EXCLUSIVE: How 'Star Wars' Led J.J. Abrams to His Broadway Debut

By
Getty Images

“Theater geek” may not be the most obvious label for J.J. Abrams,
who has built a film and TV career directing, writing and producing sci-fi and
action-heavy shows (AliasLost), rebooting film franchises
(Star TrekStar Wars) and launching his own Easter
egg-filled film universe (Cloverfield). But the filmmaker has the same
appreciation for Broadway as he does The Twilight Zone, the sci-fi
anthology series he’s long considered to be one of the best on TV.

“I’ve been a fan of theater all my life,” Abrams tells
ET. In fact, he has been attending shows in New York City, where he was born,
since he was a young kid, collecting playbillsfrom every
production along the way. “I embarrassingly saved all of them.”

He recalls seeing the original runs of The Magic
Show,
 starring Doug Henning, and Noises Off, as well
as various productions of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams plays. He cites
Ira Levin’s 1978 play Deathtrap in the same breath as The
Twilight Zone
as having influenced him as a kid. Later, Abrams soaked
in what he calls the mid-’80s heyday of Broadway: Tom Stoppard’s The
Real Thing
, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and David
Rabe’s Hurlyburly, among others. He even fawned over Victor
Garber
when the Tony-nominated actor appeared on Alias. “I remember
being bowled over by how you can be transported with four people on a stage,
not relying on special effects, not relying on editing,” Abrams says.
“The magic of that was something that always stayed with me, and I’ve always
hoped that I could be a part of something that’s actually on stage.”

MORE: Making Black Life Matter on Broadway

So it should come as no surprise that the filmmaker is
finally dipping his toe into the theater world, making his Broadway producing
debut with The Play That Goes Wrong, which is now in previews at
the Lyceum Theatre in New York City after transferring from London. (The show
officially opens Sunday, April 2.)

The play, which shares similar DNA with Noises Off,
tells the story of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, who are trying to put
on a 1920s murder mystery but struggle to make it through to their final
curtain call. Written by and starring Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry
Shields, the play premiered at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London in 2012
before opening on the West End in September 2014. It was during that time --
when Abrams was filming Star Wars: The Force Awakens --
that the director found himself with a free night and bought a ticket to the
production. “I fell in love with it,” he says, revealing that he then met with
the producers about bringing to the U.S. “That was before it won [the 2015 Best
New Comedy] Olivier Award.”

He teamed up with veteran Broadway producer Kevin McCollum (Avenue
Q
In the HeightsSomething Rotten!), who Abrams says
is generously “teaching me the ropes,” and the pair spent the next two years
figuring out the best way to get The Play That Goes Wrong to
Broadway. And while many press releases and the show’s kick-off conference with
reporters have joked that Abrams’ largest contribution has been not only
his name but his money, the filmmaker has been happy doing whatever he can to
make the play a success in the U.S.. “There are a number of things here and there
that I think in translating it for an American audience needed some small
adjustments,” he says of taking an active role as producer, adding that they
were “very small” changes.

While transferring a Laurence Olivier Award-winning
production to Broadway may hardly seem like a risk, The Play That Goes
Wrong
 is one of several notable theater productions opening this
spring in the wake of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash Hamilton.
Many new shows, rightfully or not, have been compared to the biographical musical
about Alexander Hamilton since its Broadway debut in August 2015, either as a
failure to achieve the same level of creativity and reach or as success for
continuing that streak of originality and powerful storytelling.

MORE: The Many Personalities of Allison Janney

“It’s a little bit like you can’t win,” Abrams says,
noting that the play is literally not in the same category as Miranda’s
musical. “I would say that it would be unfortunate if something as
genre-defining and groundbreaking and life-changing as Hamilton somehow
meant the death of theater… My feeling with what Lin, Thomas Kail and Alex
Lacamoire did with Hamilton is it reminded us that magic can
happen at the theater. I'm not saying there isn't magic happening elsewhere,
but it was the greatest seismic reminder that you can have an experience that
is literally unforgettable.” And for That Play That Goes Wrong’s
part, Abrams says if audiences like to laugh, then he doesn’t see how
they could go to this play and not have the greatest time. “It’s not trying to
do anything other than touch you in the funniest possible way.”

Perhaps the biggest departure for Abrams is the fact that
the play is something he describes as a cross between Monty Python and Buster
Keaton. It’s a comedic farce -- a genre far outside of the sci-fi and action
worlds fans have come to know him for. But comedy is something that the
filmmaker says he tries to incorporate into his work, whether it is Mission:
Impossible
or Star Trek, which includes a “naturally funny” cast, as he puts
it, with John Cho and Simon Pegg. “I’ve always been very interested in getting
involved in comedy,” Abrams says. “This is the first time I’ve been involved in
an overt balls-out comedy.”

Whatever happens onstage, it won’t slow down Abrams’
dream to do more on Broadway. But before audiences start hoping we’ll see Felicity:
the Musical
, he says he hasn’t given any thought to adapting his own work.
Currently in discussions about getting involved with other productions, the
filmmaker hopes to write and direct something, as well as produce a show from
the ground up -- especially after being involved with an existing production
like The Play That Goes Wrong. “[When] I came to this, it was fully
formed and fully developed by this group of really talented actors and
writers,” Abrams says. “They did all the heavy lifting. All I did was
see it and say, ‘If I can help bring it to Broadway, I would love to.’ And
that's what I'm trying to do.” 

MORE: The 2017 Spring Theater Preview