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Winter 1995
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Who Killed Broadway?
Brooke Allen
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It has become almost a commonplace that Broadway is dying; now, however, it may already be dead.

One look at the current season, and it is clear that something is drastically wrong. As Christmas approached, only one "straight play"—that is, a nonmusical—was running on Broadway: An Inspector Calls, a revival of a 1924 English play. Be generous and add in both Jackie Mason's Politically Incorrect, more monologue than play, and Tom Stoppard's Hapgood, if you stretch and count Lincoln Center as "Broadway," and you get up to three. But the two parts of Tony Kushner's Angels in America had just closed at a loss, despite their awards. And as a grim harbinger of a post-Broadway future, Neil Simon's newest play, London Suite, was scheduled to open off-Broadway in 1995.

A casual stroller in the theater district might be forgiven for thinking he has wandered into a Brigadoonstyle time warp, with marquees touting hits by George Abbott, George Gershwin, Jerry Herman, Jerome Kern, Frank Loesser, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Of the 17 musicals playing on Broadway at Christmas, seven are revivals (Carousel, Damn Yankees, Grease!, Guys and Dolls, Hello Dolly, Show Boat, and Tommy), and one is a reworking of old material (Crazy for You). Seven (Blood Brothers, Carousel, Cats, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, The Phantom of the Opera, and Sunset Boulevard) came to Broadway only after successful runs in London. This gambit is far less risky than opening cold in the hairraisingly speculative market that Broadway has become.

The avantgarde director Peter Sellars has claimed that the great era of American musicals in the forties and fifties constituted a theatrical golden age. But any such golden age is long gone, and today Broadway functions principally as a museum to enshrine its glorious heritage. What original musicals there are, shows like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, have, for all their popularity, not taken the place of the classic musicals like Oklahoma and Pal Joey, which appealed to a mass audience that included the urban intelligentsia.

Broadway theater is undergoing a crisis of relevance at least as debilitating as that which has crippled the art world for the past two decades. The quality of new drama is very dubious. So is the inspiration behind what passes for "creative" revivals of classics. The reasons for the impoverishment of the theater, of course, are manifold, and include new technology: movies, home videos, and cable television have eclipsed the stage as our culture's entertainment of choice. They have also thrown into question the very validity of live theater as an art form; if film is more lifelike, less mannered, more exciting, more "real" to today's audiences, what is left that the theater does better than film?

No one seems to know how to answer, least of all those who are creating today's plays and musicals. Every time yet another revival, yet another dramatization of a movie, yet another bizarre "concept" for a Shakespeare play, is launched, the genre as a whole becomes feebler.

Yet surprisingly enough, while the large potential audience for theater that flourished in the forties and fifties has drastically diminished, there still is an audience for live theater. Theatergoers often must limit themselves to one or two excursions a year, however, because of Broadway's absurdly high ticket prices. Although a seat for Les Miserables will set you back $55 to $65, at least you're paying for lavish production values and spectacle. But what about Jackie Mason's Politically Incorrect? Mason performs alone, in an ordinary suit, with only the most minimal sets and the simplest lighting. There's no orchestra, no curtain. And yet a ticket to Politically Incorrect can cost as much as $49.50.

Why are ticket prices so high? Because it has become prohibitively expensive to produce a show on Broadway. Indeed, producers find it virtually impossible to raise enough money to capitalize and launch a project—unless, of course, it can be considered a sure thing, on the basis of either a London success, an earlier success (in the case of a revival), or the track record of the show's creators—people will probably go to see a show by Stephen Sondheim even if word of mouth is lousy. "One thinks very hard before doing something on Broadway," says Robert Fox, an independent English theater producer whose Broadway credits have included Lettice and Lovage, starring Maggie Smith. "It's ridiculously expensive."

To be sure, there is still big money to be made on Broadway. Cats has so far netted more than E.T. and Gone With the Wind put together, with no end in sight. But most shows struggle along, lucky to break even. Jerome Robbins' Broadway, a 1989 hit that garnered not only raves but also a Tony Award for best musical, lost money in spite of its nearly twoyearlong run. So did other hits, like Angels in America and Jelly's Last jam.

