‘If/Then’ and Steve Traxler
These are heady days for the venerable National Theater. The oldest theater in town is looking better than it has in a long time, and it’s full of energy. Sporting a physical makeover done this summer, the National is the site for something that hasn’t happened there in years, a pre-Broadway tryout run of a new musical, “If/Then,” a show with some giants talents involved, on stage and off. Not only that, but the National is having its first season subscription series in many years, a full slate of shows going well into next year. In fact, a run (Dec. 25-29) of “Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” will follow “If/Then” during the Christmas season.
All of this makes it an exciting time for Steve Traxler, co-founder of Jam Theatricals, based in Chicago, which, along with SMG of Philadelphia is the National Theater Group’s new programming team.
“We’re just glad have “If/Then” here. We’re really excited about it, because there’s so many really terrific, talented people involved in it, it’s a brand new show, headed for Broadway,” said Traxler, a veteran producer of Broadway shows, both musicals and dramas. “David Stone—he did such a great job with guiding ‘Next to Normal’—is the producer and he was looking to be in Washington, and so we are honored and lucky to have the show. Is there risk in doing something new? Sure, there’s always risk when you get involved in any show, on Broadway, in music, anything. But you can’t do anything that’s really excellent without taking a risk. That’s what I believe.” In addition to producer David Stone, famous for guiding the off-beat contemporary musical “Next to Normal” (“If/Then” also has a contemporary setting) through a process that led through Arena Stage and eventual Broadway success, was also one of the producers of “Wicked,” a mega-hit which is still running on Broadway and on the road. Not coincidentally, there are a lot of people involved in “If/When” that know each other, including composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey, as well as director Michael Greif (Signature’s “Angels in America”) who were the creative masters of “Next To Normal”.
The star is Idina Menzel, the woman with the incredible beautiful and rangy voice who starred as Elphaba, the green witch of “Wicked,” a role which got her a Tony. Menzel plays a woman making choices in her life, looking for a second chance. She’s reunited with Anthony Rapp, with whom she appeared in “Rent.” “If/ Then” also features LaChanze, who won a Tony Award for Celie in “The Color Purple.”
Pre-Broadway runs were once a staple at the National Theatre. “The National just has this amazing history, which is so appealing to me, personally,” Traxler said. “It’s Washington’s oldest theater, and, programming wise, certainly, we aim to restore it to its old standing as a place for new works, great shows and plays and performances, as well as special events.”
The first subscription season includes Green Day’s “American Idiot” in February, a return of “West Side Story”, as well as “Stomp”, “Mamma Mia”, Hal Holbrook still doing “Mark Twain Tonight”, and “Blue Man Group.”
Talking with Traxler, you realize he loves theater, shows, the stuff on stage, the people that do it, write it, sing it, act it. He’s what you might call a careful enthusiast, somewhat like his mother, a movie buff. He and his Jam Theatricals got into theater in the 1990s, and in 2002, he turned to producing.. Before that he had worked with an aging Frank Sinatra to put on his last performance in Chicago. “That was an experience I’ll never forget,” he said. “The man was a true professional.”
Jam Theatricals and its principals have won six Tonys: for “Spamalot,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “The History Boys,” “August: Osage County,” “Hair” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
Traxler was also one of four producers on “August: Osage County,” the harrowing, hit family play. The film version—for which he’s also listed as a producer with Harvey Weinstein—opens this Christmas. “Weird, I mean it’s not exactly holiday stuff, but it’s Oscar time, you know,” he said. It just might do pretty well, given a cast that includes Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.
And now: “I just got into town,” he said. “We’re really excited about this being here at the National.”
(“If/Then” will run at the Naitonal Theatre through Dec. 8 and is scheduled to have its Broadway opening at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in the spring of 2014 on March 27.)