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Why Broadway's hottest theater just might be on the West Coast

Why Broadway's hottest theater just might be on the West Coast
La Jolla Playhouse's new musical "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" is one of the six productions with roots in Southern California that have landed on Broadway in the last year. (Kevin Berne)

Christopher Ashley, the reigning Tony Award winner for best director of a musical, calls it "an extraordinary moment," but it's actually been an extraordinary year: "Come From Away," "Indecent," "Junk," "Latin History for Morons," "Escape to Margaritaville" and, opening April 23, "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" — six plays and musicals landed on Broadway, all with roots at La Jolla Playhouse.

And that doesn't include two off-Broadway shows. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes' musical "Miss You Like Hell" premiered at La Jolla and opened at New York's Public Theater on Tuesday, while a revival of the long-running Broadway hit "Jersey Boys," spawned by La Jolla Playhouse in 2004, has been playing off-Broadway since November.

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"No question that a lot more material comes knocking on our door today than would have been true five or 10 years ago," said Ashley, the La Jolla artistic director who won his Tony for the surprise hit musical "Come From Away."

Is the Playhouse programming for Broadway rather than the hometown audience?

"I am really programming for the San Diego audience," Ashley said. "That audience is very well-educated and adventurous. They are more invested in being there at the birth of a new work than in needing to see a completely finished one."

Here's a rundown of Playhouse-nurtured shows that have opened on Broadway in the last year or so.

‘Come From Away’

The show: An uplifting musical about what happened when about 7,000 airline passengers and flight crew members were forced by the 9/11 terrorist attacks to land in Gander, Newfoundland.

The timeline: La Jolla opening June 11, 2015. Broadway opening March 12, 2017.

The reception: A coproduction with Seattle Repertory Theatre, "Come From Away" is based on the true story of 38 international flights forced to land at Gander and how townspeople stepped up to help. Times critic Charles McNulty referred to the show as "small, stirring and unpretentious," while in the New York Times, Ben Brantley called the show a "big bear hug." What became known as "the 9/11 musical" was nominated for seven 2017 Tonys.

Box office: The show recouped its $12-million investment in less than eight months, producers said, and a year after opening, ticket revenue still averages 95% of its potential gross, calculated as a full-price sellout. A touring production will open at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A. on Nov. 28, and the musical is slated to be adapted into a feature film with Ashley directing.

The Broadway cast for "Come From Away."
The Broadway cast for "Come From Away." (Matthew Murphy)
‘Indecent’

The show: Produced in association with Yale Repertory Theatre, where it had its world premiere, "Indecent" was Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel's Broadway debut. She and director Rebecca Taichman dramatized the fate and legacy of "The God of Vengeance," a 1907 play by Sholem Asch. Its subject matter and onstage kiss between two women led to the show being closed and its cast arrested in 1923.

The timeline: La Jolla opening Nov. 18, 2015. Broadway opening April 18, 2017.

The reception: "Indecent" received excellent reviews, both at home (the San Diego Union-Tribune's James Hebert called it "a fascinating tapestry of music, politics, art and morality") and on Broadway.

Box office: Those strong reviews and Tony wins for director Taichman and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind couldn't boost ticket sales enough. The play closed less than four months after opening. But "Indecent" was produced on PBS Great Performances last year and will come to the Ahmanson Theatre in June 2019.

Adina Verson, left, and Katrina Lenk in "Indecent."
Adina Verson, left, and Katrina Lenk in "Indecent." (Carol Rosegg)
‘Junk’

The show: The fast-paced drama from Pulitzer Prize-winner Ayad Akhtar centers on 1980s Wall Street, money and betrayal.

The timeline: La Jolla opening Aug. 5, 2016. Broadway opening Nov. 2, 2017.

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The reception: Reviewers in California and on Broadway generally praised the huge cast, writing and pacing. After seeing the show in La Jolla, The Times' McNulty called it "a thrilling new play" and a "modern-day morality tale," and when it opened at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater the Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout wrote of its "dialogue infused by Shakespearean scope." "Junk" won the 2018 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, presented by Columbia University, and Akhtar received a prize of $100,000.

Box office: Playbill reported the play averaged just 76% of its capacity during its 14-week run.

Joey Slotnick, seated, and the cast of "Junk" in Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater.
Joey Slotnick, seated, and the cast of "Junk" in Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. (T. Charles Erickson)
‘Latin History for Morons’

The show: Looking for Latin heroes to inspire his son, Obie winner John Leguizamo packaged his historical research for the stage, presenting and inhabiting characters and incidents from the Aztecs to present-day Puerto Rico.

The timeline: La Jolla "Page to Stage" debut April 5, 2016. Broadway opening Nov. 15, 2017.

The reception: A co-production with New York's Public Theater, the one-man show was workshopped at La Jolla, followed by its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory, where The Times' McNulty felt it needed more work. Next stop was the Public, leading to a limited run at Studio 54 on Broadway. Critical reaction was largely positive; Deadline's Jeremy Gerard praised Leguizamo's "deceptively funny riffs on matters of consequence."

Box office: The show was extended three weeks, and producers said they recouped their investment after just 15 weeks on Broadway.

John Leguizamo in his one-man show, which was workshopped in La Jolla and premiered in Berkeley before moving to New York.
John Leguizamo in his one-man show, which was workshopped in La Jolla and premiered in Berkeley before moving to New York. (Kevin Berne / Berkeley Repertory)
‘Escape to Margaritaville’

The show: The Jimmy Buffett songbook comes to life in a show that began in La Jolla, then played New Orleans, Houston and Chicago before landing at Broadway's Marquis Theatre. Mississippi-born hit-maker Buffet wrote the score of about two dozen of his old and new songs.

The timeline: La Jolla opening May 28, 2017. Broadway opening March 15.

The reception: McNulty called the La Jolla production "dopey fun" and "a silly diversion with music and lyrics that could get Falstaff karaoke-ing." Margaritas are for sale in the Broadway lobby, but most reviewers weren't amused. Variety's Marilyn Stasio echoed the sentiment of others when she wrote, "However well packaged, the show just isn't a good fit for New York."

Box office: Though ticket sales have been climbing, Broadway World reported that the show's most recent weekly gross stood at about $800,000, still less than half the ticket revenue possible for the show.

Lisa Howard, Eric Petersen and the "Escape to Margaritaville" cast on Broadway.
Lisa Howard, Eric Petersen and the "Escape to Margaritaville" cast on Broadway. (Matthew Murphy)
‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’

The show: A high-energy musical based on the life and career of the queen of disco is directed by former La Jolla Playhouse head Des McAnuff.

The timeline: La Jolla opening Nov. 19, 2017. Broadway opening April 23.

The reception: Reviews were mixed back home. An admitted Summer fan, McNulty was disappointed, saying, "I don't need this flimsy bio musical and neither do you." San Diego critic James Hebert's review was more forgiving, blending criticism with praise.

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Box office: To be determined.

Tony winner LaChanze plays Donna Summer in one of three stages of life in the production opening on Broadway this month.
Tony winner LaChanze plays Donna Summer in one of three stages of life in the production opening on Broadway this month. (Kevin Berne)
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