At the National, a new song in the air

If there’s a stairway to musical-theater heaven, it will be winding through Washington next season.

With the announcement Tuesday of a bold new four-show Broadway subscription series at the soon-to-be spruced-up National Theatre, the number of announced musicals for 2013-14 at nine theaters around the Washington area stands at a whopping 27.

And counting.

Executives of the newly formed National Theatre Group say that, starting in November, they are booking four major shows into the National on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, once the premier Washington house for Broadway entertainment. The four are the world-premiere engagement of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s “If/Then,” starring Idina Menzel; and national tours of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” “American Idiot” and “West Side Story.” Subscriptions starting at $195 go on sale Thursday.

The new subscription series may revive the fortunes of the long-neglected National with a highly credible and attractive array of offerings. It also represents the most vigorous challenge in decades to the primacy of the Kennedy Center as the region’s dominant shelter for shows fresh (and not so fresh) from New York.

And it contributes to the impression that next season, this city will be pumping out show tunes at an unprecedented pace. “If/Then” and five other musicals — at Signature Theatre, Arena Stage and Round House Theatre — will be world premieres, or shows in important early trials. That doesn’t even include the reworked “Side Show,” directed by Bill Condon, that will be staged next spring at the Kennedy Center.

The list of musical revivals, too, reads like a survey of theater’s greatest hits. On tap are productions of “Gypsy,” “A Chorus Line,” “The King and I,” “Miss Saigon,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” among others. Even the Shakespeare Theatre Company is in the mix, with its own revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

The most significant revival, though, may be what’s in the works for the National itself. Until the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971, the National was the D.C. destination for shows on their way to Broadway, and touring productions spawned after Broadway success. “Show Boat” was unveiled to the world at the National in 1927; “West Side Story,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “Pippin” all had tryouts there, too.

But engagements dried up at the 1,670-seat house once the Kennedy Center — with its more modern facilities and, in the case of the Opera House, larger seating capacity — claimed the highest-profile and most lucrative bookings. Producers brought in to book the space, such as the Shubert Organization, proved over the years to be anemic providers. Though the National snared the occasional coup — such as the D.C. runs of “Jersey Boys” — it mostly was left to scrounge in the Kennedy Center’s leftovers. In 2012, as a result, the theater was occupied for an abysmal total of five weeks.

Enter the National Theatre Group, a joint venture of JAM Theatricals, a Chicago-based producer and presenter of Broadway programming, and Philadelphia’s SMG, which manages convention centers, theaters and professional sports stadiums. The group signed a deal several months ago with the National Theatre Corporation — the nonprofit organization that has overseen the National for decades — to succeed Shubert as the theater’s programmer.

In fairly short order, the new team announced that it would book concerts and other short-run events in the historic theater, and now, in unveiling its first subscription season, the National Theatre Group is putting another puzzle piece in place.

“It’s a theater, and anything can happen in a theater,” says Bob Papke, SMG’s vice president of theaters, who runs National Theatre Group with Steve Traxler, JAM’s co-founder. “If you look at all the iconic American theaters . . . the National has equal or more history than all those venues,” adds Papke, who started in the business in the box office and the front office of the Warner Theatre, around the corner from the National. “And it should take its place among all those other theaters.”

As indicated by the deep inventory of new and old musicals for next season, Washington is a rich market — and one you wouldn’t describe as virgin territory. The National certainly has its work cut out, winning the loyalty of ticket buyers who may be far more familiar with the Kennedy Center’s phone number and Web site.

That is not to suggest that opportunities do not exist. The Kennedy Center’s next season is a mixed bag; higher-toned offerings like “Side Show” and “An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Pantinkin” along with the movie knockoff musicals “Flashdance,” “Sister Act” and “Elf.” The National kicks off in November with “If/Then” by the creative team behind “Next to Normal” — potentially the marquee musical event of the autumn. And the package of the Tony-winning “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” “American Idiot” and “West Side Story” has enough zing to compete with some of the Kennedy Center’s commercially driven titles.

“It’s a great place to start as we find out how D.C. audiences respond,” Traxler says of the plan for a five-week run of “If/Then” and one-week runs of each of the other three. (“Stomp,” “Blue Man Group,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight!” will also make short stops there.)

He adds: “Because of its size, its intimacy, its location, the inherent beauty of the venue, the National deserves to have Broadway-style shows play there, and our task was to find shows that could fill the room, that would give people a reason to return to the National.”

Toward that end, Papke and Traxler are developing a long-range plan to improve the theater’s aesthetics and facilities for the comfort of patrons and the functional needs of productions. First up comes a fresh coat of paint. In a season brimming with show music, it’s an apt time for the National’s walls to sing.

For more information, visit www.thenationaldc.com or call 855-486-2516.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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