Is Broadway America’s National Theatre?

November 22nd, 2010 § 0 comments

“Mr. Roth,” the tweet went, “What kind of system is needed to feed the truly great theatre all over America to Broadway?”

Until I saw that, I had no intention of writing a semi-sequel to my blog post of last week, “This Blog is Prior to Broadway.” But despite the fact that I am not Jordan Roth of Jujamcyn Theatres, for whom the original tweet was intended, I feel compelled to put in my two cents on this topic, since I began working in American not-for-profit theatres in 1983, during my junior year of college, and have spent the past seven years in the Broadway environs as head of the American Theatre Wing.

There’s no question that despite all rational arguments, resident theatres dream of getting a show to Broadway and having it become a big hit. The dream was instilled in the hearts of many when Arena’s Stage’s production of The Great White Hope was, by general assent, the first show to make the journey from a regional production to a Broadway landmark. It is a trip that has been made many times, both successfully and unsuccessfully. In my own experience, I have had the opportunity to see three plays on which I worked and dearly loved (and several others less adored) make the journey to New York (one to Off-Broadway) with varying degrees of success: Our Country’s Good (critical success but commercial failure), Marvin’s Room (critical hit, and I don’t actually know how it did commercially), and Stand-Up Tragedy (critically lambasted and a fast flop).

Since last week I elucidated the reasons why I worry about theatres that dream of and promote shows as prior to Broadway, let me more directly address the idea of regular berths on Broadway (or even in New York) for regional productions.

1. It’s been tried before. Not that prior failure negates future success, but I can think of two efforts that were particularly friendly to shows from resident companies, and neither lasted.

In 1985, the Joyce Theatre Foundation hosted a summer series, the American Theatre Exchange Festival, of regional shows, each with a four-week run: Season’s Greetingsfrom The Alley, Faulkner’s Bicycle from Yale Rep, and In The Belly of the Beast from the Mark Taper Forum. Interestingly, when I mentioned this festival recently to Cora Cahan, who ran the Joyce at the time, her response was one of surprise; I believe she said she’d forgotten about it. But she elucidated on some reasons why it didn’t work, which I’ll fold into my thoughts herein. (You can hear her on this edition of Downstage Center. )

In the early 90s, there was a plan created called The Broadway Alliance, which was designed to reduce the cost threshold which might be keeping certain works from Broadway. Only four shows were ever produced under this plan, which had achieved concessions from all of the unions but also capped a show’s capitalization in order to qualify; to my recollection, the limit was $400,000. The two regional shows that did make it to Broadway under this plan were the aforementioned production of Our Country’s Good, from Hartford Stage, and The Speed of Darkness, from the Goodman. The former ran for 48 regular performances, the latter for 36. Skimping doesn’t make for success on Broadway.

In addition, a stand-alone project seeking a downtown berth, designed to import productions from resident theatres, the American National Theatre, was trumpeted by the New York Times in September 2003 as a $170 million, three-theatre project in lower Manhattan. More than seven years later, there is no such building nor to my knowledge has the organization behind it imported any productions.

2. The theatres are full. Even though we’re just weeks from the annual spate of January closings, which every year is bemoaned as a sign that Broadway is unsound, as if such mass closings had never happened before, those theatres will be filled again by April. If any of those shows opt to not go forward, there’s probably a backup booking for every single theatre, and in some cases, backups to the backups. This is not the 1980s, when we saw the Mark Hellinger sold to become a church, and owning theatres is, in part, a real estate business. No one rents space cheaply when demand is high, and no one is likely to be charitable when there’s money to be made.

3. There are already resident theatres on Broadway. While the term regional doesn’t apply, we now have three not-for-profit companies, operating on LORT contracts, with their own Broadway houses: Roundabout with three and Manhattan Theatre Club and Lincoln Center Theatre with one each (LCT also frequently rents Broadway houses when the Beaumont has a long-runner on its stage, such as South Pacific); Second Stage is slated to join that cohort soon. Combine the output of those three theatres with shows that start Off-Broadway in not-for-profits and then make the move onto the Great White Way (a journey pioneered with great success by The Public Theatre with A Chorus Line and sustained today by a plethora of shows from The Public alone), and the kind of work that regionals/not-for-profits do around the country is hardly alien to Broadway. Further, with short-run, often star-led limited runs of works by such resident staples as Mamet, Williams and Miller, it’s hard to say that there’s a notable distinction between the kind of work seen in major regional productions or on Broadway, save for the big musicals.

