False Equivalency: Broadway Is Not The American Theatre

September 17th, 2012 § 11 comments

“Broadway” is an industry that not only produces theatre events in mid-town New York City, but it’s also the primary engine and idea factory of American theatre, and arguably, theatre worldwide.”

I’m sorry, but I can’t read a statement like that and keep silent.

The above quote is taken from a blog by Jim McCarthy, CEO of Goldstar and one of three organizers of TEDx Broadway, which will take place this January for the second year. Jim organizes the event along with producer Ken Davenport and Damian Bazadona of Situation Interactive. I attended last year’s event and furiously live-blogged it; there was some very interesting conversation that day and what struck me about it was how little it spoke specifically to Broadway and how much of the content spoke to issues of theatre as a whole.  But as much as I’ve enjoyed meeting Jim and communicating with him subsequent to last year’s event, my response to his premise is at least dismay, if not outright offense.

I have spent my career in not-for-profit theatre organizations, the last of which, the American Theatre Wing, is inextricably linked with The Tony Awards, an honor for work in the Broadway theatre, clearly defined as 40 theatres on the island of Manhattan. The Wing gave me a ringside seat at the workings of Broadway, but never for a moment did I forget that I was running a not-for-profit organization, nor did I ever declare or think myself to have “gone Broadway,” despite the jokes of my friends and the assumptions of many in the broader theatre community. My love and dedication is to theatre, all of it, and Broadway is only one segment of a very wide-ranging art form. It is predominantly, but not exclusively, commercial. While its individual productions, running for years, playing in other countries and across the U.S. on tours and licensed productions, may reach the widest audience for individual shows, there are literally countless theatrical productions in this country every year far beyond Broadway’s annual average of perhaps 38.

That is why I take exception to falsely subsuming American Theatre under the banner of Broadway: because Jim has it backwards. Broadway is part of The American Theatre, but the majority of American Theatre is not Broadway.

There’s a second misleading statement in the quote from Jim, because Broadway simply is not “the idea factory of American theatre.” Very few productions reach Broadway without having first been developed and produced in not-for-profit theatre. This even holds true for British and Irish imports, which emerge from the subsidized sectors there onto platforms of ever-greater success. I’m not saying that Broadway never originates valuable new work, but I’d lay odds that more than half of the productions each year have achieved success after benefiting at some point from the efforts of not-for-profit companies.

Because I view Broadway as a part of the American Theatre, I neither love nor hate it as an entity; frankly, it’s a collection of theatres and productions, not a singular body. I have seen great work on Broadway, just as I have in small resident companies. Broadway is one model of producing, one that can yield great rewards for its investors and artists, but one which also benefits from the vestigial patina that remains from the days when it was indeed the primary source of theatre in America. Yet the coalescing and expansion of the resident theatre movement in the 1960s (there were regional theatres decades before that) fundamentally altered the balance of American theatre. While every aspect of theatre is perpetually challenged by economics, it is the not-for-profits, here and abroad, that now lead artistically; Broadway benefits from scale, from history and from its proximity to the majority of the country’s cultural media being so close by.

I don’t think I’m saying anything radical here, but it’s a message that bumps up against the tide of immutable conventional wisdom, because the mystique of Broadway is so powerful. Having worked alongside the Broadway League on The Tony Awards, in a mutually beneficial partnership, I have watched their increasingly strong efforts to brand Broadway, to make audiences internationally ever more aware of it, to unify its constituents, and to hone its image. They face a challenge, because “Broadway” is not a trademark, it cannot be controlled the way a corporate brand can, so they fight an uphill battle at times, while at others they reap the rewards of being the theatrical equivalent of Hollywood’s “dream factory.”

I learned last year that only official TED events can cover “topics,” while the offshoot TEDx conferences must be “geographic.” Indeed, the TEDx Broadway organizers told me of their challenges convincing the TED organization that Broadway is a locale, not a discipline, so they could hold their event; “TEDx Theatre” would not have passed muster. In that usage, I understand their rationale.

