If you're still wondering what ever happened to Off Broadway as a commercially viable option for smaller plays and musicals (as opposed to nonprofit Off B'way), then Jeremy Gerard's analysis for Bloomberg is a must-read.
Taking us behind the scenes of two successful new musicals from nonprofit companies (Kander & Ebb's Scottsboro Boys at the Vineyard and the Zellnik brothers' Yank at the York) we see both shows eager and able to extend to a commercial run--but are finding, like many similar shows, that only Broadway makes it worthwhile economically, even if the show is better suited to (and better able to fill) an under-500 seat house.
As executive director of the Vineyard Theatre, Jennifer Garvey-Blackwell is a big believer in off-Broadway. The nonprofit company, operating in a 132-seat theater near Union Square, has developed the Tony Award-winning musical “Avenue Q” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “How I Learned to Drive,” among others.Indeed. And speaking of How I Learned to Drive, that may have been one of the last major plays to come to prominence thanks to a very long commercial Off Broadway run (following its Vineyard premiere, of course). Today it would probably be pressured to move to a 1000-seat house and meet the same fate as plays like Well--i.e. get great reviews, lots of respect, and close within 6 weeks at a total financial loss.
Earlier in her 13 seasons at the Vineyard, Garvey- Blackwell’s options included moving to a commercial off-Broadway house such as the Lucille Lortel when one of her shows struck box office gold. Today, with “Scottsboro Boys,” the biggest hit in the Vineyard’s history, it’s Broadway or bust.
“Off-Broadway is not an option,” Garvey-Blackwell said.....
But “Scottsboro” is a high-risk show about nine young black men charged with raping two white women in the ‘30s American South. The audience for Broadway musicals isn’t typically looking for such strong brew; after all, isn’t that what off-Broadway is for?
Why the insanity? First there's bottom line. Off Broadway's still cheaper, but the potential payoff and profit margin is much less.
The stagehands union doesn’t hold sway over off-Broadway, eliminating one major expense. But other costs, including pay for actors, stage managers, press agents and others, are nearly as high as Broadway’s.Plus, opening on Broadway automatically nets you tons of free publicity and attention that Off Broadway shows have to fight for--especially guaranteed reviews and wider press coverage overall since Broadway is the only New York theatre the regional and national media cover. You also instantly get a chance at those random ticketbuyers coming to down looking only for "a Broadway show."
In other words, if you're gonna gamble, gamble big. Would you rather risk your money for loose change at the slot machines, or for the big prize at the roulette wheel?
Second, there's a silly prestige factor going on. And its name is Tony. As veteran Off Broadway producer (one of the last) Ben Sprecher is quoted as saying, “The talent only wants to go where you can get a Tony, and the talent drives the business.” I guess it's hard enough for a real box-office drawing star to take the slight salary cut, but they might do it for a chance at Tony.
Low-budget independent films don't have that problem, of course. A little film like Crazy Heart can still get Jeff Bridges, because he smells Oscar. And he was right!
Notice how the governance of the Tonys, therefore, really does still have an impact--a disproportional one--on how theatre gets made in this town.