How Many Shows Have Premiered After the Writer Has Passed Away? 

Jennifer Ashley Tepper Is answering your questions with Broadway Deep Dive!

By: Oct. 29, 2023
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How Many Shows Have Premiered After the Writer Has Passed Away? 

Do you have a burning Broadway question? Dying to know more about an obscure Broadway fact? Broadway historian and self-proclaimed theatre nerd Jennifer Ashley Tepper is here to help with her new series, Broadway Deep Dive. Every month, BroadwayWorld will be accepting questions from theatre fans like you. If you're lucky, your question might be selected as the topic of her next column!

Submit your Broadway question in the comments here!

This time, the reader question was: After seeing Here We Are, I’m wondering: have other shows premiered soon after one of the writers has passed away? 

Here We Are, currently playing off-Broadway at the Shed, is a must-see of this or any theatre season. The final musical by the legendary Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics), in collaboration with David Ives (book) and Joe Mantello (direction), Here We Are must be seen to be believed.

The show has a long and fascinating history, which stretches back to 1982. There were readings of Here We Are in 2016 and 2017 that inspired much excitement among fans of Sondheim’s work. Before he passed away in November of 2021, Sondheim gave his go-ahead for the work to officially move forward to a production. The plan was for this production to reach fruition while Sondheim was around to see it and actively work on it.

After Sondheim’s death, it was revealed that his living collaborators had permission to continue with Here We Are, even without him. 

While it is certainly rare for a work to receive its first production soon after one of its writers has died, it is not unheard of.

Fred Ebb, known for his long-time collaboration with John Kander, was treasured for his original, witty, erudite lyrics on shows including Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Ebb made his Broadway debut as one of the writers with work featured in the revue From A to Z in 1960 and from that time, achieved a prolific career on and off Broadway, as well as in TV and film, before his passing in 2004. Since Ebb’s death, four new Broadway book musicals have premiered, featuring his lyrics.

Here We Are
Scene from New York, New York

Kander and Ebb were actively working on multiple new musicals aimed at Broadway at the time of Ebb’s passing. The first to be produced following Ebb’s death was Curtains, in 2007. This show business-set musical featured the poignant tune “I Miss The Music”, for which Kander stepped in to write lyrics, partially inspired by the loss of his writing partner Ebb. For each of the four musicals featuring Ebb’s work that premiered after his death, various writers have contributed, in order to fill in the blanks as far as material needed. Following Curtains was the much-revered The Scottsboro Boys in 2010, the Chita Rivera-led The Visit in 2015, and this past season’s New York, New York.

Like Sondheim with Here We Are, it was Ebb’s intention to be around for the New York premiere of the above shows. But the great Nobel, Pulitzer, and Tony Award-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill didn’t have any such intention with his play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Long Day’s Journey was an autobiographical play that O’Neill stated he wished to be kept private until 25 years after his death. After he died in 1953, O’Neill’s widow approved a Broadway premiere of the play just three years later, in 1956. It was a great success, winning the Tony Award for Best Play as well as the Pulitzer Prize.

Here We Are
Scene from 2016 revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night.

There is also the immensely tragic circumstance where a work is produced following a young writer’s untimely passing, in the middle of a career that should have been much longer. Perhaps the most well-known instance of this is Jonathan Larson and Rent. Larson died unexpectedly of an aortic dissection in January 1996, the day before the first preview of the off-Broadway premiere of Rent. He was only 35 years old. Rent became a sensation, captivating audiences and transforming musical theatre. Larson’s book, music and lyrics for Rent became the touchstone of a generation, as he dreamed they would. The show transferred to Broadway and Larson was awarded posthumous Tony Awards for Best Book and Score as well as the Pulitzer Prize. Rent ran on Broadway for over 12 years, was adapted into a film, and continues to be produced all over the globe. Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM! was also produced, off-Broadway, following his death, and in 2021 became a major motion picture.

Also receiving posthumous Broadway accolades was Howard Ashman. Three of Ashman’s four Tony Award nominations are for shows produced on Broadway after his heartbreaking early death from HIV/AIDS in 1991. Ashman penned the cherished lyrics for the Disney animated films Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin, all of which became full Broadway stage musicals after his passing. Beauty and the Beast premiered on Broadway just three years  after Ashman’s death and revolutionized the idea of the family musical. Ashman’s brilliant brainchild Little Shop of Horrors also made it to Broadway after his death, in 2003, following its acclaimed original off-Broadway production during his lifetime.

Here We Are
Scene from Aladdin.

While the show has yet to be seen in a full production in New York, Pamela’s First Musical is another long-gestating worthwhile musical that fits the bill here. The groundbreaking playwright Wendy Wasserstein wrote a children’s book in 1996 about introducing her niece Pamela to Broadway. Wasserstein started work on adapting the book into a delightful stage musical as book writer, alongside Cy Coleman as composer, David Zippel as lyricist, and Graciela Daniele as director-choreographer. Sadly, both Wasserstein and Coleman died before the show could be fully realized on stage. In 2018, surviving collaborators Zippel and Daniele got the show up at Two River Theatre, with input from several of Wasserstein’s trusted friends including playwright Christopher Durang

Many musical theatre writers and playwrights leave work behind that is yet to be produced or yet to be finished at the time of their death. While it’s rare for a show to premiere soon after a writer’s death, it does happen, particularly with our most treasured writers.