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How ‘The Force Awakens’ Got J.J. Abrams to Broadway

Variety logo Variety 3/10/2017 Gordon Cox
© Provided by Variety

It’s easy to imagine a project that could get J.J. Abrams‘ name on a Broadway marquee. A “Star Wars” stage outing from megaproducer Disney Theatrical Productions, maybe. Or possibly a team-up with “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who composed the cantina tune for Abrams’ franchise-reviving “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Harder to figure? The actual project that’s getting Abrams to Broadway: “The Play That Goes Wrong,” the goofy British backstage farce that begins previews in New York tonight. Abrams is one of the lead producers.

A comically disastrous play-within-a-play put on by the fictional Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, “The Play That Goes Wrong” seems a far cry from Abrams’ work on “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” and “Westworld.” But it turns out the story of his involvement in the production isn’t all that complicated — and it’s connected to “Force Awakens.”

“I was shooting ‘The Force Awakens’ in London and I had a free night,” he recalled recently. “There was something called ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ that had just opened, so I bought a ticket and I went to go see it and I hadn’t laughed that hard in the theater before. I didn’t strategize. I just talked to the producers and said, ‘This is great, I love this, can I help?'”

Abrams is part of a producing team that includes Broadway veteran Kevin McCollum, who produced “Rent,” “Avenue Q,” “Something Rotten!” and “Motown,” as well as Kenny Wax, who produces the show in London — as well as “The Comedy About a Bank Robbery” and “Peter Pan Goes Wrong,” two more shows written by the “Play That Goes Wrong” trio of Henry Lewis, Henry Shields and Jonathan Sayer. (Over the winter, all three popular titles were running simultaneously on the West End.)

Growing up in New York, Abrams knew theater before he knew movies, seeing Doug Henning’s “The Magic Show” as a kid and later catching the original casts of shows including “Noises Off” and “Barnum.” With “Play That Goes Wrong,” he signed to a project that was already fully formed. “I didn’t do any of the heavy lifting on this, as a producer,” he noted.

But the production just might be a baby step toward something larger for the stage. “My involvement in this play isn’t all of what I would hope I could do one day. To actually, from the ground up, help bring something to life — directing, writing or producing,” he said.

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