May 18, 2024

Theater’s biggest stars converged on Monday morning for Variety‘s annual Business of Broadway Breakfast, fortifying themselves with coffee and frittatas on a rare day off, to celebrate a new season of plays, musicals and revivals.

The event, which was presented by City National Bank, included discussions with Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff and Lindsay Mendez. They are taking their acclaimed Off-Broadway production of “Merrily We Roll Along” to the Main Stem and hoping to redeem the Stephen Sondheim musical, which flopped when it debuted in 1981. There was also a discussion with Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, who have reunited for the zany “Gutenberg! The Musical!,” more than a decade after “The Book of Mormon” made them household names. And a panel of prominent producers such as Greg Nobile, Kristin Caskey, Patrick Catullo, Leslie Odom Jr. and Fiona Rudin, discussed the challenges of mounting a show in a business with little margin for error.

Here are five takeaways from the celebration of stagecraft and the people reshaping the theater industry.

Harry Potter and Dumbledore never talked shop

Harry Potter and Dumbledore didn’t get too in the weeds about the art of stage acting in between scenes at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Though they spent plenty of time together across six “Harry Potter” movies, Radcliffe says he and the late Michael Gambon never discussed their shared love of theater.

“The wonderful thing about Michael is that he wasn’t an actor you talked about acting with,” Radcliffe said of Gambon, who was best known to younger generations as headmaster Albus Dumbledore and died last week at 82. “His true passion was restoring 19th-century Italian dueling pistols.”

But Radcliffe believed there was a method to his elder’s sprightly approach to the screen, noting that Gambon would be messing with the child actors on set right up until the director called “action.”

“He knows he’s at his best when he’s at his most playful,” Radcliffe said. “His ability to switch on was second to none.”

Theater was, however, a popular topic of conversation with another “Harry Potter” co-star, Richard Griffiths, a.k.a. Uncle Vernon Dursley. The two shared the stage in the 2007 Broadway revival of “Equis.”

Radcliffe said he learned a lot from “watching the way Richard approaches theater,” what he described as “a process of constant and relentless refinement. You’re never done. Your last show should be your best.”

Broadway is the best workout routine

Apparently, being on stage for two hours and change to sing, dance and crack up an audience — especially in the physically demanding two-man musical “Guttenberg!” — is an endorphin boost like no other.

“Broadway is the greatest weight-loss plan that anyone could ever come up with,” joked Gad. “I think I’ve dropped 20 pounds in two weeks doing the show.”

Rannells chimed in, “Cardio and anxiety burns calories.”

Beyond getting them to 10,000 steps a day, the show marks a long-awaited reunion for the “Book of Mormon” duo. Ten years have passed since they last shared the stage in the delightfully offensive musical about two missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But Rannells attested “it’s mostly if no time has passed. We mostly haven’t grown up.”

Luckily, there’s a similarly silly energy to “Guttenberg,” which follows two earnestly clueless theater composers who try to pitch a less-than-accurate musical about the life of Johannes Guttenberg, the inventor of the printing press.

“Being on stage again with this fool” — Gad said, turning to Rannells — “is everything I could have hoped for and more. We’re the same complete morons we were in ‘Book of Mormon.’ It’s fun.”

It’s clear their chemistry hasn’t dimmed in the decade since Elder Price and Elder Cunningham embarked on their mission to spread the gospel of Joseph Smith. This is a positioning they’re actively trying to counter.

“We’re trying to create our own press narrative,” said Rannells. “A lot of what has been written is that we’re friends. And we feel like now is a good time to pivot. Actually, we don’t like each other.”

Gad added, “We hope that tension builds ticket sales.”

They’re joking, of course.

In any case, Rannells offered another explanation for what makes them so arresting in front of an audience.

“We have a real Sam and Diane, like, will-they, won’t-they situation,” he cracked. Because of their shared rise to prominence, they know it is death do us part.. and a bit beyond. “We joke that we will be named in each other’s obituaries, which brings a special closeness to friends. Josh thinks I’m going to die first… which is really sweet.”

Theater’s next gen

God knows there’s plenty of reasons to be glum about the battle between art and commerce, as well as the general state of the world. But some of Broadway’s biggest movers and shakers prefer to look with hope toward the future.

“There’s often talks about fundraising and its various challenges. But we’re all here because we believe in how vital [theater] is,” said Caskey, a producer on “Guttenberg” and the upcoming revival of “The Wiz.” “There’s always been collaboration among the producing community, but I’m in awe of this younger generation — not only their commitment but just how many of them there are and their real commitment to this craft. I’m very optimistic.”

It’s also a group of decision-makers that’s noticeably more diverse than the previous class of producers. Leslie Odom Jr., the Tony-winning star of “Hamilton,” returned to Broadway with the play “Purlie Victorious,” as not just an actor but also a first-time producer.

“I don’t have to be the loudest voice in the room. I don’t have to be the only voice in a room. But I do want a seat at the table,” Odom said. “I want to have a say about the poster. I want to contribute.”

‘No stories about us without us’

Many of this season’s new shows will feature underrepresented communities, from productions with neurodivergent stars (“How to Dance in Ohio”) to searing looks at the segregated South (“Purlie Victorious”). These plays and musicals are more inclusive of the world around us — and in many cases, the people at the center are playing a role in bringing these stories to the stage.

One mantra has been “No stories about us without us,” said Fiona Rudin, a producer of “How to Dance in Ohio.” “It’s those little lifts that make for a better space for all of us.”

But there’s still work that needs to be done. Though Odom has a bigger role behind the scenes of “Purlie Victorious,” a play that describes itself as “a non-confederate romp through the cotton patch,” he believes he’s one of the exceptions.

“We haven’t invested in the pipeline. We’d like more directors of color [on Broadway], but nobody is really ready,” he said. To combat that in the future, Jeffrey Richards, a lead producer on “Purlie Victorious” is making it a priority to bring Odom in the rooms where it happens. This way, Odom has the tools to take on a bigger role for his next production.

“He promised he’d share everything with me I’d want to know,” Odom said. “And I want to know everything.”

For love of the stage

A-list actors don’t abandon their oversized trailers (and paychecks) to do eight shows a week without a genuine love for performing in front of a live audience. It’s a thrill that keeps them returning to the Great White Way time and time again. That was clear to Radcliffe while working with theater veterans like Groff and Mendez on the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.”

“We all started pretty young. You don’t do it for this long unless you really like doing it” Radcliffe said. “On film sets, there’s a jadedness that can creep in. But I don’t have to hide how much l love doing this job around you guys. Jonathan is one of the most excited people for the show every night… including the audience.”

The trio also talked about bringing the rare Sondheim flop back to Broadway. This production, directed by Maria Friedman, has been embraced by critics and has been playing to sold-out crowds in preview performances ahead of opening night on Oct. 10.

“To see this show have its moment 42 years later is remarkable,” Mendes said. “I wish he was here to see it.”

Sondheim, one of theater’s most revered composers, died in 2021 at the age of 91 before this version of “Merrily” began running Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop in late 2022. There were more than a few tears that were shed (mostly by Groff) when it made its long-awaited transfer to the Hudson Theatre.

“I cried a lot. Well, I cry a lot generally,” admitted Groff, who was particularly emotional about hearing the overture for the first time in the 970-seat venue. “This show was written to be in a Broadway space.”

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