Whether we're talking ancient Greek myth, Shakespearean tragedy or recent presidential elections, the eagerly anticipated spring theater season has something of a political edge.

Consider the song "Why We Build the Wall" from "Hadestown," but don't jump to conclusions: Anaïs Mitchell, who wrote the musical, came up with that song in 2006. "I wrote it very quickly, almost before I knew what it meant," she said in an email exchange, adding that she'd been thinking about "climate change, the migration of people, trends that of course existed then and are intensifying still."

Mitchell's folk opera, which debuted Off-Broadway in 2016 and had a recent run at the National Theatre in London, is one of the highlights of the upcoming season, the annual rush of plays and musicals set to open before the April 25 Tony Award cutoff. (For planners, nominations will be announced April 30, and the awards will be telecast June 9.)

"Hadestown" is a new interpretation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, starring Patrick Page, Eva Noblezada and Reeve Carney. Variety called it "a good time show for bad times," and Mitchell acknowledges that "there's always been a political streak in the show," which she says takes its inspiration from the Depression era. Mitchell describes Hadestown as a company town, and in the musical she deals with issues of "wealth inequality and walls between rich and poor." But primarily, she says, "it's a love story."

An entirely different love story is the basis of "Hillary and Clinton," a new play by Lucas Hnath (Tony nominee for "A Doll's House, Part 2”) that takes us behind the scenes as the candidate (Laurie Metcalf) tries to keep her campaign on track while dealing with friction between her husband (John Lithgow) and her campaign manager. "It's a political play," producer Scott Rudin told The Hollywood Reporter, "but not in the way I think anybody will expect." Rudin compared the way Hnath treats the Clintons with the way Shakespeare dealt with real people in his historical plays, "truthful and also wildly imaginative."

Speaking of Shakespeare, one of the hottest tickets this spring will surely be "King Lear," with the towering force that is Glenda Jackson, last year's best actress Tony winner for "Three Tall Women," reprising the role she performed at London's Old Vic in 2016. ("One of the most powerful Lears I have seen," wrote The Guardian reviewer.) The struggle for power is key in this tragedy, which will also feature Jayne Houdyshell in the traditionally male role of the Earl of Gloucester.   

Mitchell says she has great expectations for the season beyond her own show, singling out David Yazbek's "Tootsie," rehearsing one floor down from hers, and Daniel Fish's "weird, dark interpretation of 'Oklahoma!'," with some "Hadestown" alums in the cast. "It's a great season," she says, "for all of us pursuing fresh approaches to musical theater."

Here are the details on the approaching Broadway openings.

AIN’T TOO PROUD (Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St., in previews for a March 21 opening)

Here we go again with the jukebox musical retrospective, this one subtitled “The Life and Times of the Temptations.” Hits like “Get Ready” and “My Girl” are sure to be crowd pleasers in the show that traces the group’s rise from Detroit streets to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME (Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St., in previews for a March 31 opening)

When she was in high school, Heidi Schreck saved money for college by giving speeches about the U.S. Constitution. Schreck recreates those days in her play, which she’ll perform along with Mike Iveson and two high school students making their Broadway debuts.

KING LEAR (Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., in previews for an April 4 opening)

Ruth Wilson and Jayne Houdyshell join Glenda Jackson in Shakespeare’s powerful tragedy about the British king’s effort to divide his kingdom — and more importantly his power — among his three daughters.

OKLAHOMA! (Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway, previews start March 19 for an April 7 opening)

Daniel Fish’s vision of the classic ended up on plenty of “best of 2018 lists” following a sold-out run at St. Ann’s Warehouse last year. Now it moves to Broadway, its darker heart highlighting the turmoil of a state working to join the union.

GARY, A SEQUEL TO TITUS ANDRONICUS (Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., in previews for an April 11 opening)

Some cast shake-ups delayed previews for Taylor Mac’s riff on Shakespeare — Andrea Martin was injured during rehearsals and replaced by Kristine Nielsen. She’ll join Nathan Lane in this comedic look at the servants who have to clean up after the bloody Roman conquest, the focus of the Bard’s early tragedy.

BURN THIS (Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th St., previews start March 15 for an April 16 opening)

Some serious star power in this one, as Adam Driver and Keri Russell lead the cast of Lanford Wilson’s smoldering drama about two strangers who come together as they mourn the loss of her dance partner, who was also his brother.

HADESTOWN (Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., previews start March 22 for an April 17 opening)

The ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice gets an update — Hades takes the form of a Depression-era work town — in this musical by Anaïs Mitchell with music that ranges from New Orleans-style jazz to honky tonk to rock.

HILLARY AND CLINTON (John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., previews start March 16 for an April 18 opening)

Flashback to the 2008 presidential campaign, most specifically the behind-the-scenes friction between the candidate’s husband (John Lithgow is Bill) and her campaign manager (Zak Orth). Laurie Metcalf plays Hillary.

ALL MY SONS (American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., previews start April 4 for an April 22 opening)

Tracy Letts and Annette Bening star in the revival of Arthur Miller’s drama, inspired by a true story, about a businessman who knew he was selling defective parts to the government during World War II.

TOOTSIE (Marquis Theatre, 210 W. 46th St., preview start March 29 for an April 23 opening)

The 1982 hit film comes to the stage, with Santino Fontana starring as the volatile actor whose career is going nowhere until he takes on a new identity as a woman and nails the part.

INK (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., previews start April 2 for an April 24 opening)

Brash young newspaper editor Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) hires a bunch of underdog reporters to do whatever it takes to make the struggling Sun become the must-read sensation of 1969 London.

BEETLEJUICE (Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway, previews start March 28 for an April 25 opening)

A haunted house, a high-spirited ghost, an obsessed teenager — all the creepy elements of Tim Burton’s 1988 film will be in place for this new show with music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect. Alex Brightman plays the title character.

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