But they mislead their potential audience by using Broadway as a catch-all phrase; some of the NFP folks might stay away thinking it’s not for them, which is actually a shame. I support what Jim, Ken and Damian are doing with TEDx Broadway and if I haven’t made myself persona non grata with this piece, I hope to attend again this year. But let’s not confuse positioning and marketing with facts, especially since we’ve long been told how essential truth in marketing is to success. Let’s remember that Broadway actually prides itself on its exclusivity and grant them that, without judgment or rancor. But as for The American Theatre, there’s vastly more to it than just Broadway, and the theatrical idea factory is not restricted to 40 theatres in Manhattan by any stretch of the imagination. Period.

  • http://twitter.com/GratuitousV Esther

    In one sense, I think Mr. McCarthy is correct: if you look at the theatre that America and Britain have exported to the rest of the world, I’m guessing it’s the big, splashy Broadway musical. Not that those countries don’t have their own theatre traditions but my guess is shows like Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, Mamma Mia, are what draw people in. So to some extent, “Broadway” is a big engine of theatre worldwide.

    • http://twitter.com/HESherman Howard Sherman

      There is no question, as I mention, that Broadway productions are widely seen, and surely many shows, like WICKED, are launched from Broadway into long lives on many stages nationally and internationally, reaching huge audiences. In the case of PHANTOM and MAMMA MIA!, let’s not forget that they are British imports, not originated on Broadway, as were LES MISERABLES and MISS SAIGON. Theatre originates from countless sources, commercial, not-for-profit and amateur, and from many locales; there is no singular or premier source of theatrical ideas or success.

  • Jim McCarthy

    You? Persona non grata, Howard? Never. :)

    I don’t really disagree with you on the bigger point. I didn’t mean it as an absolutist statement, just a thought that sometimes Broadway is seen as the centerpiece. Not only are you not persona non grata, I am even more appreciative of your engagement on all this.

    And by the way, the thing about TEDxBroadway as a locale and a neighborhood is exactly what we are intending. I think I was even kind of suggesting that though it could be thought of as carrying the banner or whatever, we aren’t really looking at it that way.

  • http://twitter.com/diepthought Diep Tran

    I’m tempted to think of it as this analogy: Apple is a computer but not all computers are Apple. One is a brand, out of many, and the other one is the product. In this case, Broadway is the brand, theatre is the product. To say Broadway is the “primary engine” of the American theatre is an overreach and does a disservice to the work of the non-profit world.

  • http://twitter.com/newlyburied Charles Newbury

    You speak of Broadway and Regional Theatre but omit another very important aspect: Community Theatre. I’ve seen many Community Threatre productions that fully match Broadway shows in quality acting by non-professionals if not in money spent on costumes and special effects. Community Theatre working with high school kids launches many a technical or acting career and is truly underrated.

    • http://twitter.com/HESherman Howard Sherman

      Community theatre, as well as school theatre, both academic and extracurricular, is all part of the breadth of theatre that I was referencing. I believe that my support and respect for community theatre was well documented in a prior post, which proved to be the most-read piece I’ve written on this site:

      http://www.hesherman.com/2012/02/21/theatre-the-theatre-community-disdains/

  • James Kennedy

    I think Broadway has done a remarkable job of working itself into the general American conscience as the birthplace and highest level of theatre in this country. As a current theatre major from a largely non-theatrical family, I’m constantly asked about when I’m going to get to Broadway; I think many people who don’t know theatre but know of Broadway consider it to be the true benchmark of success. However, although I think that a great deal is owed to Broadway for its undeniably considerable contributions to America’s theatrical riches, as you pointed out in your article, to cite it as the nucleus is very misleading and only continues the trend of Broadway being seen as the be-all-end-all. The ongoing challenge (at least it seems this way to me) is to remind the non-regular theatergoing population that any theatre in their neighborhood-be it non-profit, academic, community, and yes, commercial-is a valued component of the American theatre fabric and should be treated with the same respect.

