“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 (Alias, Lost), rebooting film franchises (Star Trek, Star 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 playbills from 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.”
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 Heights, Something 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.
“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.”