Why are Broadway production costs so dauntingly high? Conventional theater wisdom blames the unions, by which is generally meant the stagehands (Local 1 of the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE) and the musicians (Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians). Many union rules are indeed outrageous. IATSE requires each of the 36 Broadway theaters to have a permanent "house" carpenter, electrician, and prop man, who enjoy a life of ease at the expense not of the theater owners but of the production companies. These workers help in setting up scenery and conducting rehearsals. Once the show opens, though, they show up only once a week—at payday, to collect a weekly salary of $800 to $900.

To do the actual work of running a show, the producer is obliged also to hire "production" stagehands and electricians, prop men if there are many props, a wardrobe supervisor, and one or more dressers. A "flyman" is required to shift any scenery that moves up or down from the flies. That includes the curtain; the simple act of pushing a button to raise and lower it may be all the flyman does to earn his weekly $800.

On top of all this, the scenery for each Broadway show is built in one of a few designated union shops. Union construction, which IATSE's contract mandates, costs at least twice as much as building the scenery in one of the numerous reputable nonunion scene shops.

The musicians' union has made itself as hated as the stagehands'. Musical houses—theaters designed or appropriate for musicals—are each accorded a quota of musicians, between 9 and 22, who must be employed, at high union wages, even if a show calls for only four musicians. Paid, non-performing musicians are called "walkers"; the famous producer David Merrick was so enraged at the rule that he made the walkers on one show perform in the men's room during intermission. The musicians have recently relaxed some of their more unpopular rules—whereby, for example, straight plays using small pieces of recorded music had to pay hefty sums to musicians. But the union still imposes heavy costs on already overtaxed budgets.

On top of the labor costs, a large percentage of a show's running expenses goes to pay for the theater itself. Most of Broadway's 36 houses are owned by either the powerful Shubert Organization, which owns 16 with halfinterest in a 17th, or Nederlander Productions, with nine theaters, or Jujamcyn Productions, with five.

Producers typically pay theater owners a hefty 5 to 6 percent of the weekly gross, plus about $40,000 a week for ushers, concession workers, janitors, and boxoffice staff, plus an additional flat fee, negotiated separately, of as much as $20,000 a week. These sums have gone up enormously in recent decades, largely because ballooning real estate values have driven owners' taxes up.

Theater owners receive another slice of the pie in the form of interest on the production's advance ticket sales. The advance is held by the box office, which the theater owner, not the producer, controls. On a hit musical the advance can run as high as $20 million, putting substantial interest income into the theater owners' pockets rather than giving it to the production and its investors.

What does all this mean for a show that is not a sure thing—that has neither a London success behind it nor a prehyped score by Andrew Lloyd Webber? What about a modest oneset, twoactor play—the kind of show that, 30 or so years ago, used to open by the dozen every Broadway season? It takes an initial investment of some $800,000 to put on such a play. Weekly running costs amount to at least $135,000, which covers salaries to actors, stagehands, designers, and stage managers, rental on sound and light equipment, theater rental and fees, managers' salaries, advertising costs, and many other smaller items. No wonder Broadway tickets are never cheap. Members of the public are naturally ambivalent about shelling out $50 to see a show unless it has received rave reviews from the New York Times or a London or Disney seal of approval. Because houses have to be full for the producer to cover the heavy running costs, any play that is less than a smash hit—that fills its house at, say, only 70 percent—is unable to keep going. When it closes within a few months or even a year of opening, its investors suffer heavy losses.

Even without these Broadwayspecific expenses, some of them artificially inflated, broad economic forces are inexorably pushing theatrical costs up faster than inflation. William Baumol, a professor of applied economics at New York University who serves on the board of the Theater Development Fund, argues that costs on Broadway, which throughout the century have increased faster than inflation, are matched by proportional rises in costs for all the live performing arts—and also for education, health care, legal services, and other services that Baumol groups under the rubric "handicraft industries," industries that continue to be heavily dependent on labor.