4. Press and Producers Rarely Travel. To get a regional show to Broadway, one must find a producer who wants to champion the show and take it on as a major commitment. Unfortunately, producers aren’t flying to theatres around the country constantly checking out every possible new play and revival for their next Broadway success. And unless you’re in a major city and you have a preponderance of positive reviews by long established critics (whose numbers are in decline), your own entreaties aren’t likely to cause anyone to jump on a plane unless you already have a relationship with them.

As for “national press” discovering your work and bringing it to the attention of New York bound producers, your only real option is luring The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout to see your show (and Terry regularly publishes his guidelines for what he’s likely to be interested in). While The New York Times ventures out of town on occasion (though most frequently to the Berkshires, Chicago or London, it seems), it’s rare even for the country’s largest newspaper, USA Today, to see work outside of New York; attention from television and radio is even rarer. There are many reasons for this, but as old-line mass media is fighting for its own place in the American consciousness, covering regional theatre is not a key point in their strategy, and thus a one-time tool is blunted. Internet-based writing has yet to achieve the same level of influence.

5. Broadway is really expensive. With plays costing between $2 and $3 million dollars to produce, and musicals typically ranging from $6 to $18 million (Spider-Man is an outlier), quality is not enough. There are indeed great plays, new and classic, produced around the country, but do they have enough inherent appeal to draw between six thousand and twelve thousand theatergoers on a consistent weekly basis long enough to recoup the investment that goes into bringing them to Broadway? A smash hit resident run in a large house might drawn 20 to 30 thousand audience members; that equals roughly three weeks on Broadway.

6. Planning for a regional hit is really hard. Frankly, we rarely (if ever) know what will be a hit on our own stages, let alone on Broadway. Until productions are up and running, there can be no judgment, and since Broadway theatres aren’t sitting idle, and even a New York not-for-profit can’t afford to hold slots open while waiting for a regional success to crop up, planning a New York stage schedule around what may come to pass is problematic, under commercial or non-commercial producing guidelines. In addition, runs are fairly short at resident companies, so there’s very little time to get the word out once you’re sure you do have something particularly noteworthy on your stage.

I could go on, with my brutal tough love for you all. And no one should misconstrue anything I’ve said as being anti-Broadway. I’ve repeatedly confessed to the thrill it has given me in the past, and I have seen extraordinary work there. It continues to be a magnet for major talent, who like many of you, have been seduced by the Lullaby of Broadway. And on occasion, it has provided windfalls of publicity, pride and money for not-for-profit resident companies whose work has made the trip there successfully.

So if Broadway is still your desire, let me speak to things you might consider, and explore, in order to make the trip.

A. Are you on mission? Many theatres around the country include in their mission statements phrases like “create theatre of a national stature” or “contribute to the national repertoire.” These are admirable, but presumably they are preceded, both in order of appearance and priority by a phrase about “serving their local community” or some defined constituency therein. So before you set your sights on Broadway, make sure your board of directors or trustees are truly behind any effort in that direction but with measured expectations of success, lest you find that your Broadway dreams undermine your relationship with your core audience, which must sustain you whether you produce the next Rent or the next Bobbi Boland.

B. Is the show likely to engage the hearts and minds of the New York press and theatre cognoscenti? There are plenty of shows that are brilliantly suited to regional theatres, and please audiences enormously, but simply don’t have the style or subject that’s likely to get past the gatekeepers of opinion in The Big Apple. That’s no insult to the work, your company or your audience, and their success on your stages are a testament to the perceptiveness of your artistic staff. But be brutal about whether the piece can compete in the crowded and often elitist New York marketplace, even though work on Broadway has to appeal to the largest possible audience. Yes, it’s a paradox, and it’s hard to judge your own work dispassionately, but it’s a necessity.

