When the Curran Theater reopened in early 2017 after two years of renovation, owner Carole Shorenstein Hays declared her vision to create an innovative arts space in San Francisco.
Even before the Curran was able to open for full productions, it made do—and made headlines—in 2015 with a series of experimental and off-kilter works called Curran: Under Construction. Entering through a side door and sitting directly on the stage, theatergoers witnessed a staging of David Greig’s provocative Edinburgh Fringe hit, The Events, Dave Malloy’s experiential Ghost Quartet, and even a workshopped version of what would become Taylor Mac’s sumptuous A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.
It set a tone, and heralded a sea change from the usual "Best of Broadway" touring fare such as Phantom of the Opera, which ran at the pre-renovated Curran for five years in the '90s.
This vision came to grand fruition in September 2017, with a full staging of Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Enlisting dozens of local performers and the extravagant costuming abilities of a designer whose preferred moniker “Machine Dazzle” would fit right into a work of utopian fiction, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music challenged the notion that in order for theater to be impactful it must be “serious.” For Mac’s happy band of misfits, the weirdly static theatrical norms were simply thrown out the window. The fourth wall didn’t exist. Audiences were given a place on the stage, fed soup, and urged to recreate community-building in the aisles.
There was glitter. There were tears. There were monumental costume changes. And there were 246 songs, each one meticulously researched and carefully chosen to represent a moment in the history. It was a grand, queer sendoff for 2017, a year that desperately called out for some queering.
But after that heady inauguration, the Curran’s 2018 season has been decidedly less audacious, mainly dedicated to musicals that have continued to stray from the Curran's trail of innovation. There was the futuristic Soft Power, by David Henry Hwang and Jeanne Tesori, followed by the fantasy-forward Go-Go’s jukebox musical Head Over Heels. November saw the welcome return of Taylor Mac with Holiday Sauce, a season-specific coda to his triumphal 2017 tour.
Now, with the dust settled last week on a legal battle, the Curran is at an artistic crossroads.
First, about that legal battle: last Friday, a judge shot down a request by Nederlander of San Francisco, a.k.a. San Francisco theater company SHN, to block Hays from producing Dear Evan Hansen, which opens this week, and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, scheduled to open in the fall of 2019.
Both are the types of commercially attractive productions SHN is known to present at the two theaters it operates in San Francisco, the Orpheum and the Golden Gate. SHN had argued that Hays' booking of the shows violated a noncompete clause. The judge, noting that both shows are touring productions with an open bidding process, ruled in Hays' favor.
For years, Hays and Robert Nederlander were powerhouse theater presenters together under the SHN name. Hays stepped down from the SHN board in 2014, recusing herself from any active decision-making. But she is still a co-owner of SHN, adding another layer of messy to the already awkward professional rivalry under which Dear Evan Hansen opens this week.
While Dear Evan Hansen is certainly well-regarded, winning numerous Tony awards in 2017 and a Grammy in 2018, it sits solidly in the mainstream of musical theater. Like Fun Home, which opened the 2017 season at the Curran, Dear Evan Hansen’s socially-awkward teenage protagonist has resonated deeply with a younger generation of theater-goers who may have left their high school years behind, but have not forgotten the special angst of adolescence. Dear Evan Hansen should prove to be a lucrative and popular choice for the Curran, as will the 2019-scheduled Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (also included in the Nederlander suit).
But lucrative and popular doesn’t necessarily translate to groundbreaking. Furthermore, as reported in the New York Times on Saturday, the ruling revealed that Harry Potter is intended to run at the Curran for three years, with the possibility of an extension. (Publicists for the Curran did not respond to a request for confirmation of the length of the show's run.) It’s beginning to seem as if the Curran’s grand ambitions to create an “artistic hub” of “bold, daring work” may already be coming to an end.
For Hays’ vision of innovation to stick, the Curran will need to find a show as generous in spirit and perspective-shifting in execution as Mac’s 2017 tour de force to take center stage between Evan Hansen and Harry Potter. No doubt Hays feels some pressure too, before she mounts a long-running commercial success based on one of the highest-grossing movie franchises of all time.
The Curran's 2019 season has not been announced yet. In a statement to KQED, Hays was vague about what San Francisco audiences can expect next after Dear Evan Hansen. "In 2019, and before Harry Potter, the Curran will be home to an extraordinary theater event, the kind of work that I’ve been most honored to present over the years, and the kind of theater that is essential to our community.”
It bears noting that as a Broadway producer, Hays acquired her first Tony in 1987 backing August Wilson’s Fences (an award she won again in 2010 with the revival), and that her taste for more unconventional work contributed to her desire to acquire and operate the Curran in the first place. It remains to be seen whether the Curran will serve the same purpose it did in years past—as a tourist destination producing the hits du jour for years-long engagements—or as the embodiment of a more forward-thinking artistic imperative.
I know which direction I’d like to see the trail blazed.