The Playgoer: "Well" not well?

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Friday, April 21, 2006

"Well" not well?

Speaking of new American plays:

Lisa Kron's Well is probably one of the most praised and successful of the species since its premiere at the Public two years ago. (Hence its ineligibility for the Pulitzer this year.) Three weeks ago it opened on Broadway to enormous acclaim and good will and instant predictions of Tony triumph.

It is now struggling for its very survival. According to the box office data from Playbill it was playing to just under 30% capacity in its opening week. The rave reviews and publicity did nothing for sales the following week--which even dipped to 27.4%. Last week, it got a small boost up 32.3%.

Keep in mind with these "capacity" figures, we're talking about a 1,095-seat house. A third of that number, of course, would be SRO in an Off-Broadway 299-er. (And remember: the difference between On Broadway and Off is the difference between 499 and 500 seats.)

An SOS email started circulating last week among theatre folk from Kron herself, confessing the show was at one point on the brink of a sudden closing. I don't mind quoting one particularly moving, yet revealing passage:

But on Tuesday, our lead producer, Liz McCann came to the theater just before half hour and gave the cast a gorgeous and stirring speech that moved us all to tears. She told us that in the past few days she had rallied the Broadway producing community to give us enough support to enable us to hang on for a bit longer because, as she told them and us: If WELL closes there will never be another show on Broadway without a star in it. There will be only star vehicles or British imports. She said, if this show closes what it will mean is that Broadway is not a home for new American plays. And then where will the next Albee come from, the next O'Neill, or the next Williams?
So what do we make of this? We know this argument all too painfully...well. And McCann is certainly walking the walk by risking a lot of investor capital on the show's ability to build word of mouth and Tony buzz (let alone prizes).

But isn't something else becoming equally painfully obvious? Broadway--and Broadway audiences-- don't want serious nonmusical, unknown plays like Well that try to deal with troubling subject matter in an unconventional way. Sure, Kron's writing and performance are very witty and go down easy. But that just makes this scarier. Well is so easy to like, and yet still it's not attracting more than the "dedicated third" of the audience who seek the different and the new.

(I might as well add that I personally am not even Well's biggest fan. I saw it in what now seems a de-facto pre-B'way tryout at ACT in San Francisco last year and thought it was a small play dwarfed in a big house. But I still can recognize it as a work worthy of the serious consideration it's been getting.)

So while McCann is fighting the good fight, dare I ask: What good has it done Well to expose it to the ruthless economic elements of contemporary Broadway? It may turn out to be financially remunerative to its author (better royalties, residuals, and future production prospects). It may net the author the coveted Tony. But does serving Well up for Broadway "failure" serve the cause of the American playwright in general?

I wish those producers who still cared about new American writing "seceded" from the whole game, and carved out a new business model, and a new venue, for the presentation of the work they want to champion. Well didn't need Broadway. It had fine productions in two major nonprofits. If the motivation was to "reach a wider audience" and give the play a longer run--well, that's not really happening, is it?

At question here is what is the proper role for producers to play who want to "move" such a play beyond theatreland and into the "mainstream." Some may say, exploiting the nonprofit development process for their own business profits. But since they're not profiting in this case, I won't harp on that.

All in all, I hope the lesson some draw from this is not that something is wrong with Well. Nor does it have to mean something is wrong with stupid audiences who don't "get" Well. (Or, more to the point, don't shell out lots of money to see this play they never heard of that doesn't star Julia Roberts.) To me the point is that yet again, Broadway has proven inhospitable to and incompatible with serious drama. The rare cases of success indeed are due to Brits, movie stars, and familiar classic titles. (Or simply low overhead--as in the four-hander Doubt.) But those are cases where the exception really does prove the rule.

Addendum: Needless to say, if you were ever curious about Well or just want to come out to support it, these are the crucial weeks. (At this point they're hanging on for those May 16 Tony noms.) Discounts are available on Playbill and


Freeman said...

I'd have to say you make a solid point here...which is that it's the desire for Broadway and the treatment of Broadway as still (after all this time) the "goal" of serious artists... that is more the problem. Broadway resembles Times Square's bright and empty and there's no art to it. It's a numbers game.

The question I perpetually ask myself is if we keep packing up and giving up cultural ground to things like Tarzan, how long will it be before there's no room left for serious drama at all? Off-Broadway is already infested "stars" as it is.

Where does the retreating end?

So while it might be a fool's hope, I have to commend the passion and commitment of Well to win an audience despite the seemingly overwhelming evidence that Broadway audiences don't like serious works.

