2:00 pm EDT, October 25, 2017

Intro to Off-Broadway: A guide to venturing beyond Broadway for beginners

By Irvin K

For the savvy theatregoers, Off-Broadway is a treasure trove of wonderful shows… if you know how to find them.

There are lots of reasons to venture Off-Broadway when picking a show to see. Perhaps you’ve already seen everything on Broadway, or just have no interest in the truly appalling Broadway season coming up. Or you’re priced out of all the Broadway shows you want to see. Or you want bragging rights by seeing new shows before they become Broadway’s biggest blockbusters. Or maybe you’ve just been reading our articles over the years highlighting all the wonderful things to be found Off-Broadway, and want to see for yourself. Either way, consider this your intro to Off-Broadway.

What does ‘Off-Broadway’ mean?

First, a note on terminology. Technically, Off-Broadway refers to any NYC theater that has between 100 and 499 seats in it, of which there are approximately 70. Anything under 100 seats that takes place in NYC is Off-Off-Broadway. But unless folks are discussing contracts or theatre awards, both are usually lumped together as “Off-Broadway,” which is what we’ll do. Because the scene is so expansive, it’s nigh impossible to create a comprehensive guide, so we’ll offer up 10 theatre companies to get you started.

How to see Off-Broadway shows

As for how to see Off-Broadway shows: the prices are usually much lower than on Broadway, but there are also fewer discounts available. If in doubt, google the theater’s name and click around their website to find a rush policy – most have something like $25 student rush tickets an hour before curtain. However, if a show is really popular or has a big star, then you may be out of luck.

Due to equity rules that make Off-Broadway productions much more expensive after six weeks, most Off-Broadway shows will only run a little over a month (with some notable exceptions). So if a show catches your interest, you usually don’t have the luxury of waiting to fit it into your schedule.

Broadly speaking, we can divide productions into four kinds, much like the Tonys do: new works and revivals, musicals and plays. Most Off-Broadway companies will specialize in one or two of these, so that’s how we’ll organize the guide. We’ll provide four companies for each kind of musical, and two companies for each kind of play (because we don’t see enough plays, unfortunately). That should provide a little something for everyone.

The Best Of Off-Broadway

New Musicals

Off-Broadway has long been a place for new musicals to gestate, with some of the bigger and better ones eventually making their way to Broadway. In fact, the last three Best Musical Tony winners all began life Off-Broadway.

Second Stage is one of the companies that tends to send shows to Broadway, with their most recent success being Dear Evan Hansen. Their musicals are fairly diverse, but if you want to get a jump on next year’s Tony darling, Second Stage is a good bet. They also stage plays on occasion, despite being better known for musicals: the current production is a revival of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song, an absolute masterpiece and an integral part of the LGBT theatre. Second Stage is located at 307 West 43rd Street. (Website.)

The York Theatre usually produces one splashy new musical each season, in addition to their Mufti series (see below). They tend to be very colorful and quite upbeat, worth seeing for a good time in between all the “serious theatre.” Currently, they’re running Desperate Measures, a hilarious adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure set in the Wild West. The York Theater is located at 619 Lexington Avenue. (Website.)

The Prospect Theater Company usually does one or two big musical productions a season, and a few cool musicals in concert in between. Their musicals tend towards the epic and dramatic, with lush sweeping scores that make you wish for cast albums. Next month, they will present The Mad Ones, about a woman trying to make a choice about the rest of her life. They currently are in residence at 59e59 Theatres (59 East 59th Street). (Website.)

The NY Musical Festival is an annual festival of new musicals that takes place every summer. For several weeks, an entire swarm of new musicals are staged for five or six performances each, and theatre fans try to cram as many in as humanly possible. A six-show weekend? Yes, please! The musicals are very different, but many have some quirkiness to them, and many find success later on in other productions. NYMF’s biggest success story is Next to Normal, which allows them to trumpet that their alumni have won Tony Awards and even Pulitzers. (Website.)

Musical Revivals

The musical theatre catalogue is enormous, but Broadway seems to revive the same dozen musicals (Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, etc.) every seven years instead of digging deeper. That’s where off-Broadway comes in, offering a chance to see the musical gems of yesteryear. These usually run for only about a week, so it’s extra-difficult trying to see them, but well worth it.

Encores is perhaps the best known entity for revivals of musicals. Set in the gargantuan City Center, they attract the best talent that Broadway has to offer, and often end up sending their productions to Broadway. For example, the current production of Chicago that’s been running for 20 years originated at Encores. Encores has a sister series, Off-Encores, which revives musicals that only ever played Off-Broadway… but they’ve yet to stage a production this writer actually enjoyed, notwithstanding the immense talent they bring on stage. City Center is at 131 W 55th Street. (Website.)

