The 5th Avenue Theatre, which has produced nine new musicals that have gone on to Broadway, is doing something this season they haven't done before: three new musicals in a row. "It seems risky, but I'm excited to see how it turns out," said Bill Berry, the 5th Avenue's producing artistic director.
"When we do new musicals, we have the opportunity to write new stories for the world we live in today," Berry said. "When we do new things, the audience is really passionate about telling us what they think. It's not a passive experience. They feel like they're part of it."
The season begins with Austen's Pride, a quasi-adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that is also about Jane Austen's writing of the novel. "It goes in and out of her life and her writing, as the story unfolds around her. She sometimes interacts with the characters," he said.
Written by Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs, Austen's Pride, which opens October 4, has been in development for years. It started without Austen in it—but over time, it's become about the author herself. One of the reasons Berry picked it is because "it's about a female character at the center, a woman who is powerful, has agency, is literally forming her own narrative."
November 26 is the world premiere of Mrs. Doubtfire, an adaptation of the 1993 Robin Williams film (personal note: my parents divorced in 1993, and my brothers and I have seen that film one billion times). Mrs. Doubtfire will be directed by Jerry Zaks, a Broadway legend who won a Tony Award for directing the revival of Guys and Dolls in 1992, and was nominated again for his revival of Hello, Dolly! with Bette Midler in 2017.
"It's a farce, ultimately—mistaken identity. There's a fantastic scene where the father is in a restaurant and needs to be himself and Mrs. Doubtfire at the same time and goes back and forth," Berry said. "That's a really great opportunity for musical comedy."
The third of the new musicals is Bliss, which opens January 31 and "is about princess culture, and about who defines what a princess is," he said. Written by Emma Lively and Tyler Beattie and choreographed by Josh Prince (the acclaimed Broadway choreographer of Shrek and Beautiful), Bliss has a more pop/rock score than "traditional" musicals.
For audience members (like me) who love the 5th Avenue's inspired reinvigorations of musical classics—last season's West Side Story, directed by Berry, and Annie, directed by Billie Wildrick, were both phenomenal—new musicals can be a tougher sell. The quality of a work still in development is always a crapshoot. Last season's Marie, Dancing Still, about Edgar Degas and one of the ballet dancers who inspired his paintings, was superficial and disappointing.
But 5th Avenue patron Buzz Porter told me he likes seeing new musicals, even if they are unpolished, over classics that have all of the kinks worked out. "The few times I've been in a theater and thought, 'Oh, this is a waste of time,' it's never with new shows," he said. "It's always a revival or something where I think: 'Why are they doing this?' With the kinks in new shows, I think that's more interesting, actually. Why didn't that work, and what could they do to make that work?"
Buzz and his wife, Beth, are members of the Creativity Circle, a giving level at the 5th Avenue, and they credit managing director Bernie Griffin with educating them and inviting them into the process of seeing and giving feedback on new works.
Buzz recalled that Come From Away, a Tony Award–winning musical that had its world debut at Seattle Rep, actually had a previous workshop in the 5th Avenue's rehearsal space. "It was the first time they brought the actors together with a script and choreographer," said Buzz, who saw that workshop. "That idea that they would just use those chairs and rearrange them [to create different scenes] all began in that workshop in the rehearsal space at the 5th Avenue." He thinks of that as a testament to how much the 5th Avenue nurtures the art form: It is "developing musicals that aren't even necessarily on its own stage."
Asked about new musicals at the 5th Avenue they have loved the most, the Porters named Hairspray (a 2002 production in which Matthew Morrison, future Glee star, was plucked out of the ensemble to play one of the leads); Catch Me If You Can (starring Aaron Tveit, who later appeared in the film adaptation of Les Miserables—"that was the first time we saw him, on the 5th Avenue stage, that blew me away"); and A Christmas Story (an adaptation of the holiday film that won the music-and-lyrics team, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, much acclaim when it went to Broadway, and led to them getting backing for their next musical, Dear Evan Hansen).
The Porters are looking forward to Austen's Pride (they've seen it workshopped already, so they're eager to see what's changed). They said they don't know anything about Bliss. And they're "really excited" about Mrs. Doubtfire. "I'm starting to be skeptical every time they take a movie and make it into a musical," Buzz said, "but I'm looking for a good musical comedy there."
"We have a 9-year-old niece in the Seattle area," Beth said, "and we're excited to take her to that one, so we can start introducing her to this idea of new shows."