A Washington theater with a long history of incubating Broadway-bound shows is getting a rebirth of its own while hosting a new world premiere from the creative team behind "Next to Normal'' and the star power of "Rent.''
Although long neglected and underused - and left dark for all but five weeks last year - the National Theatre is opening its first season under new management with a show that's already generating plenty of buzz.
"If/Then,'' which reunites Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp and director Michael Greif from "Rent,'' is in the midst of its pre-Broadway tryout after weeks of technical rehearsals and tweaks. The new musical wonders aloud "what if'' life could be different and follows diverging paths based on 39-year-old Elizabeth's choices and fate. It's all tied together with a promising score.
The $10 million musical runs through Dec. 8 in Washington. It's then scheduled to begin previews in New York in March.
Though set in New York City, the project has some roots in Washington. Five years ago, as their musical "Next to Normal'' was opening at Washington's Arena Stage before eventually moving to Broadway, composer Tom Kitt and writer Brian Yorkey handed producer David Stone an outline proposing their next show. Those notes would become "If/Then.''
"There was something full circle about the idea of taking this ... and doing the show itself in Washington,'' Stone said. "It took five years, but it also felt like Washington was in just the right place to do it.''
For decades, the capital hosted many pre-Broadway engagements.
Dating to 1835, the National Theatre is one of the oldest continually operating theaters. It hosted the world premieres of "West Side Story,'' "Show Boat,'' "Porgy and Bess'' and others. In more recent years, the Kennedy Center and others have produced or hosted significant Broadway revivals and new works.
The hot spots for theater tryouts, though, shifted over time to Toronto, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco, according to Stone, a New York-based producer. But he considers the National to be one of the top three pre-Broadway houses, along with Boston's Colonial Theatre and San Francisco's Curran Theatre, where Stone premiered the hit show "Wicked'' starring Menzel. Those theaters, he said, most resemble the feel of a New York auditorium.
Now, he hopes to create another hit with Menzel, starting in the nation's capital.
"Washington, in general, its audience is probably, along with Boston, the closest to New York's audience in their world view, their concerns, their sophistication,'' Stone said. "All shows need the audience, but I think this show really needs the audience to tell us what works, what doesn't, where they're with us, where they're not.''
Once "If/Then'' moves on, the National still has a full season of shows, including tours of "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess,'' "American Idiot'' "Mama Mia!'' and "West Side Story.'' Chicago-based JAM Theatricals and Philadelphia's SMG teamed up to manage and expand the National's programming after the theater's 30-year contract with Broadway's Shubert Organization expired. The next show, "Porgy and Bess,'' opens Christmas Day and runs through Dec. 29.
For its first theater season, the new National Theatre Group partnership is committing more than $10 million in programming and other costs, said JAM co-founder Steve Traxler. The theater will be booked for about 20 weeks this season but is still looking to add concerts or other shows between Broadway runs.
Theater officials had the auditorium repainted in burgundy with gold trim to replace a robin's egg blue that dated to a 1982 renovation, Traxler said. But it still needs a major upgrade to its backstage rigging system for sets.
The theater is offering its first subscription package in years and will continue offering subscriptions to build an audience for future seasons. For 2014-2015, the theater already has booked Broadway's "Newsies.''
All the activity, and especially hosting the premiere of "If/Then,'' promises to open more opportunities for the National.
"I think it's opening the door back up,'' Stone said, "and I hope that the people who run the National now will use this as an opportunity to keep that door open.''