EXCLUSIVE: The Piano Lesson has a new Broadway home: The much anticipated production, which begins performances this fall and will star Samuel L. Jackson, John David Washington and Danielle Brooks under the direction of LaTanya Richardson Jackson, will play at the the Ethel Barrymore Theatre rather than the previously announced St. James Theatre.
The Piano Lesson will begin previews at the Barrymore, which has about 400 fewer seats than the St. James, on Monday, Sept. 19, for a 17-week run. The production begins rehearsals at the Barrymore on Aug. 15.
The switch comes amid speculation that the St. James’ current inhabitant, the hit revival of Into The Woods, will extend its engagement beyond its current limited summer run. Producers for Into The Woods have not announced an extension.
In an exclusive interview with Deadline, Richardson Jackson said she welcomes the venue-shift, noting that the Barrymore – which is where she gave her Tony-nominated performance as Lena Younger in the 2014 revival of A Raison in the Sun – had been her first choice for Piano Lesson.
“When I came on board and all of this first came together,” she said, “my dream was The Barrymore. I’m a novice – first time directing on Broadway – and I thought you just chose the theater you want and you got it, and so I was like, I want the Barrymore. They said, well, you gotta wait to see if you can get the Barrymore. So we went to look at other theaters to see what was available…and we had to adjust to a different theater that was huge. But I am so excited about now being in that Barrymore because it’s the theater of my heart.”
“We are thrilled to have secured this iconic playhouse,” said producer Brian Anthony Moreland in a statement, “which happened to have been one of August Wilson’s favorite theaters. The legacy of the Barrymore makes it the ideal space to experience a play all about how we shepherd and look after our ancestral legacies.”
The venue change was announced by producers Moreland, Sonia Friedman and Tom Kirdahy. The Barrymore’s history with Wilson’s legacy stretches back to 1988, when the original production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (the second play in his American Century Cycle) premiered there.
The venue change has been rumored for several weeks, with unverified reports suggesting that Jujamcyn, which owns the St. James, was eager to keep the hit Into The Woods for as long as possible, and the Shuberts, which operates the Barrymore, with a sudden vacancy on its hands due to the early closing of Paradise Square. Piano Lesson producers did not comment on what financial reconfigurations, including possible salary renegotiations, would be necessitated due to the move.
The St. James seats about 1,710 and has, in recent years, been home to Disney’s Frozen musical, Springsteen on Broadway and David Byrne’s American Utopia. The Barrymore, at about 1,058 seats, has most recently been home to musicals The Band’s Visit, Waitress and Paradise Square and the Tony-winning play The Inheritance.
The venue change, Richardson Jackson said, will not present a huge obstacle in terms of re-fitting the production’s set (designed by Beowolf Boritt). “It’s convertible enough that we don’t have any issues with the set,” the director said, “which was my first thought – how does the set play on the [Barrymore’s] proscenium stage? And it plays very well.”
“There’s just something that feels like home to me about that theater,” she continued, “something about that theater that I relate to, that I have a kinship with that excites me. It’s a beautiful theater.”
With her direction of the play, Richardson Jackson will become the first woman to ever direct an August Wilson play on Broadway. Her husband Samuel L. Jackson will play Doaker Charles, Danielle Brooks will be Berniece, John David Washington is Boy Willie, and Trai Byers will portray Avery, Ray Fisher will play Lymon, April Matthis is Grace, and Michael Potts is Wining Boy.
Wilson’s American Century Cycle chronicles the Black experience throughout the 20th Century over the course of ten plays, each set in a different decade. The Cycle consists of Jitney, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean, and Radio Golf.
The Piano Lesson is set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1936. The official synopsis: “A brother and sister are locked in a war over the fate of a family heirloom: a piano carved with the faces of their ancestors. Only by revisiting history can the siblings endeavor to move forward.”
In addition to Boritt, the design team for The Piano Lesson includes Toni-Leslie James (Costume Design), Japhy Weideman (Lighting Design), Scott Lehrer (Sound Design), and Cookie Jordan (Wig Design).
Tickets at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre are now on sale at PianoLessonPlay.com or Telecharge.com. All current ticket holders will be moved to the Ethel Barrymore automatically and will receive a confirmation email in the coming days.