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Famous Musicals and Plays that Premiered at New York Theatre Workshop

February 3, 2021 by Diep Tran
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Twenty-five years ago, on Jan. 25, 1996, a small musical premiered at a small theater in the East Village. It starred a group of young, unknown artists, who were playing a group of artists who lived in the East Village. Talk about art imitating life!

That musical was called Rent, and what began as a small Off-Broadway show grew into a cultural, era-defining phenomenon. The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical helped put New York Theatre Workshop on the map, and the show transferred to Broadway in 1996, where it ran for 12 years.

And on March 2, you can be a part of celebrating the 25th anniversary of that landmark show with a special virtual celebration. The evening will feature original cast members alongside other Broadway stars. Tickets start at $25, and you can enter the TodayTix digital Lottery for the chance to win free tickets for the event.

Rent was only the second show that New York Theatre Workshop transferred to Broadway, but it made the small, Off-Broadway theater a place to watch for new, exciting, shabby-chic work. Founded in 1979, NYTW specializes in art that “asks questions” and “expands our view of ourselves and our world.”

The theater is also an important artistic incubator, producing the work of groundbreaking artists like playwrights Jeremy O. Harris and Ayad Akhtar, directors Rachel Chavkin and Lileana Blain-Cruz, and many more. There’s also a wide international reach, and the company has hosted artists from Chile, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Israel, South Africa, Italy, Norway, and more.

Numerous shows that you know and love have gotten their start at NYTW, before being propelled to Broadway: Rent, Hadestown, and Slave Play to name a few. NYTW is so iconic that it even got a cameo in the short-lived NBC show “Smash,” as “Manhattan Theatre Workshop.” We think that in real life, NYTW would have no problems premiering Hit List.

You can measure a year in 525,600 minutes, but how do you measure the impact of a theater? Below are eight shows that first premiered at NYTW that you may recognize.

Rent

Rent was written by an up-and-coming composer named Jonathan Larson, who tragically died on the same day as the first preview of the show. The musical’s ideals of love, diversity, and “la vie bohème” were revolutionary — as well as its bold centering of LGBTQ+ and people of color, allowing many to see themselves represented onstage for the first time.

And Rent was the first Broadway show with a lottery. With its $20 same-day tickets, Rent helped make great theater accessible to the same young, low-income populace that the show dramatized. This year, in honor of Rent’s 25th anniversary, New York Theatre Workshop is honoring the musical at its annual gala, which will be virtual. The event will reunite the original cast of the musical — including Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Adam Pascal.

Hadestown

Hadestown at New York Theatre Workshop

The road to Hell originally began at NYTW. The eight-time Tony-winning musical Hadestown first premiered in 2016, in a version that was radically different from the show’s Broadway form. For one, it was done almost in-the-round: When Orpheus led Eurydice through the Underworld, he led her through the audience. And aside from Amber Gray as Persephone and Patrick Page as Hades, the cast was entirely different — Shaina Taub, who is writing The Devil Wears Prada musical, played one of the Fates! If you want to hear what that version sounds like, and what songs composer Anaïs Mitchell cut on the road to Broadway, the Off-Broadway cast album is available to stream.

Slave Play

Slave Play at New York Theatre Workshop

Slave Play has the honor of being the play with the most nominations for a Tony Award ever! But when it premiered at NYTW in 2018, it was by an unknown playwright named Jeremy O. Harris, and asked a hard question: Can the legacy of slavery be divorced from contemporary interracial relationships?

Slave Play showed that NYTW wasn’t afraid to make audiences uncomfortable, and the play’s boldness attracted attention: It transferred to Broadway in 2019.

Once

Once at New York Theatre Workshop

How do you adapt a quiet, small indie film into a best-selling Broadway musical? Well first, you try it out at NYTW. Once made its New York debut in 2011 and was based off the John Carney film of the same name about a man and a woman who bond and fall in love through music.

The show transferred to Broadway a month after it closed off Broadway, but for those who saw it at NYTW, they got an intimate look at a musical that, at its heart, is about intimacy.

Sing Street

Sing Street at New York Theatre Workshop

Considering how successful Once was when it played at NYTW, it’s no surprise that the musical adaptation of another John Carney film, Sing Street, would follow similar Off-Broadway footsteps. And the audience at NYTW in 2019 were the first to witness stars in the making:

Similar to Rent, Sing Street has a cast of unknown actors, all below the ages of 25, playing aspiring musicians. Sing Street’s 2020 Broadway opening was delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic but it’s no doubt that when Broadway returns, Sing Street will be one of the most-anticipated new musicals.

What the Constitution Means to Me

What the Constitution Means to Me at New York Theatre Workshop

When What the Constitution Means to Me bowed at NYTW in 2018, it was the third time that Heidi Schreck had performed her play. Feminist icons such as Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton (who took Bill and Chelsea with her) made a visit to NYTW to take in Schreck’s important, civic-minded play. It then played on Broadway in 2019 and is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video. It seemed the majority decision on this play was that it’s a hit!

Lazarus

Lazarus at New York Theatre Workshop

Lazarus premiered at NYTW in 2015 and it was the last thing that David Bowie, who wrote the music, worked on before he died (and opening night of Lazarus was the last time that Bowie was seen in public).

That melancholy atmosphere pervaded the musical itself, which was about a Martian who longs to return home. The musical transferred to the West End in 2017. If there’s life on Mars, we hope Bowie is there, and proud of the life his musical has had.

Peter and the Starcatcher

Peter and the Starcatcher at New York Theatre Workshop

What was Peter Pan doing before he met Wendy? Well, that’s the question that Rick Elice’s Peter and the Starcatcher, based on the book of the same name, asked when the show played at NYTW in 2011.

And judging from how popular it was off Broadway, audiences liked what they found (then again when you cast included Celia Keenan-Bolger, Christian Borle, and Adam Chanler-Berat, it’s hard to go wrong). The play transferred to Broadway in 2012, where it won five Tony Awards, proving that if you need some pixie dust, first head to NYTW.