  • http://www.facebook.com/katoagogo Kato McNickle

    For a number of years I have thought of Broadway as the museum of American theater. It’s got cutting edge tech, but the stories, the seats, the prosceniums are all old-school. Sure, something new breaks through ever now and then, but what’s new to Broadway is usually at least a decade old someplace else. Not that I don’t love catching a Broadway show from time to time. It’s great that there’s a place to see some top-shelf talent crossing the boards.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brendan-McCall/637795652 Brendan McCall

    Broadway is “the idea factory of American theater”? Really? Examples, please, Mr. McCarthy. How many shows started on the Great White Way, one of the most commercial and profit-driven segments of American theater, versus how many were developed over a long period of time through readings, workshop productions, and runs at regional and not-for-profit theaters?

    Also, I’d be curious, Mr. McCarthy, to know what these ideas are that are being churned out on Broadway–particularly when a significant portion of Broadway productions in the past 10 years have been a) revivals and b) British imports.

    Finally, Mr. Sherman: there is no mention of experimental & independent theater companies in your essay, as being part of American theater. In New York City, these might include the Wooster Group, Elevator Repair Service, Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater, Mabou Mines, and more. In terms of influencing the medium of theater itself, these and other “experimental” and “avant-garde” groups are ones that are often considered better examples of what’s coming out of the American theater “idea factory” abroad (particularly in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand).

  • Alex G

    Mr. Sherman,

    I guess it’s how you qualify “idea factory” and “engine.” In the last 45 seconds, I’ve had several good ideas that might yield viable product in the theatre (several bad ideas too). If it’s a question of quantity then I agree – NFP’s beyond Broadway are factories that yield a greater number of ideas than those which are generated in Broadway theaters. That’s a function of everyone and their mother calling themselves artists and incorporating NFPs across the country and around the world. Millions upon millions of “artists” yielding ideas…among legitimate artists outside of NYC yielding ideas too. Here an idea. There an idea. But ideas, I think, are worthless in a vacuum. Or, in the context of theater, worthless if they aren’t produced and produced again. Or if they’re produced for a total audience of four people (even if the lives of those 4 people are changed forever).

    So when the CEO of Goldstar (a ticketing distribution company) refers to Broadway as the primary “engine” and “idea factory” behind American theatre and theatre worldwide, he must be talking about that factory which yields the theatrical product (“idea”) that is most frequently produced or, more specifically, that theatrical product which drives the most cash (“engine”). The engine that moves HIS business forward. The factory that yields ideas that are evolved into products that are consumed by the most number of people. He is talking about whatever factory or engine that drives the industry, which, in his world (and in a consumer economy) means that which is selling the most tickets (by having yielded the greatest number of successful productions).

    In this regard, Broadway is unquestionably the “engine” and the “idea factory” of American theatre and theatre worldwide. Here’s the TCG listing of the top ten most produced plays in regional NFP’s over the last ten years:http://www.tcg.org/publications/at/attopten.cfm/. You’ll notice that 80+% of the plays were previously produced on Broadway. 95+% of the plays were written by people that had a play previously produced on Broadway. This doesn’t even include touring commercial productions of plays straight from the Great White Way (“Phantom” and “Wicked” and “Les Mis” and all those other shows that make more money than all of the regional NFP shows in the country combined and then some).

    The argument can be made that a product which is ultimately produced on Broadway wouldn’t be a viable commercial entity if it wasn’t evolved and developed in the regional NFP world in the first place. That might be true. But a product that ultimately makes money in the theater world (by virtue of having established an audience of more than a half empty theater in Topeka, Kansas) is almost always dropped into a NFP setting simply as a means of developing the product to reach Broadway heights. Very, very rarely (almost never…like try naming five works) is there any kind of “idea” borne by an artist that doesn’t already having Broadway credit that is developed in a regional NFP and makes it to Broadway (unless the piece is initially conceived as something to move to NYC and is backed by Broadway force).

    It’s complicated, no doubt. But I think that the CEO of Goldstar is spot on.

    Thanks for hearing me out,
    Alex