If you are an inveterate consumer of theatre news, scanner of theatrical advertising in any U.S. market other than New York, or theatrical journalist bombarded by press releases, you have invariably run across the phrase “prior to Broadway,” probably many times. Indeed, I nominate the phrase “prior to Broadway” as perhaps the most flagrantly and falsely used – and accepted – promotional phrase in theatre hucksterism. I would also say it is perhaps the most damaging.
Now I am not suggesting that every invocation of the phrase is intrinsically false. It originated in the days when engagements in cities like Boston, New Haven, Philadelphia and Washington DC were frequent and true out of town tryouts, productions that were on a direct path to New York, and it has many modern analogues: The Producers’ pre-New York run in Chicago or The Scottsboro Boys’ sojourn at The Guthrie Theatre are two recent, truthful examples. In these cases, if the shows were promoted as playing prior to Broadway, they were stating a fact, as they indeed had all of the necessary arrangements made in order to move them into Manhattan after their out of town runs.
What bothers me are the countless shows that announce themselves as prior to Broadway without having raised a dime or having received a commitment from a Broadway landlord to rent the production a theatre. Yet it happens all the time and is, I fear, swallowed whole by press and audiences.
On a purely semantic level, one could claim that any literary material that has not previously been presented on Broadway is therefore “prior to Broadway,” since the Great White Way might be in its future. That is why you can express all due skepticism at the title of this piece (and please, feel free), but the claim is not ever absolutely impossible, no matter how improbable it may be (and composing teams are welcome to call me).
Let me posit some of the dangers of the “prior to Broadway” (from here on, “PTB”) gambit:
1. Declaring a show from the outset as being PTB may be nothing more than a fishing expedition. In my days as a press agent, the most desirable place to announce a forthcoming show was in “the Friday column” (it had various names) on page two of the Friday arts section of The New York Times. Most weeks in those pre-Internet days, The Column would carry at least one such announcement. Some came to pass, but others were, according to one of my former bosses, placed by producers who he considered to be “producing in The Column.” That is to say, they would float an idea in the paper and if their phone rang enough in the ensuing days, then they might begin work on such a project in earnest. Today, when a press release can be instantly rendered fact by multiple news sites and subsequent propagation by Facebook, Twitter and the like, the column is no longer required, just a reasonably reliable publicist with an e-mail account. But PTB (or its cousin, “Broadway-bound”), lives on and on. The Apprentice, The Musical, anyone?
2. PTB creates expectations that may not be fair to the play or musical to which it is applied. The moment a show declares its Broadway destination (or aspiration) it is looked at through a new lens. Critics and audiences alike become show doctors, dramaturges, prospective investors and commercial soothsayers, viewing any such production not simply for its inherent qualities in the current incarnation, but prognosticating as to its future chances and pondering what elements should or should not make the trip to Manhattan. Such pressure is ultimately antithetical to artistic development, since the project is thereafter seen only through eyes looking for commercial feasibility.
3. Theatres that regularly trumpet shows as PTB and have some successfully play there create false expectations for all of their shows. If your audiences and local media become accustomed to Broadway transfers that you repeatedly trumpet, at some point they imagine that PTB is the goal of every show you do, and the expectations are there regardless of whether they are intended or claimed. To be sure, there are a number of not-for-profits that have achieved popular recognition and financial remuneration from their transfers, but that only serves to make shows which don’t equally succeed to be perceived, even tacitly, as somehow less than worthy than the others, even when the audience has a great time. Broadway should be a bonus, not a raison d’etre.
4. Some producers come to believe that all not-for-profit organizations hunger for PTB product. Frankly, there are plenty of theatres that would love to be the home to an out-of-town commercial tryout, to raise their profile and perhaps their coffers. But I suspect that these days, it is the promise of enhancement money and star talents that lead to commercial projects landing on not-for-profit stages, diminishing and demeaning the mission and perception of the not-for-profits. The days when a show like The Great White Hope or ‘night, Mother were produced by not-for-profit theatres and discovered by the commercial theatre are in the minority.
I will never forget a cold call I received from a producer offering their show to Geva Theatre in Rochester, immediately stating the amount of money they could offer to support the production. The call was surreal on many levels, among them a) that the call was made not to the artistic director (who chose our productions) but to me, the managing director, under the assumption that the offer of funding would make me an ally in advocating the project to the a.d. and b) that it came from someone I had dated very briefly a few years earlier, who made no connection between our dinners and the name on her call list of regional theatres until I reminded her (but perhaps the latter issue results from other factors as well).
But not-for-profits are hardly naïve. Indeed, I have heard of theatres so eager for PTB engagements that they all but have rate cards at the ready, in order to quote their required enhancement price when producers come calling, regardless of actual need.
5. A show that garners PTB attention, albeit naturally, during an out of town run can place stresses on both the theatre and the show. The moment Broadway buzz begins, expectations change, and the concerns raised in Item 2 come into play. In extreme examples, situations can arise where artists are removed from creative teams while the show is still in a not-for-profit setting, on a show that is open and running, which may be antithetical to the credo of the producing company. I worked a regional show where commercial producers, unnecessarily, informed one member of a five member acting company that the show would be traveling to New York, but that he would not be going with it, yet the actor had to continuing performing for two weeks in the role, knowing that he had been judged commercially less than worthy.
6. Promoting PTB reinforces the notion that theatrical success can only be achieved on Broadway. There are only 40 theatres that are designated as Broadway houses and they are controlled by a handful of individuals or companies. On an annual basis, there are perhaps 35 to 40 new shows in total, in contrast with some 500 to 600 film releases and untold music and book releases. Broadway is a fabled place where great things can happen, and money can be made, but in order to play a Broadway house, a show must jump over countless hurdles, and very few ever will. Theatre as an art form benefits from having a wider horizon for and definition of success.
I cannot deny the allure of reaching Broadway, not simply because the American Theatre Wing’s Tony Awards are a widely recognized symbol of success in that iconic arena. I have also been a part of productions that have gone to Broadway and have felt the thrill of being in that heady maelstrom, even though none of the shows succeeded commercially. But for the sake of artists, I urge producers, commercial and not-for-profit alike, to wield the claim of prior to Broadway very carefully, lest it backfire on them and the artists involved. I urge journalists to get more detail before repeating such a claim, as a protection of your own integrity. And I urge audiences to watch any show thusly labeled as if it were just another night at the theatre, and enjoy it not as a result of its marketing and prospects, but for its own sake, and for your own.
P.S. While I’m harping on shopworn promotional phrases, let me offer another tip. If you ever read publicity materials which summarize a show as being “about the human condition,” you should immediately assume that the project comes off as confusing, at least to the people promoting it, or has content that they are worried will turn off potential audiences, and they’re hiding it. After all, every piece of theatre is about the human condition. Even Cats.
This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.
November 15th, 2010 § 0 comments