Top 10 Takeaways from the Broadway League Spring Road Conference

Last week was cray-cray.

In addition to all the awards season mishegoss (one of my favorite non-gentile words) and the 114 benefits (including my fave, Broadway Bets), last week was also the week of the annual Broadway League Spring Road Conference, when National Touring Presenters from all around the country and their staffs come to New York to see shows, discuss the state of Broadway and the Road, and do some serious networking (also known as go to lots of cocktail parties).

It’s also a chance for Broadway shows to woo these markets for upcoming national tour bookings, not to mention Tony votes (Road Presenters make up a chunk of the 800+ Tony Voters so getting a bunch of them on your side can mean a good thing for a show’s chances).

In addition to the great speakers both from within our industry and from outside our industry, one of the highlights is the “Creative Conversations” or panel discussions with members of the creative teams of some of the new shows on Broadway or the real movers and shakers in the biz.  And this year, the Broadway League turned it out!

The Crucible‘s panel was moderated by Aaron Sorkin.  Seth Meyers sat down with the Chairman of NBC, Robert Greenblatt.  And George C. Wolfe . . . well, he didn’t need anyone else but himself to kill that crowd with his keynote.

I was there, along with most of the biz . . . and as these speakers spit out scintillating truth nuggets, I scooped ’em up and now I’m putting ’em in this blog for you . . .

Here are my Top 10 Takeaways from this year’s Broadway League Spring Road Conference!

1. “I start writing from a place of outrage. Hope and love are found along the way.” – Danai Gurira, Eclipsed

2. “Diversity means ‘I see my story in yours.'”  – George C. Wolfe, Shuffle Along

3. “I aspire to be the role model that I was looking for at 7 years old.” – Ali Stroker, Spring Awakening

4. “[Songwriting is] a radical exercise in empathy.” – Sara Bareilles, Waitress

5. “The key to getting more and more universal, is getting more and more specific.” – Bartlett Sher, Fiddler on the Roof

6. “I’ll take a hate-watcher over a non-watcher.” – Robert Greenblatt, Chairman of NBC

7.  “If anyone can tell you what the secret of musical theater is, they’re lying.” – Andrew Lloyd Webber, School of Rock, and you know, that show with the guy in the mask.

8. “It’s our job as theater-makers and theater-producers to say we all belong.” – Liesl Tommy, Eclipsed

9.  “You have to bring other people behind you.  You can’t just make your own path.”  – Jeanine Tesori, Fun Home

10.  “You don’t cut something because it’s not good.  You cut something because it’s not serving the greater good.” – Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton

Oh, and there’s one more.  A bonus . . . because it’s my favorite.

11.  “I know the rules.  And now I know how to break them.”  – Danai Gurira, Eclipsed

If you want to see and read more about what happens at the Spring Road Conference, search the hashtag #LeagueSRC or just click here.  Because what happens at the Broadway League Spring Road Conference . . . lives forever on social media.

And maybe I’ll see you there in person next year!  (Click here for information on joining the League and how you can attend.)


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Broadway Grosses w/e 5/19/2019: On The Road Again

The following are the Broadway grosses for the week ending May 19, 2019. The Broadway grosses are courtesy of The Broadway League.

Podcast Episode 69 Transcript – Meredith Blair

Ken: Hello, everyone. This is The Producer’s Perspective Podcast. So a little story before we get started – I was in Florida on a golf course recently and I asked the person I was playing with if they had ever seen a Broadway show, I had never met them before this day, and they said “Oh, sure I saw a Broadway show. I saw Wicked at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale just a few weeks ago.” So I came close to correcting him, about to say “Oh, it’s not Broadway because it was at the Broward Center and not New York,” and then of course I didn’t, because the truth is Broadway isn’t just in Times Square anymore, it’s all over America, and today’s guest is responsible for booking those Broadway shows at places like the Broward Center or the Wang Center or that big performing arts center near you. Welcome to the podcast the president of the Booking Group, Meredith Blair. Welcome, Meredith.

Meredith: Hello.

Ken: So the Booking Group is one of the big three, maybe four, most powerful booking groups in our industry. Currently they’re booking the national tours of The Book of Mormon, An American in Paris, Fun Home, Bridges of Madison County, Motown, The Bodyguard, Something Rotten and, yes, Hamilton, never heard of it, as well as a bunch more shows. Previously they’ve booked, oh, well let’s start with this question, Meredith – how many national tours, in your career, have you booked?

Meredith: Oh my God, I wish you’d asked me this before we started, I could have counted. I have no idea. The Booking Group has been here since 1996 so we’re 20 years old, so I figure 20 shows a year for 20 years.

Ken: Wow, 400 shows.

