The history of 'Death of a Salesman' on Broadway

Learn fun facts about all the times Arthur Miller's play has hit the big stage.

Death of a Salesman

Arthur Miller's 1949 masterwork Death of a Salesman may not be one of the most revived plays on Broadway compared to even older works, like those of Shakespeare. But with six Broadway productions as of 2022, it's certainly revisited more than most shows. What's even more remarkable is the show's impeccable track record: Nearly every production has won at least one Tony Award, and each one has received critical acclaim. That's unsurprising, though, for a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that's often called one of the best of the 20th century, and which many celebrity actors have flocked to.

The fifth and latest Death of a Salesman revival on the horizon is set to open in September at the Hudson Theatre. Reprising an acclaimed London performance, Wendell Pierce stars as Willy, a salesman at the end of his career and his life. He's chased the American Dream of prosperity for decades and failed to achieve it, keeping himself afloat with delusions. Now, he must reckon with his failure and the fact that he is partly responsible.

To commemorate the latest revival, we're looking back on all the Death of a Salesman productions from 1949 to today. Learn fun facts about the casts and what makes each production, especially this one, stand out among the rest.

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1949

Death of a Salesman was all but an instant classic when the show premiered at the now-demolished Morosco Theatre on Broadway. Opening night was on February 10, 1949, and after rave reviews, the show ran for 742 performances in just under two years. Miller himself was heavily involved in the production: Jo Mielziner designed the sets and lighting to his precise specifications. In his vision, the walls of the Loman house were transparent, and you'd know whether a scene took place in the present or the past depending on whether the characters were walking through or around the walls. Miller also wanted softer, warmer lighting for scenes in the past than in the present.

One way the production differed from his vision, however, was in its lead casting. Miller envisioned Willy as a physically small man, to emphasize the large weight of the world and his failings on him. But every auditioner besides Lee J. Cobb, the burly man who was eventually cast, “seemed to lack the size of the character, even if they fit the body,” Miller wrote in his autobiography Timebends. He and director Elia Kazan — yes, the very same Hollywood legend — called Cobb the "walrus" and eventually added that descriptor into the script.

Miller wasn't sold on the casting at first, though, complaining that Cobb's delivery was more reserved than everyone else's in rehearsal. But as the story goes, Cobb suddenly came out of his shell one day and his performance "clicked" for everyone in the room.

In the years since, Cobb's grand performance has become iconic, influencing all the Willys that have come after him. Kazan's vision and Mielziner's set have done the same, as has the incidental score by Alex North, which multiple revivals reused.

Though Death of a Salesman was a success on Broadway — winning six Tony Awards including Best Play, Best Director, and Best Author, as well as the Pulitzer Prize — the show didn't do as well when it got the film treatment a year later. It was a critical hit, but not an audience one; at a time of post-World War II prosperity and hope, film audiences weren't as keen as Broadway audiences on seeing a story about a working American's failure.

1975

The 1975 Death of a Salesman revival, the show's first, was the only one thus far not to win the Best Revival Tony Award. George C. Scott did, though, get the production's sole Tony nomination for starring as Willy. He also got high critical praise: a New York Times review reads, "Mr. Scott dares — he dares anything and everything, like both bull and bullfighter in an arena. He will physically grovel at one point —he actually makes Willy unlikable, and constantly stresses the man's lack of dignity. He reveals the bonhomme of the natural loser. Wtih his raspy voice, and his face fixed in some horrid rictus of grinning despair, Mr. Scott gives us an unforgettable portrait of a man whose dream has failed."

Death of a Salesman held up more of a mirror to American society in 1975 than it did in 1949. America was coming off a war victory and entering a prosperous economic era in 1949, but in 1975, America had just lost the Vietnam War, and an economic recession was imminent. Miller's play questioned the American Dream at a time when many real-life Americans were likely doing the same.

1984

Dustin Hoffman led the second revival of Death of a Salesman in 1984. Coincidentally, the Broadway run ended on November 18 of that year, the same day the 1949 premiere run ended. It began over a month later, though, on March 21, 1984 rather than February 10.

This Death of a Salesman called back to the original in a few other ways, too; namely, the use of Alex North's score of incidental music, and the casting of Hoffman. Cobb and Scott were large men, but Hoffman was smaller and wiry, as Miller originally intended. Miller changed the "walrus" descriptor of Willy's size, which he added into the script for Cobb, to "shrimp" for this production, and added back other size descriptors he took out in 1949.

