The Playgoer: Quote of the Day

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Quote of the Day

"To move it down the street would cost us about $600,000. And it won't garner the media attention or the marketing dollars it needs. And we need that attention."

-Signature Theatre head James Houghton on why it's Broadway or nothing if his lavishly praised production of The Trip to Bountiful is to be extended. Forced to close at the Signature on March 11, there certainly is enough interest in Lois Smith's star performance to keep it going. Such a small play and intimate performance should, by all rights, remain in a small theatre. But the economics of commercial Off-Broadway (as opposed to non-profit OB's like Signature) are apparently worse than "On-", particularly in the limitations on profit margin. The costs of running the show are not significantly lower than B'way (marketing is the same, for instance) and the return is automatically less thanks to fewer seats at (slightly) lower prices. To add insult to injury, no matter how much money you spend on the show, if you're not on Broadway, the press covers you less, and tourists and group sales are just less interested; they want to return home with stories of the Great White Way and Nathan Lane.

What's painfully funny is that the above statement appears in today's New York Times. On the on hand Jesse McKinley seems to be doing a mitzvah by giving them some of that essential "media attention." On the other...

(Note: by "down the street" Houghton's referring to the slick smallish houses recently opened on 42nd St. to house small commercial runs.)
(Note 2: the contractual difference between B'way and Off- is the difference between 499 seats and 500. Yes, that extra seat can get you a Tony.)


June said...

What are some examples of those "slick smallish houses" you're talking about?

It would take so much to get out-of-towners into off-Broadway houses. Obviously, there are some customers whose tastes and interests are already set--they already know which writers and actors and plays interest them--but speaking as someone who was one of those visitors until a few months ago, I know that when you go back home, it's nice to be able to tell tales that involve names and titles the folks there will recognize. As shallow as it seems, I often went to one "big" show to provide tales of city and then to others that were just for me.

We all have our limits--in both directions--but until Lois Smith's reputation is as far-flung as Nathan Lane's ... (Oh, and I do know how dreadful that sounds--and is!)

Playgoer said...

Your honesty is appreciated, June. Strong anectdotal evidence, in face.... Trust me, though, once you see Lois Smith, you will definitely talk about her to your friends, whether she's famous or not. (And, hey, she did have a small cameo in "Minority Report" with Tom Cruise after all!)

The "slick" theatres I was referencing are complexes like "Theatre Row" and "Dodger Stages" which have basically modeled themsleves on the movie multiplex. (The Dodger building even was a multiplex!) The owners rent out their 100-400 seat houses for quite a lot, but in exchange for great location in the heart of the theatre district, and nice amenities & customer service for audiences used to B'way. (The tennants include both commercial and nonprofit productions, blurring that distinction in NYC even more.) I feel it's important to note that there is no "Artistic Director" kind of vision guiding these complexes. They're landlords.

A shame since either space would make a fine National Theatre...

The mighty Shubert organization even got into the act by renovating another W.42nd St theatre into the "Little Shubert" (not that little at 499 seats), where Shockeaded Peter played recently.

The jury is still out on how successful these venues have been and how good for the theatre are they. As Jim Houghton says in my quote, they're still darn expensive for potentially little return. And as McNulty says in the article I cited by him, Dodger Stages is struggling to keep all their spaces filled.

June said...

Got you.

I recently went to Dodger Stages for the first time (for the wonderful Christine Jorgensen Reveals) and was sort of freaked out by the place. It's big and efficient (none of that very annoying opening the house at the last minute business) and handy and all of that, but as soul-less and cold as venues come.

Contrapositive said...

I understand that profit margins are going to be lower off-Broadway because fixed costs are similar to Broadway, and there are fewer seats.

But isn't the Broadway PR monopoly the crux--or at least the most disturbing--part of Houghton's dilemma?

It seems like muddying the Broadway/off-Broadway distinction in the minds of casual theatregoers would go a long way toward making off-Broadway transfers more viable.

Is anyone actively working to muddy that (silly) distinction? And if not, shouldn't someone be working on this?

Playgoer said...

I agree, Contra. I blame the PR people for not at least being good at their jobs!

Contrapositive said...

Well, that brings up an interesting point about PR people: They make their real money on Broadway (I have to assume).

And even the ones who work off-Broadway must *aspire* to work on Broadway.

So they're never going to be the ones to spearhead an anti-Broadway crusade.

Anonymous said...

A lot of the firms who do Broadway PR also do off-Broadway PR. And guess which client they most need to please to stay in business?