Meredith: Oh my God, now I’m going to faint. But yeah, probably, give or take

Ken: Okay, the next question is I want you to imagine you’re in a bar.

Meredith: No one who’s listening to this could ever imagine me in a bar. Okay, that’s a lie.

Ken: What’s the smallest city in the country that you’ve booked a show in?

Meredith: Are you talking about the Equity tours?

Ken: Any city; just give me one of the small ones, like Harlingen, Texas.

Meredith: Harlingen, Texas, there’s one. Personally or my office?

Ken: Your office.

Meredith: I’m guessing, there you go, that sounds like a good one.

Ken: Harlingen, Texas. I played there with the national tour of A Grand Night for Singing myself. So imagine you’re at a bar in Harlingen, Texas, obviously they don’t get a lot of theatre there, and some guy saddles up next to you and says “Hey, darlin’. What do you do for a living?” How would you answer that question to someone who doesn’t know the theatre?

Meredith: I would say I book the national tours of Broadway shows, and oftentimes when I say that to people who aren’t in the business they think that that means that I book tickets. People who come across our website sometimes think we book tickets. So there’s a little bit of “What does that mean, you book the national tour?” so I have to explain that we take shows that have opened in New York and we program them across the country. Oftentimes they’ll think that we literally take the show out of Broadway and put it on the road and we have to explain that no, we actually replicate other companies. So, yes, we kind of map out its course and we decide which cities we’re going to play in when and which theatres we’re going to play in for how long and we negotiate the deals with the local presenter for how much they’re going to pay for the show or what the deal might be and that’s what we do, we kind of chart the course for any number of shows and where they’re going to play across North America.

Ken: I never thought about that “booking” potential word problem there, but in England “book tickets”, that’s what they say right?

Meredith: Yeah.

Ken: Interesting. So how did you get started booking? What was your career path?

Meredith: Well I actually started – I was an actress many moons ago – but I started with a little company called the Pace Theatrical Group with Miles Wilkin, back when it was just getting started, and I started out as the receptionist for the Pace Theatrical Group and, as Brian Becker will tell you, I was a terrible receptionist so they had to find something else for me to do. At the time, we were in Houston and Sugar Babies was coming to town. At the time, the big shows were The King and I with Yul Brynner, Annie, A Chorus Line and Sugar Babies with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller. Anyway, they had just started a Broadway series in Houston, the Pace Theatrical Group, they were just starting out, and Sugar Babies was coming to town and somebody had to advance the show. I had a background in theatre, Mile’s threw the rider on my desk and said “Figure it out”. Well, since I wasn’t very good at being a receptionist, I somehow figured out how to advance the show and he said “You know what? You have no more business answering the phones, however you do possibly have a career in working with these tours as they’re coming to town and facilitating them,” which I did, so I worked with Mile’s for five years, moved to New York and helped him open a New York office for Pace Theatrical and then I left for eight years and went to work for Frank Sinatra and I booked Frank Sinatra and Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé and Liza Minnelli, I booked the Rat Pack tour, so I was gone for eight years and then Sinatra was getting ready to retired and I missed Broadway and I came back to New York. Long story short, the Booking Group is an amalgamation, is that the word I’m looking for? It’s a merger, that’s what it is. There was a company called The Touring Artists Group that was run by Michel Vega and there was The Booking Office which was run by Kevin McCollum and Jeffery Seller and I came back to New York just about the time that Rent was opening and Jeffrey called me – I had made a deal with Michel Vega and I was going to go in and work at the Touring Artists Group, at the same time Rent hit and Jeffrey Seller called me and said “We’ve got this big show opening, we don’t want to be booking agents anymore, can you come over and run our agency?” and I said “I can’t, I’m working with Michel.” So then I got this bright idea – how about if we all merged and how about if we brought Pace Theatrical, which I can’t remember what they were called by then, it may have been Live Nation.

Ken: Clear Channel?

Meredith: Clear Channel, yeah, one of the names that they were between now and then, and said “How about we all join forces?” and Miles, who is really good at that sort of thing, figured out a way for us to do exactly that and then, just like the Brady Bunch, we became the Booking Group and that’s sort of how we got there. That was twenty years ago.

Ken: Twenty years. So you’ve seen a lot of things in the past twenty years.

Meredith: I have.

Ken: How has the touring industry changed in the last couple decades? What’s the biggest change you’ve seen?

