Special Reports

9 Theaters Where You Can Catch the Next Hot Broadway Show Before It Hits New York

Where do Broadway shows get their start? It might be in your own city.

Some shows, such as The Book of Mormon and Chicago, are born on Broadway. Others, like The Lion King and Hello, Dolly! (originally titled Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman during its pre-Broadway run in Detroit) premiered in regional theaters across the US. From Seattle to Atlanta to Hartford, regional theaters are constantly developing new works that go on to enthrall New York City audiences and win Tony Awards. Here are eight regional houses you can visit to catch the next big thing on Broadway…before it gets there.

1. 5th Avenue Theatre; Seattle, Washington

The original production of Aladdin at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre.
(© Chris Bennion)

Founded in 1926, Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre has established a reputation for nurturing new musicals. Many of them have gone on to Broadway and, in some cases, Tony success. Hairspray (winner of the 2003 Tony Award for Best Musical), Shrek the Musical, Memphis (2010 Best Musical), and most recently, Aladdin, all began life at the 5th Avenue Theatre. The venue, with an interior built to resemble imperial Chinese architecture, is as much of a showstopper as the musical numbers its stages. The crown jewel of the space is a chandelier that dangles from the jaws of a golden dragon.

2. American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.); Boston, Massachusetts

In its mission to push the boundaries of theater, A.R.T. makes the audience "central to the theatrical experience." The immersive Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, in which the stage was transformed to look like an imperial Russian supper club, played there before transferring to Broadway in 2016. Other shows to make the leap include a revival of Pippin and Waitress, which is currently running at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. A.R.T.'s artistic director Diane Paulus, who helmed Pippin, Waitress, and the 2011 Broadway revival of Hair, has always managed to make the audience feel that their mere presence in the theater was a vital part of the action onstage.

3. Alliance Theatre; Atlanta, Georgia

The Alliance Theatre's vision of "modeling radical inclusion" can be seen in several of its Broadway transfers. Among them are Aida, The Color Purple, and The Last Night of Ballyhoo, which collectively spotlight racial, sexual, and religious minorities. The theater's next show to hit Broadway, The Prom, promises another dose of social conscientiousness with its story of a small-town Indiana high school student who wants to take her girlfriend to prom.

4. Arena Stage; Washington, DC

It's only appropriate that this theater, located in the nation's capital, is "dedicated to American voices and artists." Within the past few years, these artists have included Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Lynn Nottage. Dear Evan Hansen (score by Pasek and Paul, book by Steven Levenson) premiered at Arena Stage, and Nottage's Sweat played there between the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and its off-Broadway and Broadway runs. And back in 1967, Arena Stage helped launch the careers of James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander when it premiered The Great White Hope, which became the first play ever to transfer to Broadway from a regional theater.

5. Curran Theater; San Francisco, California

The Curran currently prioritizes "bold, daring work," but it has a history of producing feel-good crowd-pleasers; Peter Pan, Gigi, Wicked, and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical all premiered there. The venue also has a historical kinship with Broadway. Its founder, Homer Curran, had it built in the 1920s to resemble his favorite theaters on the Great White Way. The imitation was so credible that much of All About Eve, a now-classic 1950 film about an aging Broadway actor and the ingenue who supplants her, was shot there.

6. Oriental Theatre; Chicago, Illinois

Brandishing a commanding marquee just a few short blocks from Millennium Park, downtown Chicago's Oriental Theatre not only claims nearly a century's worth of history (it was constructed in 1926 as a movie palace), but has recently launched an impressive showing of Broadway hits and contenders. Chicago mainstay Tina Landau's SpongeBob SquarePants premiered at the Oriental before heading to Broadway's Palace Theatre, and most recently, the Samantha Barks-led Pretty Woman: The Musical wasted no time blowing in from the Windy City. As if that weren't enough musical muscle, The Cher Show just ended its Oriental run to prepare for a December Broadway opening.

7. Hartford Stage; Hartford, Connecticut

The original production of Anastasia at Hartford Stage.
(© Joan Marcus)

Hartford Stage, led by Tony-winning artistic director Darko Tresnjak, has sent two new musicals to Broadway in recent years: the Tony-winning A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder and Anastasia (currently running on Broadway and touring the country). Hartford Stage's mission to "enlighten, entertain, and educate by creating theatrical works of the highest caliber that have a transformative impact on our audiences, our community, and our field" has guided them in serving the Hartford community since 1963.

8. La Jolla Playhouse; San Diego, California

The original production of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical at La Jolla Playhouse.
(© Kevin Berne)

Cofounded by Gregory Peck in 1947, the Tony-winning La Jolla Playhouse dreams big and believes theater is "a vital social, moral and political platform." With an impressive list of Broadway transfers — including The Who's Tommy, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Bonnie and Clyde, Jersey Boys, and Peter and the Starcatcher, as well as current hits Come From Away and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical — we think they're well on their way advancing theater as a vital art form.

9. Royal Court Theatre; London, UK

London's Royal Court Theatre is a fountainhead of great drama for American audiences. Recent productions of The River, The Children, and Girls & Boys all sprang from the Royal Court's deep well of talent before making the voyage to New York City. It should come as no surprise that the company is self-described as "the writers' theatre," using the stage to "inspire audiences and influence future writers with radical thinking and provocative discussion". There are plenty of opportunities to join that discussion when the Royal Court's The Ferryman and Choir Boy open on Broadway this season. But just in case you've gotten the impression that all of the Royal Court's offerings are strictly serious dramas, we remind you that The Rocky Horror Show made its world premiere there in 1973.

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