On a recent trip to Boston, I made sure to fit two live theatrical performances into my visit. Both of them—1776, a modern take on the hoary musical about the Revolutionary War, and Beautiful Noise, one of a seemingly infinite number of jukebox musicals, this time featuring the songs of Neil Diamond—were Broadway-bound. I reveled in the chance to take in these award-winning shows, with their original casts, before they were burdened by the sold-out signs and the oh-so-expensive tickets of the Great White Way.
Plus, I walked away with the street cred of being able to say, been there, saw that. I’ve done the same while traveling to Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Washington, DC.
“When you sit in the audience at a major resident theater, you may get a peek at a play or a musical that is bound for even bigger things, but you also benefit from the connection between the company and the city,” says Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, a national organization for regional companies. “You’re surrounded by locals who are interested in gathering for a shared experience, and that’s true of the performers and those behind the scenes, too. They’re not part of a tour that comes through town for a few nights and then leaves; they become embedded in the community.”
Here’s a closer look at some of the country’s top regional theater companies, those that have won Regional Theatre Tony Awards or originated work that have later gone on to win Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.
American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA; Photo by John Phelan
NEW ENGLAND, NEW WORK
It was at Harvard University’s American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that I saw the version of 1776 now wowing Broadway audiences with its diverse cast of women, transgender and nonbinary actors taking on the roles of Jefferson et al. in a nightly debate about the fate of our emerging nation. In addition to this Tony Award winner, ART—founded in 1980—was the first to stage the acclaimed Broadway smashes Waitress, Once and ’night, Mother.
Also, in neighboring Boston, consider Huntington Theatre Company, a regional Tony winner that has sent 18 plays to Off Broadway or Broadway since its founding in 1982. Two other New England winners of the award are Connecticut’s Hartford Stage, whose most recent export was the musical Anastasia, with a book by Tony-winner Terrence McNally, and Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, which has a successful track record of birthing hits like Man of La Mancha and Annie.
The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, PA; Photo by Johanna Austin
Founded in 1973, Philadelphia’s Wilma came under the leadership of the Czech-born couple Blanka and Jiri Zizka in 1981 and began cementing a national reputation as stagers of provocative works by playwrights such as their fellow Czech émigré Tom Stoppard. It recently earned the distinction of becoming the first Philly-based theater to coproduce a Broadway show, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fat Ham, which it first presented as a site-specific, one-take film in 2021.
One of the granddaddies of nonprofit theaters, Arena Stage in Washington, DC, was founded in 1950. Since then, it’s transferred 22 plays to Broadway, beginning with 1969’s Pulitzer-winning The Great White Hope and continuing through to Dear Evan Hansen, which took home a Tony for Best Musical. Other gems in the Mid-Atlantic include Arlington, Virginia’s Signature Theatre and New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse and McCarter Theatre Center, all regional Tony awardees.
Chris Hutchison and Elizabeth Bunch in Dead Man’s Cellphone at Houston’s Alley Theatre; Photo by Lynn Lane
The biggest theater town in the South is undoubtedly Atlanta, home to the Alliance Theatre, founded in 1968 and awarded the regional Tony in 2007. Early Broadway-bound productions included Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The company also has sent on to Broadway the Elton John–Tim Rice adaptation of Verdi’s Aida and, more recently, The Color Purple and Bring It On: The Musical, to which Lin-Manuel Miranda contributed music and lyrics.
In the Southwest, the Dallas Theater Center has since its founding in 1959 operated out of Frank Lloyd Wright’s only purpose-built theater, set amid a parklike setting in Turtle Creek. While that historic space undergoes restoration, shows have moved downtown to the company’s other location in the AT&T Performing Arts Center, codesigned by Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster and others. The company, a 2017 recipient of the regional Tony, almost always includes a world premiere in its season and has sent 35 such plays to Broadway during its lengthy history.
Downstate, Houston’s Alley Theatre, also a regional Tony winner (1996), is staging five—count ’em, five—world premieres during its 2023–24 season, including Anna Deavere Smith’s ELLA, about iconic songstress Ella Fitzgerald.
In Chicago, Steppenwolf Theatre has a long tradition of introducing audiences to provocative plays such as 1919; Photo by Michael Brosilow
Founded in 1976, the ensemble company Steppenwolf has nurtured many stars, including its cofounder Gary Sinise and Chicago-based actors like John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf. Among the most celebrated of resident companies, it was awarded the regional Tony in 1985 and, by the ’90s, had made the leap to world premieres, bringing work like Buried Child and August: Osage County to Broadway. Long based in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, Steppenwolf recently unveiled an expansion that includes a 400-seat in-the-round theater and an education center.
Chicago maintains a vibrant local stage scene—six companies have been awarded regional Tonys—but the second theater of the Second City can fairly be said to be the Goodman Theatre, whose world premieres include this season’s Broadway transfer Good Night, Oscar. One other heartland company of special note is Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, founded in 1963. Now based in a stunning space designed by Jean Nouvel overlooking the Mississippi River, it won the regional Tony in 1982 and counts among its many triumphs the original commissioning of Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s (then known as Floyd’s), which went on to become the most-produced play in America.
The cast of The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci at The Old Globe in San Diego; Photo by Jim Cox
Credited with debuting now-canonical dramas and musicals like The Piano Lesson and Into the Woods, San Diego’s Old Globe—originally, and loosely, modeled on the London theater where Shakespeare introduced his plays—has been around since 1937 and garnered the regional Tony in 1984. Not far from the Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse, founded in 1947 by Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer as a summer stock outlet for Hollywood royalty, has transferred more than 30 productions to Broadway. It was awarded the regional Tony in 1993. Its most recent Broadway transfer was Come from Away, which it coproduced with Seattle Rep, the 1990 regional Tony winner that premiered or helped develop plays like Two Trains Running, The Sisters Rosensweig and I’m Not Rapport.
Other Western US stages that have received regional Tonys include Denver Center for the Performing Arts, best known for its world premiere of the searing Laramie Project, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, which debuts the Broadway-bound Hippest Trip—The Soul Train Musical this August, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which has introduced plays like Passing Strange and the Pulitzer-winning Fairview. Los Angeles, too, is home to a surprisingly active theater scene, with 1977’s Tony regional theater winner Mark Taper Forum a particular beacon of Tony Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, including Children of a Lesser God, The Shadow Box and Angels in America.
The list could go on. At press time, 45 theaters have won the regional Tony, for example. And 79 of the country’s largest nonprofit companies belong to the League of Resident Theatres (LORT). In fact, when I’m not traveling, you’ll regularly find me among the audience at one of the several LORT theaters in my hometown of Philadelphia. There, I know I can count on experiencing Equity actors bringing to life the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning writers in brand-new, thought-provoking, soul-stirring work.
OK, gotta run. I have a show to catch!