The York Theatre, in addition to developing new musicals, has a series called Musicals in Mufti, which stages more recent shows (from the ‘80s/’90s) than their peers. The staging is minimal – almost no sets, and the actors often have scripts in hand – but this series tends to attract top-notch talent like John Tartaglia and Kerry Butler. (Website.)

Musicals Tonight is a much more modest theatre company concerned with revivals. The staging is done very clearly on a budget, and the quality of actors is sometimes uneven. But they are the best option for seeing really old musicals that are otherwise forgotten, usually the lesser-known works in the oeuvres of Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, Irving Berlin, and their ilk. They are in residence at Theatre Row. (Website.)

If you’re willing to venture as far as Brooklyn, you’ll find the Gallery Players. Though located in NYC, they program their schedule like a community theater, with little regard for what’s recently been on Broadway. Therefore, it’s a good place to go to catch up on shows you may have missed fairly recently: Rent, Next to Normal, In the Heights, and so on. They also revive plays, but we’ve never seen one, so can’t speak to that. Gallery Players is located at 199 14th Street in Brooklyn. (Website.)

New Plays

We’re not terribly familiar with the companies that produce new plays – though word on the street is that Signature Theatre and Playwrights Horizons are worth checking out. Considering how few new American plays make it to Broadway, edging in between the splashy musicals and star-driven revivals, this is definitely an area where Off-Broadway has a lot to offer.

The Manhattan Theatre Club brings new plays to both Broadway and Off-Broadway at NY City Center’s smaller theaters (131 West 55th Street). The plays are often about unusual subject matters, but make for interesting theatre – one of this writer’s favorites was Important Hats of the Twentieth Century, a sci-fi comedy about time-traveling hat designers. (Website.)

Second Stage Uptown, an off-shoot of Second Stage, is a popular series of new plays at Second Stage’s uptown theater. They pride themselves on premiering the works of new playwrights, with the plays usually set in the here and now, and often concerning younger people. (Or maybe that’s just the bias in the plays I’ve chosen to see.) Second Stage Uptown is at the McGinn-Cazale Theater, 2162 Broadway. (Website.)

Play Revivals

Not quite as glamorous as the musical revivals, there are lots of old plays that remain relevant and funny to this day. Decades ago, plays were much slower, with lots more talking and lots fewer histrionics. If you have the patience for that, watching old plays can be really rewarding.

The Mint Theater Company prides itself on producing lost and forgotten plays – things you’ve likely never heard of. Often, these plays are by really well-known writers like A.A. Milne, who turns out to have been a great playwright in addition to creating Winnie the Pooh. The Mint is in residence at Theatre Row. (Website.)

The Red Bull Theater Company often offers revivals of foreign playwrights’ works, in addition to English classics. Their plays tend towards the comedic, with lots of farces thrown in. In our humble opinion, there are not nearly enough farces on Broadway these days! I often marvel at the fact that I’m laughing at something created centuries ago. Red Bull is in residence at the Lucille Lortel Theater (121 Christopher Street). (Website.)

Exploring Further

The above list is just a taste of all that Off-Broadway has to offer. There’s plenty more that we didn’t even get to. And some of the Broadway theatre companies have an Off-Broadway arm: for example, Roundabout Theatre Company, which in contrast to the companies listed does a little bit of everything. (Website.)

Sometimes, it’s easier to keep up with Off-Broadway venues than with producing companies, especially since it’s quite popular to have several theaters in one place. There are two big theater complexes especially worth keeping an eye on.

New World Stages is a complex of five theaters at 340 West 50th Street. It’s where shows go when they want a long healthy life Off-Broadway, whether they’re coming from Broadway, Off-Broadway, or even the West End. Currently, they’re playing host to Avenue Q, Gazillion Bubble Show, Puffs, A Clockwork Orange, and soon they’ll welcome Jersey Boys. It’s one of the few Off-Broadway venues hosting shows that are well-known to casual theatregoers. (Website.)

Theatre Row is a complex of six theaters at 410 West 42nd Street. They have roughly a million theatre companies in residence, including the Mint, Musicals Tonight, TACT, Keen Company, as well as hosting part of NYMF every summer. There’s almost always something interesting happening in at least one of the theatres there. (Website.)

Have you ever seen shows Off-Broadway? Do you plan to?

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