Significant Other Playwright Joshua Harmon on Succeeding on Broadway

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<i>Significant Other</i> Playwright Joshua Harmon on Succeeding on Broadway

Joshua Harmon’s play Significant Other on Broadway revolves around Jordan Berman, a gay New Yorker and his three female best friends, all closing in on 30-years-old. While the protagonist Joshua Berman can’t find a mate and seems ill-suited for love, his friends fall in love, get married, and leave their gay friend in the dust and feeling adrift and alone. It’s a bittersweet comedy, with an edge.

But can Significant Other generate a healthy Broadway run? While tourists flocks to see musicals The Lion King, Wicked and Hamilton, many out-of-towners don’t want to see dramas, which are more complex and language intensive.

Significant Other opened Off Broadway in June 2015 at the Roundabout Theatre and drew raves from critic Charles Isherwood in the New York Times. He called it a “tenderly unromantic romantic comedy about a gay man aching for love in the 20-something years. Mr. Harmon’s writing is so witty and insightful that even the jokes about bridesmaid’s dresses feel revivified.”

When it reopened at the Booth Theater on Broadway on March 2, 2017, Ben Brantley in the Times said the play revived the image of “The Gay Best Friend. But he has seldom stood as uncompromisingly in the spotlight as he does in Significant Other.” He compared Harmon to playwright Wendy Wasserstein for blending “sitcom breeziness and aching pathos.”

Its producers have mounted a concerted marketing effort to drum up business. A full-age advertisement appears weekly in the Sunday New York Times’ Arts & Leisure section and a 20-second TV ad runs on a regular basis.

Here’s what 34-year-old Harmon, who grew up in Rye Brook in Westchester and lives in Manhattan, said in this question-and-answer about what inspired it and how it will prevail on Broadway.

Paste: What inspired you to write the play?
Joshua Harmon: I started working on the play about six years ago on a writing residency in Florida. I was given the assignment to write nine short scenes. My scenes were between Jordan Berman and his therapist as he discussed this guy who he was interested in and wanted to take out on a date. I’ve always been interested and fascinated in unrequited love. The characters felt alive, like someone, I wanted to explore more.

Paste: You once said that Wendy Wasserstein’s work inspired it. How so?
Harmon: She has had a huge influence on me. I had read her plays early on. I grew up in a family that my parents would not have been able to name too many living playwrights, but whenever she had a new play, they bought tickets. I found her plays funny and very emotional and providing a very rich theatrical experience. This play is definitely inspired by her play Isn’t It Romantic. Joshua Berman has the same initials and is a homage to her protagonist Janie Blumberg. Those characters are all 28 years old and crackling with what it means to have it all. Where gay men are today is where women were in the 70s and 80s. When Wendy was writing, there wasn’t a path or how to have a career, family and make it all work. Gay people are now trying to find out what having it all means.

Paste: Why does Berman suffer so much when his best friends get married?
Harmon: The idea is he was looking down on his phone obsessing about this guy at work and when he looks up his whole life has changed. One by one, these people who were rocks started to spin away. He was caught up in his own trials and tribulations and didn’t clock it. He woke up one day and he was all alone.

Paste: Your previous plays Bad Jews and Significant Other were produced originally at the Off Broadway’s Roundabout Theatre. What has that relationship meant for you?
Harmon: It’s been enormous and monumental. Bad Jews opened at the Roundabout Theatre Underground, which was created for writers who had never had a New York production. You can imagine what that meant to me. They produce your play and commission another play, which is my next play Skintight, which will open at Roundabout in 2018. Its themes are about beauty, youth and sex. It takes place in a family over a weekend, and it’s about how they all deal with getting older and someone new who suggests desire.

Paste: In what ways are you involved in the marketing campaign of Significant Other?
Harmon: The reality is that the demographics of who goes to a Broadway play have shifted. It’s 70 percent tourists and 30 percent New Yorkers. If you’re coming into town, most tourists want to see a musical or a big star. It’s really challenging to get 70 percent of the audience to want to see a play with people they don’t know by a playwright they haven’t heard of. We have brave producers who believe in the play, and we’re hoping we can surmount that obstacle.

Paste: Are you making a living as a playwright?
Harmon: I am doing a combination of things all tied to my writing including film work and teaching. I used to be an assistant, kind of a secretary, but don’t do that anymore.

Paste: Ultimately, what do you think Significant Other is about?
Harmon: I think it’s a play grappling with what it means to be alone and what you do when you know what would make your life better but you can’t make it happen.

Paste: What does it take to keep a drama running on Broadway compared to a musical?
Harmon: It’s going to take great word of mouth and people who tell other people you got to go see it. It’s starting to happen. Many of the people we target who are in their twenties and thirties can’t afford the ticket price. But the producers are trying to make tickets available and accessible.