Anonymous said...

With the economics of commercial Off Broadway in such a disarray, any producer who believes in a play is compelled to take a shot at Broadway - at least there is the possibility of prestige (i.e., the Tony) for the investors. After all, it's not like RED LIGHT WINTER (a Pulitzer finalist) is setting box office records at Barrow Street

Anonymous said...

It's just too expensive to see a play on Broadway - I like me a good play, but there is no play I like so much I'd pay sixty to a hundred dollars to see, with or without Julia.

They would have been better off keeping it an open ended off broadway run, really.

Anonymous said...

Not true - commerical Off Broadway can't catch a break as far as press opportunities and if you have a choice to see WELL Off Broadway for $50 or DOUBT on Broadway for $50, what is an out of towner going to do? ALL costs on Broadway are extremely expensive, but it's downright foolish Off Broadway

Playgoer said...

Sadly, the comments are true. Commercial Off-Broadway has become an even more perilous risk for Producers & investors than great white way itself. Production costs are still pretty high, but with fewer seats, much lower ticket revenue potential. Factor in the free media you loose by not getting as much automatic press attention, (hence even obvious dogs like "Brooklyn" and "In My Life" get more press than most worthy nonprofits) I can understand why producers would rather roll the dice on Broadway proper for a few bucks more, even if just for the shot at the Tony. (And raising more money for B'way is also easier, given both the profit potential and the glamor.)

But notice how some mega-structural changes in the theatre industry could change some of this? (Press practices, Tony eligibility, e.g.)

Anonymous said...

Out-of-towners are unlikely to want to see either Well or Doubt. Garrett's point is well taken: ultimately the producers will have to forego the glamour of Times Square, and playwrights and actors and directors the glamour of awards (be they Pulitzers or Tonys; remember, even if to the midwesterner the American theater is Broadway, that awards show still draws a pathetically small audience, and little attention is paid to straight drama there anyway), if they want, like Liz McCann, to find the next Albee et al.

Unlike other large cities in Europe, there's no "state theater" that can be identified as a home for an American national theater (like the NT in London, the Bergtheater in Vienna, the Narodni Divadlo in Prague); Tony Randall's attempts to found such a theater in the last decade of his life floundered for a variety of reasons, but not least because the art isn't considered as central to the culture here. Theater in America didn't begin to really flourish until the late nineteenth century; we have no long history of the form.

Liz McCann and her producers (and let's call them investors, for that's what they are) should take the lead in funding and then spearheading a political drive for a government-subsidized NT-like multi-auditorium building and organization on the Hudson River--a large theater complex along the lines of the Britain's National. Instead of a new stadium (which would be subsidized itself through tax breaks and leasing from the city anyway), such a theater could be dedicated to the creation of theater somewhat sheltered from the risks of the commercial stage and, through government subsidy, the unreliable funding of smaller institutional theaters.

This may be unrealistic, but on the other hand a large sports complex on the West Side sounds a little ludicrous too. Anyway, Broadway's artistically-minded money people could lead the way in doing this, putting their money where their mouth is. Or they could spend their money on Tony advertising. It's their choice.

Anonymous said...

As is often the case, I'm more grateful for Playgoer's reports and the other comments here than I am for the chance to sound off myself, since I don't feel I have a strong basis in experience for my opinions. However, I do have some (in no particular order).

1: I think it's already pretty clear, rousing producer's speeches notwithstanding, that Broadway is not a home for new American plays, and that it may be interested in the last O'Neill, the last Albee, and the last Williams but it's pretty clearly not where we can expect to find the next ones. Essentially nothing begins on Broadway anyway, as far as I can tell, so the next O'Neill, if there were such a thing, would first be found somewhere else.

2. In part because I came to New York from another city, and in part because I've got an iconoclastic streak, I've never cared much for the centralism and hierarchy that are implicit in the ideal of Broadway. Where I spent much of my life, in Dallas, Texas (where Margo Jones did some important work with Tennessee Williams, I seem to recall), Broadway mattered in terms of marketing potential--the glamour that George Hunka mentioned--more than anything else. I saw good plays in Dallas, and some of them had become more marketable because of a Broadway production, but a lot of what I saw and respected and learned from and worked on had no such pedigree. I probably don't need to add that this is the case in a lot of other cities I've visited.