In handicraft industries, Baumol has shown, real wages rise with the general economy, but because there are few opportunities for automation, productivity does not rise accordingly. This trend has continued steadily since the beginning of industrialization, and Baumol gives a striking illustration when he speaks of the "breakeven length of run" in the theater: the time a show must run to earn back its original investment. Currently, the breakeven run for a straight play is at least a year; for a musical, perhaps two years. "Before World War II," Baumol says, "it took 14 weeks for a straight play to break even. Before World War 1, it took six weeks. In Shakespeare's time, a twoweek run was considered a phenomenon."

So, as fast as ticket prices are rising, actual production costs are rising even faster. There's a limit to how high producers can raise ticket prices; beyond that, they have to cut costs in other directionsby reducing the cast, simplifying the scenery, or cutting a threeact play to two acts. Their other way of staying afloat is to minimize risk: hence the push for reliable blockbusters and revivals. By now, producers and investors are reluctant to take a risk not only on interesting or avantgarde productions but on any new work. It is not that there is no audience for them: Wendy Wasserstein, thanks in part to the publicity boost critic Frank Rich's enthusiasm provided, has no trouble appealing to a large number of viewers. But the chance of any straight play, and of almost any musical, earning back its original investment is becoming increasingly slim.

As a result, the works of skillful, oldstyle crowdpleasers that once would have packed houses on Broadway or in the West End—A. R. Gurney and Simon Grey, to name two—now open in the traditionally noncommercial venue of off-Broadway. Some of our best and most popular younger playwrights, like Terrence McNally, Christopher Durang, and Jon Robin Baitz, are considered offBroadway material. A major new work by Edward Albee, Three Tall Women, did not find enough Broadway backers and ended up uptown at the Promenade Theater. It made money and won the Pulitzer Prize, but, as an off-Broadway show, it was ineligible for a Tony Award. The same fate has befallen the latest Sam Shepard play, Simpatico, which, despite two stars, capitalization at the relatively modest sum of $600,000, and the drawing power of its famous author, did not find enough investors to support a Broadway opening. It is currently in a limited run off-Broadway and will probably turn a profit in a later, extended run, most likely also off-Broadway. Meanwhile, with commercial comedy and drama monopolizing off-Broadway houses, noncommercial theater—classic and avantgarde plays—is being crowded out.

The Tony Awards have become laughable, with the nominating committee desperate to scrape up four respectable candidates in the categories of best play and best musical. The contests for best revival of a play and best revival of a musical, in fact, are often more compelling than those for original works.

As early as the fifties, Arthur Miller foresaw a future in which the Broadway straight play would die, pricing itself out of the reach of its natural audience. "The economic problem has become an aesthetic one as well," Miller now says. "My early play, The Crucible, would never be produced on Broadway today—too expensive." And not only original work suffers: Miller says that Broadway productions of Shakespeare plays, with their large casts, are virtually impossible because of high costs. "They've killed an art form," Miller says.

Neil Simon's recent defection to offBroadway is symbolic of Broadway's crisis. Simon has consistently turned out plays that, whatever their critical reception, have attracted an audience; on Broadway his name is synonymous with success. When Mr. Broadway himself moves out, it's no wonder that many theatrical professionals think the Broadway play is an endangered species. Producers have tried to ameliorate the situation, fighting labor excesses in periodic negotiations between the League of American Theaters and Producers and IATSE. Until recently, the league has seen no alternative to dealing with IATSE, which controls not only stagehands but boxoffice staff, ticket takers, mailorder sales personnel, ushers, doormen, press agents, and managers. A general strike could shut down all of Broadway and prove ruinously expensive. But now a group of Broadway's most powerful independent producers has persuaded the theater owners to deal far more aggressively with the union. The league will enter the 1995 negotiations with a stated willingness to risk a strike. Whether such a strike would save Broadway or push it finally over the precipice is a question no one can answer.

