The Playgoer: Broadway Dreamers

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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Broadway Dreamers

The NY Times has on their Op-Ed page today a piece by William Goldstein, a composer and songwriter, with yet another appeal to "save Broadway." Mr. Goldstein doesn't seem to be a particularly influential theatre artist, so I'm not sure how seriously we would normally take his suggestions--except now they're published by the New York Times!

His presecriptions? Would you believe... tax breaks for Broadway producers!

For starters, the city could help. New York gives tax breaks to large employers to keep them in the city. Why not offer similar tax breaks to Broadway?
The city could set aside part of property tax revenue from theaters, and start a fund available to Broadway productions during their run. The fund could aid shows struggling to find an audience by kicking in when low box office revenues lead to the waiving of royalty payments (that percentage of weekly gross paid to the show's creators).

Since Goldstein only equates theatre with Broadway (and never references the existence of any activity south of Times Sq), he probably doesn't realize that any state moneys or tax-breaks going to Broadway's benefit would inevitably be taken out of the non-profit sector. My fear is that the State and the City (not to mention the Bush administration) would be perfectly happy with that shift. (Why waste tax money on shows that don't even attract tourism!) Goldstein--and the many who echo his appeals--are advocating for Broadway as an endangered industry (like manufacturing jobs). That may be. But let's, as theatre people, not let the commercial crowd speak for our agenda.

And get a load of this:
The challenge, of course, is to lower costs, stimulate more productions, put more performers to work and still maintain a respectable wage. These goals could be achieved if all the people involved in putting on a show were willing to share in the risks and rewards. Union leaders could begin a hire-more-actors-and-musicians campaign. Instead of trying to get higher salaries and benefits for the fewer and fewer actors and musicians working on Broadway, union leaders could make it their goal to get more people working. This could be achieved by having union leaders and producers agree on a sliding salary scale based on the number of performers employed. The more actors or musicians hired, the lower the scale. At 40 actors or musicians, the lowest pay scale would be reached.

In principle, great. Economics has made the large-cast show prohibitive. And that has impoverished the 90-minute, small-cast dramaturgy of our age. But to fix the deck the other way? And to reward artists less? (And, obviously, such a formula would go out the window when big stars turned down those "adjusted" salaries.)

Goldstein asks for even more artist sacrifices to keep this questionable dream alive:
When a show is in trouble and royalties are waived, actors and musicians would be required to work at half their salary for up to 60 days or until the show returns to profitability. The stagehands union could agree to a similar program.

Stories of voluntary pay-cuts to keep a beloved show going are legendary. But such measures hearken back to the indentured servitude of the days before Actors Equity.

Does no one on Broadway remember something called the Broadway Alliance? Crica 1990, I recall a small group of producers and artists getting a coalition together to make similar concessions, and they succeeded in producing a few new plays. (Steve Tesich's The Speed of Darkness was one, I recall.) It tanked. It was great for the playwrights, I'm sure, to have the exposure. But, in retrospect, would they and their plays not have been better served by a well-subsidized smaller venue where their work would not be lost in a balcony full of thrill-seeking tourists. Oh, how short our memories are...

Sorry, but there already is a solution to producing better theatre at lower prices and better quality: the non-profit model. The Broadway of Phantom, Mama Mia, and Billy Crystal is in no danger, believe me. What Broadway is Goldstein so worried about? The vanity shows (see here), misguided star vehicles, and beleaguered jukebox pretenders? He, of course, thinks he's in the 1950s:
Working together, politicians, union leaders, producers, actors, musicians, theater owners and the news media can revitalize Broadway, enabling producers to recreate the golden years of New York theater by putting on magical shows with large casts and orchestras and opening the door to new successes that will become tomorrow's classics.

Raise the Titanic, anyone? Clone the dinosaurs? It's over, man.

And why mourn? Let's recognize the glory days of Broadway (when art and commerce could co-exist, but still--let's be real--never peacefully) constituted a unique historical moment. Obviously the industries of culture change with the times, and in response to other changing industries. To keep Broadway going the way it was pre-1965, say, is to pretend there is no cable television or netflix, and that the audience hasn't been raised to think of theatre as a freakshow. If, as a songwriter, Goldstein is wedded to that past--and needs it for his livelihood--understandable he would advocate such measure. But to rest of the world, I say: please don't confuse this with theatre.

And to our congress and city councils, governors and mayors, I plead: we in the real theatre are over here! We, who stand little chance of making profits at all are the true non-profit--not those who fail to profit. What's a better investment of public funds? Wham!: The Musical? or, discovering the next Edward Albees, or August Wilsons, or Julie Taymors? proficient stagings of the classics--not just Shakespeare, but our American classics, so we can finally brag of a national repertory.

The Times will say, of course, the opinions of any op-ed piece expresses only the opinions of the contributor. But with all the Times Sq real estate and advertising at stake here, one suspects the paper is more than happy to define theatre so exclusively, and as a business more than an art. Don't let them, folks. Write in and let them hear from the other New York theatre.

1 comment:

Kevin Ashworth said...

"Please don't confuse this with theatre."

Your comments are right on. As per usual.