The Playgoer: The Broadway Lament

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Broadway Lament

God bless New York 1's Roma Torre. Her heart's in the right place, I suppose. In her interview last weekend for NY1's "On Stage" with Jed Bernstein (departing head of the League of American Theatres and Producers) she cornered him about what's happened to plays on Broadway. An important question, to be sure. But what sometimes bothers me about that lament is a certain fatalism that if plays aren't on Broadway they don't exist.

Bernstein's honest and sobering answer, though, hopefully should not lead to more such fatalism or complaining, but to an Ibsenesque light of truth! The game has changed. History has moved on. So, adapt.

RT: ...By the end of the summer we not have any straight pays left running on the big Broadway stage. Is it just that unsupportable to keep a straight play running on Broadway these days?

JB:I think one of the challenges about Broadway overall--both plays and musicals, but it certainly applies to plays--is that the economic model has really changed since the last decade or last two decades. And it doesn't leave a lot of space for what you might call the quiet or medium-sized hit. The running costs are very expensive for shows so even shows that run a long time and are breaking even or are doing a little better are not throwing off enough cash to actually pay back their initial investment, let alone show a profit. And with plays that's particularly difficult. Even though the capitalization is smaller, 2 or 3 million dollars, the gross-potential is smaller (because the houses are smaller) and the audience for serious theatre is just smaller than the audience for musical theatre.
(transcribed from the 7/1/06 broadcast)
Fine, Bernstein is the Broadway spokesman, and Torre is right to ask him the question. But leaving her aside, I know I hear this question all the time from people who are not probing journalists, but highbrow theatre lovers who bemoan the lack of substance on stage, yet are not at all cognizant of what's happening in theatre beyond Broadway.

So here's a thought for all those who mourn the death of the "straight" play on the Great White Way. It's not 1947 anymore. The days of "Streetcar" and "Salesman" playing back-to-back seasons are over. Broadway may have once attracted thousands of serious theatre lovers a night (at affordable prices) but both the market and the mechanism for that form of entertainment on that scale have atrophied....Therefore: if you really love "straight" plays why not see them where they are playing. Subscribe to Playwrights Horizons, Atlantic, Second Stage, and, yes, even New York Theatre Workshop. The cost of a subscription will probably cost you less than two center-orchestra seats in a Nederlander or Shubert theatre. Or, next time you read a rave review of a new play that happens to be playing in an East Village walk-up for one week only, go to it. Or, take Terry Teachout's admonition to heart and visit the real National Theatre outside of NYC and see what our best theatre artists are really up to.

Don't hold your breath for Broadway moneymen to keep their eye off their profit margin. Go support those who are doing the next "Streetcars" and "Salesmen"....You know, if all the nonprofits were selling out their subscription seasons, if all the downtown blackboxes were overflowing every night with drama-hungry ticket buyers, Broadway would take notice, I bet.

Those who are still banking on B'way to come around need only look at what those who support the cause, like Bernstein, are proposing for the drama's survival there:
One of things I'm interested in figuring out is you can push at both ends of the equation; there's the cost-reduction end, but you can only reduce costs so far without compromising the quality (and people have to paid fairly, etc). But then there's the revenue side, and it's not just about ticket prices. It's really about finding other ways to generate revenue for your show, for your idea, for your "creative content" as they would say in California....That's going to be the way to make plays viable.
I'm sure there are already "History Boys" T-Shirts. Fine. What else? Dead "Lieutenant of Inishmore" cats? Take one of last seasons most praised new plays, Red Light Winter; they ended up folding Off-Broadway, but if only they thought more out of the box--like live hooker auctions!

Hey I have nothing against a good play turning a profit. But this is what we're banking on? Our theatrical "creative content" needs more than a bake sale for sustenance. It needs a dedicated audience, an attentive press, and a society willing to invest in it, at all levels, in all kinds of ways.


Anonymous said...

Not entirely on topic, but: I've always wondered why THEATRE TALK (the PBS show) seems to concentrate almost exclusively on Broadway.

I can understand why NY1 (a Time Warner station) would want their theatre coverage to be a bit more populist and showbiz oriented. But why does a public TV theatre show feel the need to restrict its coverage to glitzy musicals and British imports?

Playgoer said...

Not just a minute there Cashmere--I recall Theatre Talk doing fine segments recently on Stuff Happens and Grey Gardens. And neither of those was a British import or glitzy musical...oh.

To be fair, I think both shows do stretch beyond Broadway a bit. True, their Off-Broadway coverage tends to be "near-Broadway" stuff like the Richard Greenberg-Lincoln Ctr "House in Town" or Shakespeare in the Park. But I have seen the Public and other nonprofits reviewed and/or featured.

I agree that it should be especially incumbent upon a PBS program. But Michael Riedel is just a Broadway Baby, face it.

Anonymous said...

I guess my feeling is: If there's only going to be a single half-hour public television show on the theatre, it would be not just nice but appropriate that the coverage start with the question "What's interesting?" rather than, "What are the big money producers (including Lincoln Center, etc.) throwing at us this week?"

In fairness, I guess I agree that Theater Talk's approach is probably a function of Michael Riedel's interests more than anything else, even if the the tacit assumption that Broadway is where the action is drives me crazy.

But that's all the more reason for alternative.

Maybe The Playgoer needs to invest in a video camera?

Anonymous said...

I watch NY1's "On Stage" faithfully, just because I'm so hungry for any theater coverage,and I must say that Roma Torre is an embarrassment, week-in, week-out. Her "reviews" are cliche'-ridden, seem no deeper than those penned by someone writing for a high-school paper, and offer no insight or context, just the usual "this is worth your money" consumer reporting. David Cote, also on the show,is light years ahead of poor Roma.
As for "Theater Talk," I know it does tend to focus on Broadway, but the guests are usually really good ones, and the conversation usually gets pretty lively.
Neither show is perfect, but they're all we have here in the supposed capital of American Theater.