Some have attempted less radical solutions to Broadway's problems. In 1990, independent producer Robert Whitehead launched the Broadway Alliance, an organization that produces plays in underused theaters, keeping production costs and ticket prices under control. Shows produced under the Alliance's auspices are required to keep capitalization at less than $600,000 and ticket prices below $35. In consideration for filling seldomused theaters, the producers receive concessions from the unions and theater owners. The Broadway Alliance has so far produced four shows, but the venture hasn't really taken off.

Enter the Walt Disney Company, with its restoration of the New Amsterdam Theater, its planned cleanup of sleazy 42nd Street, and its new Broadway musical version of Beauty and the Beast, which, though slighted at the Tony Awards, is coining money at the box office. Many Broadway insiders fear that Disney, with its enormous resources and builtin audience, will take over Broadway.

And indeed Disney wields all the might of Big Capitalism. The Broadway Alliance forces its producers to scrimp on advertising, limiting their budgets to $150,000 per show. Producers of ordinary Broadway shows have to pay for advertising out of their already stretched budgets or else go hatinhand to investors to support extra publicity. Disney, by contrast, need only reach into its own deep, deep pockets. Disney's ample capital can bring hefty returns on its investment: though Beauty and the Beast was expensive to capitalize, even at Disney's stated figure of $11.9 million (insiders believe it was a good deal higher), the show is pulling in a weekly gross of $500,000 to $600,000 and will no doubt pay back its initial investment swiftly.

Broadway's future can be discerned in its current season. It likely will continue to flourish as a forum for big spectacle, whether produced by Disney or Cameron Mackintosh, the foremost producer of large-scale musicals. It will probably also keep reviving shows from its greater past, not only musicals like Guys and Dolls but also, perhaps, straight plays with Hollywood stars. But many who have made their careers on Broadway believe that it's all over for original dramas, and even for original comedies and musicals. Consider Tony Roberts, a versatile and popular actor who, when he reached Broadway stardom back in the sixties, assumed that he would have a lifelong career on the New York stage. Now, in spite of two Tony nominations and a long list of hits including Promises, Promises and Play It Again, Sam, Roberts makes much of his living doing voiceovers and is best known for his roles in Woody Allen films. He still does an occasional Broadway stint, like his recent run in The Sisters Rosenzweig. "No one thinks they can have a career on Broadway anymore," Roberts says. "There just aren't enough shows."

Talent continues to drain off to the West Coast. Actors like Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver, and directors like Des McAnuff and Mike Nichols, are just a few of the theatrical talents who have found the West Coast friendlier and more rewarding than New York. As for younger artists just beginning their careers, the best and brightest almost all choose Hollywood, lured not only by its superior financial rewards but also by its more vital acting and writing community.

With any luck, noncommercial theatrical ventures as well as the popular, mainstream pieces that no longer thrive on Broadway will continue to find a home—albeit a smaller and less glamorous one—off-Broadway. This season features new plays by Horton Foote, A. R. Gurney, Oliver Mayer, Terrence McNally, and Sam Shepard; a play based on the letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita SackvilleWest starring Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins; and well-received works by Edward Albee, Eric Bogosian, David Ives, and others.

Yet offBroadway can never be a real cultural force, as the Broadway theater was in its heyday, simply because off-Broadway theaters and publicity budgets are not large enough to create the kind of broad, middleclass audience that packed the theaters 40 years ago. OffBroadway houses are limited to 499 seats (most are substantially smaller); Broadway houses seat as many as 1,900. The potential profits on an offBroadway show are fairly small: successful ones seldom net more than $25,000 per week, and those successes are few and far between. OffBroadway producing is usually more a labor of love than a viable commercial venture. And off-Broadway's costs are rising, too, in direct proportion to Broadway's.

Broadway lives on, though in diminished form. Against all odds, there are still a few diehards—like Robert Whitehead, a veteran producer whose hits going back to the forties, include Bus Stop, The Member of the Wedding, and A Man for All Seasons. "Every time I produce a Broadway show, I swear it's the last time," he says. But this winter, ever hopeful, he goes into rehearsal with yet another.

 

 


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