The Playgoer: Bizarro World B'way?

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Bizarro World B'way?

Hat tip to reader June for pointing us to this Mark Shenton piece in the UK The Stage about how the Royal National Theatre has started playing the commercial game, and playing it very well. (Especially with History Boys.) Not only has the producing cadre Shenton speaks of successfully transferred their greatest hits to the West End, but they also formed a unique partnership with Broadway's Bill Haber to bring a select number here each year. My hunch is that B'way savvy Nick Hytner, the new RNT head, has had a hand in this as well.

Call this cynical and shallow if you like. But I for one actually admire them. At least here we find a nonprofit getting the edge on their commercial counterparts. Without watering down their product. (Whatever you think of History Boys.)

Meanwhile, the National Theatre also find themselves embarking on a major new chapter as commercial producers with this production, since it has been brought to the West End entirely on their own dime and time: The National Theatre are the above-the-title producers with their investment arm, National Angels Ltd--a group of shareholders specifically brought together to put money into commercial productions of plays from the National and elsewhere (such as the current transfer of Rock 'n' Roll from the Royal Court to the Duke of York-- and the previous transfers of the National's productions of Jumpers and Democracy to the West End) providing the funding to do so. The executive director for The History Boys at Wyndham's is, in turn, the National's own executive director Nick Starr; associate producer is Tim Levy (who is Assistant Producer on the South Bank); while the PR is the National's own senior press officer, Mary Parker. Their services, I assume, are all aggregated from the salaries they are paid already for their South Bank day (and night) jobs, all of which may help keep the bottom line for the West End season in a healthier state, since it is receiving serdoesn't it doesn't have to directly pay for out of that run.

But this does also, of course, put the National at a distinct advantage over commercial producers who have to cover their own salaries without the benefits of subsidy at a home base elsewhere. A couple of years ago I wrote in The Stage that the National were unduly holding on The History Boys by keeping it in the repertoire there instead of sending it on its way to a commercial life sooner, and Nick Starr took me out to lunch to gently explain it wasn't the role of the National to give commercial opportunities to the West End to exploit, but as a publicly-subsidised body it was incumbent on themselves to maximise its own returns from its work. But now that the National is specifically using the West End to continue to do so on its own account (and from its accounts), the rules of engabeingt are bieng subtly changed forever in the relationship between the commercial and subsidised sectors. At this rate, the dwindling band of commercial producers may be run of town altogether.

The best possible future I see for Broadway--both commercially and artistically--is for it to become more officially a showcase foe the most popular "product" from the US nonprofitLincolnre. Licoln Center and Roundabout already work along similar lines, arguably.simultaneouslymulateously exist in both the Broadway and nonprofit worlds at the same time. What seems most promising about the National's success is that they have developed this effective and smooth means of "transferring" shows, while still developing them in a nonprofit cocoon.

Maybe what I'm saying is: If you're going to try to play in the commercial arena, at least play smart. (Unlike, say, the Public during George Wolfe's ventures. Or MTC buying the Biltmore.)

Yes, I'm being naive and idealistic if I don't argue this can corrupt a theatre into developing only commercial product. But I think if you look at the RNT season, you won't see a season of sell-outs. Having three stages that can run three rep shows each helps, of course...


Anonymous said...

This may be a side point, but I disagree with your characterization of both the Public under Wolfe and MTC more recently as failing to "play smart". It's too easy to subscribe to the conventional wisdom that the Public was inherently stupid in its Broadway ventures under Wolfe: "The Wild Party" lost them a lot of money; "Bring in Da Noise" made them a lot of money. Playing smart doesn't mean declining to take gambles, and taking gambles means losing sometimes. Similarly, MTC's decision to buy the Biltmore and have a third, larger house at its disposal was not, in itself, a bad decision; filling the theater with bad plays was.

You point to the Roundabout and Lincoln Center as better examples, but if Lincoln Center didn't enjoy the convenient loophole of the fact that the Beaumont is a Tony-eligible "Broadway" theater, it'd be faced with the exact same dicey questions of when to try for Broadway/Tonys/profits and when not to. And given its near-complete lack of interest in new or adventurous work, is the Roundabout really an example of doing anything right other than running a business?

Anonymous said...

Hytner has presided over more than 50 productions since taking over as Director of the National Theatre in 2003. The length of his tenure alone, not withstanding the continuing impact of his contributions (£10 tickets, bringing NT productions to Broadway, NT expansion into film producing), suggest that the statute of limitations on your description of him as the "new RNT head" has probably passed.

Anonymous said...

Hytner has presided over more than 50 productions since taking over as Director of the National Theatre in early 2003. The length of his tenure alone, not withstanding the continuing impact of his contributions (£10 tickets, bringing NT productions to B'way, NT expansion into film), suggest that the statute of limitations on your description of him as "new RNT head" have probably passed.

Anonymous said...

NYT, 11/10/98:

In a flurry of last-minute moves, the Joseph Papp Public Theater yesterday postponed the opening of its troubled big-budget revival of "On the Town," canceled two preview performances and brought in a seasoned Broadway choreographer to retool several dance numbers.

George C. Wolfe, artistic director of the Public and the show's director, denied that those steps indicated problems, saying he had made the decision to delay the opening last week...

The show is considered particularly risky for the Public Theater because it has chosen to produce the $5 million musical itself, without the financial assistance of outside producers. And advance sales have been lukewarm, at some $2.2 million so far. (By contrast, the heavily promoted, poorly reviewed musical ''Footloose'' had advance sales of $5 million.)

"On the Town," the 1944 musical with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Leonard Bernstein, follows three sailors on leave in New York City. It was staged by Mr. Wolfe last year in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, where it received mixed reviews, with critics finding the dance sequences anemic.

For Broadway producers, that judgment was particularly vexing because Mr. Wolfe had chosen to discard the original production's choreography, by Jerome Robbins. Despite questions, Mr. Wolfe pushed ahead with plans for a Broadway run, though with a new choreographer.

Then last spring, a planned run at the St. James Theater was canceled after the show's second choreographer, Christopher d'Amboise, left. Mr. Wolfe forged on, booking the 1,900-seat Gershwin Theater for this fall, and hiring his third choreographer for the show, Mr. Young, a Los Angeles-based choreographer who had never worked on Broadway.