The production won the Best Revival (then called Best Reproduction) Tony Award and the Outstanding Revival Drama Desk Award. Kate Reid (Linda), John Malkovich (in his Broadway debut as Biff), and Stephen Lang (Happy) rounded out the immediate Loman family, and in 1985, all four actors (including Hoffman) would reprise their roles in a TV film adaptation of Death of a Salesman. After Hoffman and Malkovich won Drama Desk Awards for their Broadway performances, they won Emmy Awards for their screen performances. Hoffman also nabbed a Golden Globe.

1999

This Broadway revival was the 50th-anniversary production of Death of a Salesman. The run opened February 10, 1999, 50 years to the day after the 1949 premiere, and it once again won the Best Revival Tony.

The production was decidedly modern in certain ways, with a jazz score and a revolving set. Elizabeth Franz also brought new depth to the character of Linda, playing her as strong and angry about Willy's delusions rather than as a demure doormat who bends to him. Miller, who was rather married to Kazan's original production, saw this revival. He later told the LA Times, "This [revival] is a revelation. I learned one thing: Thank God, there is more than one viable way to do this play."

Brian Dennehy starred in Death of a Salesman in 1999. Ironically, he is the only Willy to match his character's age description; Dennehy was 61 when he played the 63-year-old role, while the actors before him were in their 40s. Like Hoffman and his 1984 co-stars, Dennehy, alongside fellow Broadway cast members Franz, Ted Koch (Happy), and Howard Witt (Charley), reprised their roles in a film adaptation the next year. Dennehy won a Tony Award and a Golden Globe Award for his respective performances, and Franz also won a Tony.

2012

The fourth Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman boasted a star-studded cast, with Philip Seymour Hoffman leading the show as Willy Loman. (Like all but Dennehy, he, too, played the role in his 40s.) In a 2012 NPR interview, Hoffman said, for him, the play "really seeps into why we're here. What are we doing? Family, work, friends, hopes, dreams, careers; what's happiness? What's success? What does it mean? Is it important? How do you get it?" While his performance earned Hoffman his third Tony nomination (he got one for all three of his Broadway shows), playing the tormented role also took a toll on him toward the end of his life.

Death of a Salesman ended up being Hoffman's last Broadway production, whereas it was the debut of another actor: Andrew Garfield, who played Willy's son Biff. This play jumpstarted Garfield's New York stage career; he got a Tony nomination for his performance and later achieved a Tony win for starring in Angels in America in 2018.

This revival combined old with new, design-wise. Director Mike Nichols has said that seeing the original Death of a Salesman in 1949 made him fall in love with theatre, so as a testament, his revival reused both Alex North's score and Jo Mielziner's set design from that production. These elements were presented alongside an updated cast, costumes, and lights, but the production had a similar look and feel to what the show's first audiences likely watched. A New York Times review of the 2012 production notes, "It’s a beautiful, lyrical, ghostly vision — appropriate to a play in which an idealized past haunts an unforgiving present."

2022

The 2022 revival of Death of a Salesman is actually a transfer of a London production that first went up in 2019. The Wire star Wendell Pierce and Caroline, or Change Tony nominee Sharon D Clarke first played the Lomans at the Young Vic theatre across the pond, and they received such high praise that the show moved to the Piccadilly Theatre in the West End later that year. (Think an Off-Broadway production moving to Broadway.)

After the pair got rave reviews once again, it was announced that Pierce and Clarke would reprise their roles in New York, marking the first Death of a Salesman Broadway production with a Black Loman family. Khris Davis and McKinley Belcher III play the Loman sons, and Tony winner André De Shields appears as the ghostly Ben in Willy's memories.

As Pierce noted in an interview with the Evening Standard, “great danger, violence, oppressive attitudes, subtle humiliations were part of daily life for an African American family” in 1940s New York, where the show is set. A New York Times review similarly reads, "Willy is a black man in a nation where white is the color of success." The casting thus adds a new layer to Miller's work — another reason why Willy has failed to achieve the American Dream he's toiled for.

The London production fulfilled Pierce's 40-year dream of performing on the London stage, and the New York production marks his first return to Broadway performing since Serious Money in 1988. (He's produced a few Broadway shows in between.) Clarke, meanwhile, has had a decades-long, three-time Olivier-winning London career, but she only made her Broadway debut with Caroline last fall. Now that she's in Death of a Salesman, it's almost as if she never left.

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