Why is the Sequel Never the Equal?

by Harrison Hill

in American Theatre magazine

Post image for Why is the Sequel Never the Equal?

(Laila Robins, J. Smith-Cameron, and Maryann Plunkett. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.)

The holidays herald one thing for theatre journalism (aside from the expected swipes at A Christmas Carol, that is): Annual “Best Of” lists. 2011’s winners are largely unsurprising (those Mormons!), but one small, unassuming entry has unexpectedly burrowed its way onto several high-profile, critical catalogues. That low-budget, quiet phenomenon is Richard Nelson’s Sweet and Sad, a meditation on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 that played at New York City’s Public Theater last fall. Sweet and Sad was always a long shot—it wasn’t even in the Public’s main season and only ran for three weeks—but its critical success is more shocking for one odd and important fact: it’s a sequel (to last year’s That Hopey Changey Thing, also at the Public).

For all the groans and eye rolls films sequels elicit (2 Fast 2 Furious, anyone?) they’re dependable and frequent moneymakers. But theatre sequels? That’s another story entirely. They’re rare and even more rarely successful, so much so that Sweet and Sad got me thinking—what other theatre sequels are out there, and what makes them such an ever-endangered species?

If this faux-academic exercise is to be any fun, we’ll have to start by defining our terms. For my purposes, “sequel” refers to a play envisioned, written and presented independent of its antecedent. This definition makes more sense when we can define what a sequel is not. So, firstly, sequels aren’t “multipart plays,” pieces created under the understanding that they live most fully in iteration. (Examples might include Angels in America, The Norman Conquests and The Coast of Utopia.) Their component parts can be enjoyed independently, but their multiplicity was envisioned from the start.

Far on the other end of the “sequel spectrum” are “cycle plays,” or separate plays that use similar characters, settings or themes yet remain largely independent of each other. Here, I’m thinking of Horton Foote’s “Harrison , TX Cycle,” August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” and Annie Baker’s “ Shirley , VT Cycle.” To add to the confusion, let’s not forget the classics—Shakespeare’s “War of the Roses Cycle” (itself containing the first and second tetralogies) and the whole swath of ancient Greek theatre with its shared characters and overlapping plots.

(Phew! Still with me?)

Somewhere between the multiparters and the cycle plays, then, sit real, proper sequels, stories connected—but not too connected!—to their predecessors. My research (drawn from the failproof powerhouses known as my memory and Google) only comes up with a few titles. In the musical department there’s The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public and Love Never Dies, both of which were far less successful than their originals, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and The Phantom of the Opera. (Translation: They were bombs.) Straight play sequels include more successful titles like The Destiny of Me (sequel to The Normal Heart) and both Broadway Bound and Biloxi Blues (follow-ups to Brighton Beach Memoirs.)

This season, strangely enough, has several entries to contribute. There was the aforementioned Sweet and Sad, but we’ve also got Farm Boy (a small-scale sequel to War Horse now playing at the Brits Off Broadway festival) and Don’t Dress for Dinner (Roundabout’s upcoming revival of the sequel to Boeing-Boeing).

The sequels of the 2011-12 season, however, are exceptions to the theatrical rule. Despite this bumper crop and some other famous (infamous?) titles, it seems pretty clear that theatre isn’t in the business of sequels, at least not like the film industry is. Why not? Fans of the Harry Potter, Transformers and Spider-Man franchises have turned those enterprises into multi-billion dollar operations, so why is there no theatrical equivalent?

History and taste probably have something to do with it. The whole idea of a “play-as-sequel” inherently feels far stranger than a “film-as-sequel.” Theatre’s ephemeral nature is probably even more important—you can’t go rent a DVD of a play-sequel’s predecessor to catch up on a storyline. If you missed it, you missed it.

But I’d argue there’s an emotional reason at least as important, namely, the presence of revivals. If film sequels are appealing partially out of the familiar comfort they guarantee their audience (“you already know you like these characters and their problems”), theatre revivals make much the same promise, even if there’s no updated story or circumstance. Instead, what’s new are the actors, the direction, the design—all of which are comfortably served up with good ol’ Mama Roses, Willy Lowmans and Henry Higginses that we know and love. In other words, a revival delivers the familiar goods a moviegoing audience wants from a sequel, rendering the idea of a play-sequel moot. Bluntly, theatre audiences just don’t emotionally need sequels.

But all this parsing practically begs to be challenged. What do you think? What else explains the theatre’s suspicion of sequels? What other sequel-titles have I missed? And are my invented sequel distinctions way off the mark? I’m stuck humming the much-maligned score of Love Never Dies and could use a distraction, so add a comment below!

Harrison Hill is an editorial intern at American Theatre magazine and writes the blog theater-words.com. He is also an actor, and has performed at Playwrights Horizons, London’s Old Vic Theatre, the Williamstown Theatre Festival and elsewhere. He holds a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is originally from Charlottesville, VA.

  • Ian Thal

    What’s most bizarre about this article is that so many cultural commentators are currently complaining that the tendency of the film and television industry pound out the sequels (and “re-imaginings”) so long as they can make a profit is actually bringing artistic expectations down. Most of these sequels are motivated by profit, not storytelling necessity. Even audiences grasp that.

    (Even Annie Baker’s Shirley, VT plays, taken as a whole, seem to have a secondary function as a pitch for a Shirley, VT television series. She pretty much has season one mapped out now, why not?)

    It seems to me that given the number of sequels and cycles that do exist in the theatrical repertoire, that we have ratio of series to “done-in-one” right– we don’t need more of them.

  • Ron Gilbert

    I just wanted to mention Lillian Hellman’s “Another Part of the Forest,” which is a prequel to her “The Little Foxes,” set 20 years before, yet not written until 7 years afterwards. I recently directed a staged reading of “The Little Foxes,” and it still plays wonderfully, and reminded me of the sweep and level of familial dysfunction just displayed so well in Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County.” Hellman was so far ahead of her time.