Two seasons ago, Dear Evan Hansen took Broadway audiences back to high school – and picked-up six Tony Awards in the process. Then last season, Tina Fey’s Mean Girls opened a rival “school” just seven blocks north at the Neil Simon Theatre. Both shows still running strong, they’re joined this season by The Prom – placing a pair of lesbians fighting in the name of love at the Longacre Theatre, smack in the middle of Evan and The Plastics. (And let’s not forget Be More Chill, starting previews in February!) That’s four different musicals on The Great White Way, all framed by the American high school experience.
Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy – also high school-based – is utterly unlike any of them.
1. For one thing, Choir Boy is not a “musical” – though it is a “play with music.”
What’s the difference? Songs in a “play with music” are diegetic to the plot, meaning they occur as part of the story’s action: a singer sings, a band plays; here, an a cappella choir rehearses and performs – because that’s what they do. Make no mistake: these young men can SING.
2. Its message extends far beyond the halls of a high school.
Capturing a coming-of-age chapter from a life affected by politics, Choir Boy presents a powerful story that examines personal identity against institutional traditions: here, being black and queer in a prestigious all-male prep school. Emotionally, it covers the full spectrum – including plenty of pockets for laughter.
3. This show moves: you’re in-and-out in a little over 90 minutes – but make a post-show plan, because you’re gonna want to discuss it.
4. Choir Boy plays on one of Broadway’s most intimate stages.
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club – one of only four non-profits with precious real estate on The Great White Way, no audience member is too far from the action in MTC’s 650-seat Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on West 47th. For readers unfamiliar with MTC: its four-plus decades of success have led to every major theatre award, helped launch A-List careers across the industry, and landed Board of Directors members including Bernadette Peters, Christine Baranski, and Jake Gyllenhaal.
5. Manhattan Theatre Club and Choir Boy go WAY back.
MTC commissioned [what would become] Choir Boy from writer Tarell Alvin McCraney in the wake of his graduation from Yale School of Drama – long before McCraney received a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” or an Academy Award for writing Moonlight. (McCraney’s now back at Yale, on the faculty – and current chair of its Playwrighting Program.)
Beyond Broadway, MTC continues to produce on two additional stages – and Choir Boy made its American debut on one of them back in 2013, with much of the same core creative team (including director Trip Cullman and lead actor Jeremy Pope). To be clear, Pope has honed his role of Pharus with both Atlanta and Los Angeles productions of the play. Time, trust, and experience have polished Choir Boy in a way that only comes from such an intimate union. To capture certain types of moments, there are no shortcuts.
6. Jeremy Pope is on a fast-track to becoming Broadway royalty.
After sharing his Broadway debut with McCraney, Pope will move two blocks down to the Imperial (Josh Groban and Joshua Henry’s recent Broadway home) to play falsetto Eddie Kendricks in Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations – which will mark writer [and 2018 MacArthur “Genius”] Dominique Morisseau’s Broadway debut. There are only ten days between Pope’s closing performance as Pharus and his first preview as Kendricks – which he will spend not on a well-earned break, but in tech.
Juliet Mazer-Schmidt is a Detroit-born performer, turned DC-based litigator, turned Chicago-based theatre developer – turned NYC-based all-of-the-above… and in case it’s not obvious, she is also a writer.