While Broadway is at the pinnacle of the theater experience, patrons often overlook New York’s vibrant theater world beyond Broadway’s bright lights. Numerous off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway venues provide a range of shows that rival the quality of Broadway’s grand productions, while offering innovative approaches to theater.
First, it is important to address a misnomer. The designations off-Broadway and off-off- Broadway do not refer to location. In fact, several such shows are located within Manhattan’s theater district.
The primary differences among the three designations are the number of seats in the venue, level of commercialization and amount of money invested in the production. Broadway shows carry the biggest ticket prices and offer the most lavish stage productions. Off-Broadway shows are professional productions with smaller budgets, performed in smaller venues and lean toward the avant-garde.
Aside from the lower ticket prices, why would someone want to see an off-Broadway production? One reason is the quality of the performances. Actors such as Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino started their careers in off-Broadway productions. Another reason is the intimacy of the venues, which typically seat 200 to 400 compared to a seating capacity of more than 1,500 in some Broadway theaters.
New World Stages is one of the trendy off-Broadway venues. Located just one block from the Gershwin Theatre (one of the largest in the theater district), New World is a prime example of the new piggybacking theater model, in which several shows share the same theater, sets and stage crews to keep production costs down.
Recently renovated, this underground facility offers five different shows on separate stages, with capacities ranging from 199 to 499 seats. But its off-Broadway tag is deceptive. Currently, New World is the home of RENT, a multi-award winning musical that is a favorite among theatergoers. And New World is also the place to see Avenue Q, which won the Tony Award for best new musical.
Its location inside the theater district offers a range of world-class restaurants. There are also inexpensive but equally delightful places to eat. After a Sunday afternoon matinee, I recently discovered Mother Burger, an upscale hamburger restaurant located in a relaxing outdoor plaza behind New World.
In the past two decades, the success of off-Broadway shows has enabled a few to transition to the Broadway category. Critics of commercial theater complain that off-Broadway has lost its creativeness and blurs the line that once distinguished it from Broadway productions. For that reason, many have turned to off-off Broadway shows, which lean toward the experimental side of theater.
Indeed, off-off Broadway shows tend toward edginess in both content and location. One example is Under St. Mark’s, located in the East Village section of Manhattan. This venue, typical of many off-off Broadway spaces, was not intended to be a theater. Under St. Mark’s (named for the street where it is located), stages productions in the basement of a gritty brownstone house, with a seating capacity for 49 people.
This venue has a dangerous look, which matches the unconventional, experimental nature of its shows. Under St. Mark’s is currently staging Relax! Alice, a twist on the Lewis Carroll classics, Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. This adaptation is about “a misunderstood young girl trying to find her place in today’s over-medicated and stereotype-driven world.”
In fact, the East Village hosts a number of off-off Broadway shows. Unlike ritzy midtown, the East Village is a working-class neighborhood that is home to 20-somethings, many with the counter-culture mindset.
Far from upscale restaurants and high-end shops in the theater district, off-off Broadway venues in the East Village, such as Metropolitan Playhouse, are surrounded by eateries that range from a modest but elegant French bistro and dainty outdoor cafes to shabby bars and unattractive delis.
Since theater critics seldom bother to review the smaller venues, here are a few websites that help theatergoers locate and decide which shows to see: