The Playgoer: "Off Broadway is Not an Option"

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Thursday, April 01, 2010

"Off Broadway is Not an Option"

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.

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? 
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.

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.


Ken said...

A sad state of affairs.
As a young budding playwright at NYU twenty years ago, I used to walk around the village, passing the great old Off-Broadway commercial houses and would imagine one of my plays there, in a "record-breaking 3rd year!" as the posters used to boast: The Cherry Lane, The Minetta Lane, The Actors Playhouse, The Provincetown Playhouse, The Astor Place Theater, The Orpheum, The Sullivan Street Playhouse, etc. It's such a shame that this stratum of New York Theater appears closed to anything but "Stomp" or "Blue Man Group" non-narrative extravaganzas.

Playgoer said...

A moving comment, Ken. And I can't resist updating what's become of each of those theaters you mention.

Happily, Cherry & Minetta Lanes still do ok as rental houses with frequent tenants.

As for others:

The Actors Playhouse- Closed.

The Provincetown Playhouse--aside from the bare minimum facade, the entire building has been gutted by NYU and currently under construction. Will continue as student theater.

The Astor Place Theater--current NYC home of Blue Man Group, 19 years and counting.

The Orpheum--current NYC home of Stomp, 16 years and counting.

Sullivan Street Playhouse--closed and town down.

What do we learn? There are still long runs OB--for foreign-tourist-friendly shows with no dialogue that are international "event" sensations. If you don't book one of those, you might as well close.

Anonymous said...

A couple of things: Wake up, fellas. Stop dwelling on (or in) the past. Theatre is now. Spaces close, spaces open. Is Actors Playhouse closed? It closed, but was bought, renovated and now does a different kind of theatre--sort of a dinner theatre, try not to look down your noses at it. I think there's a show about Vegas there now.

Other thing: What does "governance of the Tonys" mean? Do you mean the way the awards are given? The exclusion of Off Broadway? Believe me, Off Broadway producers do not want to (cannot afford to) cough up 1500 or so free tickets for each Off Broadway show that might be eligible. If you mean the "primacy" of the Tonys in the marketplace, that's another matter--and it's a fact.

Playgoer said...

Fair point, Anon. We should always be on guard against nostalgia.

Still, I can't help pointing out that soon after your comment was posted I received the following press release:
"Originally set to begin performances on March 26 and run through June at The Actors’ Playhouse, the Alternative Theatre Company’s New York Premiere of Joe Marshall’s A Night In Vegas will now be presented at another theater, TBA. The production was pushed off for one week due to construction but recent events at the theatre has made presenting Joe Marshall’s award-winning comedy A Night In Vegas at The Actors’ Theatre impossible. The Alternative Theatre Company (Joe Marshall, Founder/Artistic Director; Adrian Maynard, Managing Director) will be announcing a new venue for the production very soon."