Also, in the case of revivals, check to see when the show you’re hoping to move was last on Broadway. It’s been roughly 25 years since Broadway last saw The Merchant of Venice, but the current one has Al Pacino and the last one had Dustin Hoffman. You’re not likely to land your Merchant on Broadway anytime soon, since America, unlike England, seems to think we can only have great plays in our commercial venues (or even in New York) every 10 to 20 years, instead of annually.

C. Take on commercial partners. I wrote last week about the double-edged sword of producing shows at your theatre that already have been optioned commercially, so I won’t rehash it, except to say that there are plenty of commercial producers seeking berths on resident stages in order to try out work or get it on its feet more economically. I refer you first back to item A above, and then, if the work itself (not the prospect of Broadway glory or the hope of enhancement money) truly appeals, make your decision accordingly. But don’t rent your stage to the highest bidder, and be sure you do full due diligence on the background of any prospective partner before you figuratively get into bed with them.

D. Find a New York or tri-state area not-for-profit with whom you can partner.Unless you are going to self-produce, the challenge outlined above in item 4 is significantly mitigated if you get the show closer to New York so it becomes easier for “the right people” to see it. Shows frequently play Off-Broadway or even Off-Off-Broadway and then are moved to Broadway when the New York press embrace them.Avenue Q didn’t leap from the barn at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center to Broadway; it came to New York first as a co-production of The Vineyard Theatre and The New Group (though in that case, there were commercial producers behind it all along).Marvin’s Room had been acclaimed in Chicago, but had no legs until the New York Times saw it at Hartford, after which it went to Playwrights Horizons and then to a commercial Off-Broadway run; Wit had a comparable experience as it went from South Coast Rep to a wholly separate production at Long Wharf, which in turn went to MCC Theatre and then to the Union Square and a Pulitzer Prize.

Don’t be afraid to share your show with other not-for-profits to give it a chance at a New York berth. You’ll get reviews to bring back home regardless of the ultimate outcome, and your risk will be vastly less.

E. Do it yourself. I’m personally not keen on this, but if you live in a large enough community, you might just be able to stir up enough local pride and money to raise funds to produce a show in New York on your own. Let’s remember, there may be plenty of folks who loved the show on your stage who believe it should reach a wider audience, and may pull out money to support such an effort that they might not have donated to you, since with a commercial production, there’s at least the prospect of financial gain. After all, these are the people who saw the effect the show had in your theatre. But if you choose this route, be very careful that you make no promises of success or return, and indeed are bluntly honest about the prospect of financial success for any Broadway show; that should commit to future donations even if the commercial effort fails. You don’t want these people abandoning you altogether if the trip to Broadway goes sour.

In addition, unless you have key staff with prior Broadway experience of note, hire highly recommended people to run the production for you in New York. A not-for-profit artistic or managing director may be brilliant in that context, but if they aren’t experienced commercial hands, this is not the time to afford them on-the-job training.

Broadway is our Field of Dreams; there’s no denying it, and it’s great to have an icon that makes the idea of American theatre an international beacon. But Broadway cannot, and never really has, represented every type of theatre, and in a country as large as ours, why should we restrict our imaginations to 40 theatres in Manhattan? We are a very large country geographically, politically, economically and aesthetically. Our literally hundreds of theatre companies and thousands upon thousands of theatre artists do themselves a disservice if they measure success by a single metric.

There are periodic calls for a National Theatre for the United States, but to make (or to allow) a single venue to carry that imprimatur is even narrower than Broadway dreams. All theatre in America, commercial or not-for-profit, is our national theatre and success on Broadway should be no more or less legitimate an achievement than success on any stage. I am as proud to have been part of shows that never reached Broadway and played to perhaps 18,000 people in Hartford CT as I am of shows that went to New York and died a quick death, or those that made the same trip and have subsequently been produced across the country.

But please, make theatre for your audience first and foremost, support the work of artists less known than those who intermittently reach Broadway; that’s what resident theatre, and presumably your company, was founded to do. And if your work makes it to Broadway (or Los Angeles or Seattle or Chicago or…), I hope I get the opportunity to see it, and I look forward to applauding it.

 

This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.


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