One could forgive Broadway director Thomas Kail for resting on his laurels. His hit musical “In the Heights,” a “Rent”-like fairy tale about inner-city kids with unshakable dreams, just was named Best Musical at the Tony Awards, and won in three other categories. But while the show continues to sell-out audiences at the Richard Rodgers Theater, this restless wunderkind (Kail is all of 30) is in rehearsals for a new play several degrees less giddy and candy-coated than his current project.
“The best thing always is to go back to work,” Kail says. “That keeps us grounded.”
“Broke-ology” will have its world premiere at the acclaimed Williamstown Theater Festival, opening on July 9 and running through July 20.
“I really wanted to work on a straight play immediately after ‘Heights,’” Kail explained by telephone from New York City. “I didn’t know it would be the day after the Tonys [were announced].”
This modern kitchen-sink drama by Nathan Louis Jackson was brought to Kail’s attention last November. It was a chaotic time for Kail: the scrappy, heart-on-the-sleeve “Heights” had just been plucked from a small off-Broadway venue and was being polished for its Broadway debut. He could easily have passed on the project, but “I responded very strongly,” he says. “I was struck by the thematic material.”
The play concerns an African American family named King who have quietly suffered the radical and economic injustices of everyday life. Another test of their unity comes when the father falls ill and his two sons are summoned home. As they interact with the headstrong paterfamilias, family obligation joust with personal dreams. Kail recognized the universality of the story.
“It’s a play that exists in our world,” Kail says, “and there are liberties within that world that we will explore.”
In Jackson’s text, Kail acknowledges echoes of the fatalistic tragedies crafted by Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. But “Broke-ology” also breaks from tradition by offering “language and vocabulary that is not often heard in the theater.”
The title refers to wrangling with omnipresent poverty. “It’s the study of being broke,” Kail said, “trying to make do without a lot in your pocket economically.”
For director-of-the-moment Thomas Kail, the notion of overnight fame is risible; he worked on “In the Heights” for six years with composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda and playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes. But any memories of those difficult years are effectively pushed every time the curtain goes up. “The joy comes in that we do the show eight days a week,” he said. “I am constantly engaged and excited.”
More proof of Kail’s red-hot status is his involvement in a fall remake of “The Electric Company,” the PBS kids' show from the early 1970s. He’s a coproducer and music director. But for now, Kail is immersed in “Broke-ology.” As for relocating from Manhattan to small-town western Massachusetts, Kail embraces his transient status.
“We who are in the theater are constantly looking for a home—a place to put our bags down for the moment.”
“Broke-ology” by Nathan Louis Jackson will be at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts, from July 9 through July 20. (413) 597-3400; www.wtfestival.org.