3. I wonder whether America is too big and diverse a country for the notion of a national theater to make sense. London, Prague, Berlin, Paris, Vienna--these cities may deserve to be counted cultural capitals in their respective countries, but something bothers me about counting New York as the theatrical capital of America. There's too much going on in Chicago, and Boston, and San Francisco (and probably other cities) that doesn't depend on New York for me to think I'm now living in the center of American theater. If we did establish, through a number of changes that seem pretty unlikely, a National Theater in New York, I don't see (perhaps a failure of imagination) in what sense it would be a national theater.

4. I'm curious to know more about the nature of commercial Off Broadway, which Playgoer refers to in a comment above. Is it really more economically risky, as Playgoer seems to say (still-high production costs, lower ticket potential), than Broadway? Isn't there some way to change that? These aren't questions I expect to see answered here, but I have to wonder.

Contrapositive said...

I think Playgoer's allusion to press practices and Tony eligibility is pretty much the central issue here. But I'd give it a slightly different spin.

Right now, most theatre dabblers assume that a prodution's Broadway status is a proxy for its quality.

Obviously, this is a flawed assumption. But who is challenging it? There is no concerted effort in the New York theatre community to point out how arbitrary the definition of "Broadway" is, how little a production's venue has to do with its merit, etc.

So theatre novices confine their focus to Broadway, never venturing outside of it.

I'm not sure how we counter the preconceptions of casual theatregoers. But prodding the media to stop carrying water for the Broadway "brand" has to be part of the solution.

Anonymous said...

When we talk about "Broadway", we're not talking about anything more than a business collusion between a small group of theater owners, the American Theater Wing, which has agreed to continue to define "Broadway" by house size and ownership and thus allow those theaters to monopolize the only national TV attention New York theater gets, and The New York Times, which takes in tens of millions of dollars a year--maybe closer to $100 million--from Broadway advertising and rewards those shows with lavish Tony-awards "special sections" and so on. A show like "Well" will never be viable on Broadway, where it would have to fill 6-8000 seats a week, so maybe the first step toward a solution is to work on demolishing "Broadway" as the only class of theater that's entitled to the Tonys, increased press coverage, and so on.

The Tony people (and, of course) those theater owners, have long argued that the Tonys are designed to reward the best of Broadway, not the best of theater, and that bigger financial risks deserve bigger rewards. That's self-serving nonsense; if the Oscars suddenly decided that indies weren't eligible, or the Emmys said that nothing on cable could win, they'd lose so much credibility that they'd be kicked off the air in a blink. A public campaign to delegimitize the Tonys and pressure them toward some real reform--and to pressure CBS to pressure them, since the day the network threatens to kick them off the air will be the day they decide that maybe they need to change--would be a step in the right direction. (Although the ratings are small for TV, they're immense by the standards of theater, and make a real difference to a show's touring future.)

Another idea would be a campaign to force the New York Times, which has always been coy about the subject, to cop to its immense financial interest in and profit from the theater business (the cost of the ABC listings alone can eat up a substantial piece of an off-Broadway show's budget); it's part of the problem, not part of the solution, and they should be publicly embarrassed for it.

Anonymous said...

Wow. A lot to respond to here. Let me start with a nitpick.

George - I read your blog everyday, so I know you're too smart to equate "midwesterner" with "casual theatregoer". Right? I'm ready to accept your apology on behalf of Columbus, Minneapolis, Lousiville, Cincinnati, Chi-fucking-town, and all of us doing relevant, forward-thinking, balls-to-the-wall theatre in the midwest. Can you say "symptom of the problem"?

Clearly, we all just need to get over Broadway. It seems to be just one of a number of steps the theatre needs to take in order to define itself as something other than a device for musicals, staged sitcoms, and revivals of previously successful forms. We've got a lot of baggage that's keeping us from succeeding on our own terms and our aspirations for the g.w.w. are just part of the problem.

Can I get an amen for progress? Please?

Anonymous said...

Not to spoil the flow of a great discussion, but Doubt is a four-hander (priest, mother, young nun, older nun).

Playgoer said...

Yikes, that was a slip-up about Doubt. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I hope the cost of that extra actor doesn't ruin my point! (Maybe I should say Proof, since that's 4, but only one unit set!)

Re: comparisons to Oscars and Emmys--right on! But even with the more catholic inclusion in the Oscars of indie films, notice that the indie community STILL holds their Independent Spirit Awards somewhat in competition, as a statement. How lame are we then?

Anyone for moving the OBIE's to June?

Anonymous said...

there's an interesting question here along the lines of, why do doubt and proof work on broadway in a way that well does not (and ok, proof had a star, but doubt doesn't really). perhaps it's just something to do with the size of the theatre - that only your slightly melodramatic well made play will give a worthwhile experience to the people who can't see too much at the back. so maybe there's an argument for extending the broadway (label/brand/kudos/prizes/whatever) to some smaller houses so that the not-so-useful off-off-broadway designation disappears, and theatres can decide to be off-broadway (generally smaller houses, lower or no salaries) or broadway (higher salaries, and usually bigger houses, but maybe starting at 300-400 seats?)

Aaron Riccio said...

I don't know if this has anything to do with it, but Doubt and Proof both won the Pulitzer for best play. I'd like to think that even if the awards are generally poorly handled, having that extra label does help encourage recalcitrant theatergoers to get out there.

I think it's clear that extending awards to off-Broadway would be such a simple solution, and it's not like that would kill Broadway, since producers would still make money off all the tourists that keep their neon-studded death (of theater) trap alive.

The question I have is what makes shows ultimately end, when they're well-recieved off-Broadway? Why can't they keep playing indefinately, like Line or (at one point) The Fantastiks? I don't know what causes a great (and oft-extended show) to ultimately close, but isn't there a way to charge a fair price and still turn a profit large enough to encourage a theater to continue running a show (or to transplant it to another space)?

Art said...

Just to brainstorm...

How about delivery structures?

I am not a lawyer, but I am sure that lag time in getting the plays out to the regions really hurts in this regard.

Let's take Well and Doubt. Doubt was a Pulitzer Prize Winner last year. Next season it will start to hit the major regional theatres, that is if it doesn't do a National Tour. Well, may not even do a national tour.

It may be two or three years before the major LORT's get a crack at it, never mind the smaller theatres like Speakeasy or Boston Theatre Works here in my town. So then, by the time community theatres in the suburbs start to get the rights it may be three or four years. By then, the average American will have probably seen the inevitable movie version of Doubt.

Why not look into faster delivery models, sort of how movies are starting to look at triple channel distribution?

Am I out of my mind or should a play like Doubt or Well, after its successful Off-Broadway run, immediateley offer the rights to many different theatre regions, including community theatres, as it is making the transition to Broadway.

I have no idea how this would work realistically.

As A side note, Andrew Taylor who runs the Artful Manager blog on Artsjournal brought up how in these days of podcasts and on-demand, it may be a shame that all of those recordings of some of the most famous performances and theatre events exist, but are just sitting there. Does anybody know if there is anything in the works to look at releasing those to people who want to pay?

Playgoer said...

Excellent point that the B'way/Tony eligibility rules end up favoring plays that play well in big houses (and from the balcony, to boot.) Plays with big performances, or with simple driving plotlines that are idiot-proof to follow.... One could argue that many of the great American plays of the past had to deliver in those very same theatres. Which is why the only successful plays now are those that ape the styles of the past, I'd counter.

I'm not sure curiosity-item long runs like "Line" and "Fantasticks" are good models. Basically our version of London's The Mousetrap. A third-rate play from another era, kept alive by a bottomless pit of desperate actors who will work for little, in a physical production noticeably cheap and out of date. And catering only to a tourist audience with low expectations who just want to see "the longest running play ever."

The best example we have recently of a legit "legit" play suceeding at a long Off-B'way run was Dinner With Friends (c.2001?), which wisely avoided B'way proper to settle in at the(now sadly demolished) Variety Arts for 2 years plus, I think. It was a small play, but played well in that intimate space, with good actors, and Daniel Sullivan must have gone back often to work on it, since the quality was still good when I saw it over a year into the run. At a $50 or so top ticket (as opposed to $90-100) it also seemed to attract a steady stream of ticket buyers. Even if they were still mostly your aunts from Jersey.

Funny thing is, as one of the actors later told me, the producers still barely made a dime (if that) and the actors worked for effectively scale. Hence it's not an example other producers have been eager to follow.

Anonymous said...

. . .at least none of you is blaming the unions -- which is always where the Times seems to go first.

Obies in June? How about no Obies at all? With the Voice sold to new owners who are ruining it even past its steady decline of the past two years, that wouldn't be surprising. I wonder how many readers here read the Voice any more. The theater section has become deadly. Feingold is the only regular reviewer. He's very knowledgable, but I miss the days when there was a range of intelligent viewpoints there. The only other regular now is Soloski, who seems mean-spirited and self-involved as a critic. McNulty and Solomon are gone, which is a real loss. Marc Robinson and Una Chaudhuri who wrote now and then are no longer appearing at all, unfortunately. The Times is covering downtown more thoroughly than the Voice. Maybe what is happening at that storied alternative paper relates to what is happening to theater.