Meredith: I think it’s almost more amazing how much it hasn’t, to tell you the truth. It’s changed in that the road has gotten bigger – in twenty years more performing arts centers have opened, more markets that used to be tertiary markets have become primary markets or become multiple week markets, so the road has really expanded. A tour is longer than it used to be simply because there’s more markets to take it to, more viable markets to take it to. And I suppose, I guess, the other change is that it’s become more liberal in terms of what the road wants to see. When Rent first became the hit that it was there was huge trepidation – it was a big hit, it was on the cover of Time Magazine, it won the Pulitzer, but I’m not sure you can put that on a Broadway series subscription. Maybe you bring it into town as a special or something, as a phenomenon, but there was some apprehension about giving that show to subscribers, especially in the day when the big shows on the Broadway series were The Sound of Music and the R&H catalogue, which were hugely successful, The King and I or whatever, that’s what people were used to seeing so bringing in something edgy was a roll of the dice and I think what we all learned was that everybody underestimated the interest in the public out there, outside of New York, their knowledge about what was happening in New York and why wouldn’t they want to see something edgy or something new or something provocative? They wanted to see it just as much as the people in New York did and it was, needless to say, a huge hit. So that was a big turning point, I think, people either underestimating what the road, the rest of America, was willing to and wanted to see.

Ken: You mentioned that a lot of it hasn’t changed – what’s something that really has stayed the same over the past twenty years?

Meredith: Oh, the dynamic between the producer and the presented. Every year we do the Spring Road Conference and there’s always talk about some panel that’s just a variation on the panel that we’ve done every year which is “Why can’t they just see eye to eye?” and one side is always convinced that the other side is screwing them, and here we sit, as the agents, in the middle, trying to make sure that neither one of them is screwing the other and that it’s an equitable deal for all but there’s this inherent mistrust between the producers and the presenters that I wish didn’t exist because we’re all sort of one big happy family and one can’t exist without the other but there’s a mistrust that’s gone on for years. Maybe that’s just the nature of the beast.

Ken: Do you have any ideas on how we fix that? Is there any way to fix it? You do sit in an interesting position – technically you work for the producer, right?

Meredith: Absolutely, our fiduciary is to the producer, that’s who we work for.

Ken: However, you do sit in the middle as this mediator between the two.

Meredith: Yes.

Ken: If you had all of the producers on one side of the room and all of the presenters on the other side of the room, how would you get the farmer and the cow to be friends?

Meredith: I don’t know, I guess I’d get them to tap dance.

Ken: Or what’s the biggest challenge that they both face?

Meredith: I think that neither one of them has a true understanding – and there are some, by the way, who ride the fence and do both, there are some presenters who are also producers who actually do see it from both sides – but I think that those who don’t, which is the majority, who don’t play on both sides, don’t have a true understanding of what the other one’s numbers really are and how real they are, or aren’t, or where the hidden money is or whatever. That’s where the inherent mistrust comes – “I’m sure they’re charging us too much for the guarantee, they’re gouging us, it couldn’t possibly cost that much. I’m sure that the local expenses really aren’t that much. Why do they need that much for facility fees? It’s all going in their pockets, the royalty participants are getting screwed.” There’s just this feeling that somehow the other side is getting one over on them and that’s, you know, it hasn’t changed and it’s sort of the nature of the beast and that’s our job as the agent, is to kind of quell that feeling and to make sure that everybody feels like they’re coming away with a fair deal.

Ken: What makes a good tour? I mean part of your job, of course, is to sniff out what you think is going to work on the road, both for the presenters and also to advise the producers and say “Listen, there’s something here,” or “There may not be something here.” When you go and see a show, what’s on your checklist of “This will tour well. This won’t tour well”? Is there a formula for what makes a great tour?

Meredith: I don’t think there’s a formula for it but one thing I will say is – we’ve addressed this at Spring Road conferences before – the notion that “Oh, this will be a great tour for the road,” which drives me crazy because it’s so condescending. A show that may not get critical acclaim in New York or do well at the box office, “No worries, it’s a great show for the road,” like they’re all stupid on the road or something, or they have no taste or whatever. So that’s a little bit disturbing and I’ve almost never seen that argument hold – if it’s a flop in New York, generally speaking it’s a flop on the road. There have been a few exceptions. I should maybe retract the road flop, but it’s not as successful as the producers might have hoped in New York. Legally Blonde is the poster child for that – it didn’t get great reviews in New York, it didn’t run as long as it might have in New York, although look what happened in London, I think it won the Olivier, huge business, great reviews in London, but they had chance to reconfigure it too, but that had a 92 week tour which is exceptionally long for a non-blockbuster show. I mean we played literally every place in North America that a full week tour could play and it did great business, it was a hugely successful title. Which brings me to something else that you didn’t ask but many times, more often than not, when a tour goes out of something that was not critically well received in New York, the producers have a second bite at the apple, they have a chance to retool their show, and I can assure you that the tour that went out of Legally Blonde, I bet they wish they had brought that show to New York. The same thing was true of Shrek, the same thing was true of The Addams Family. A lot of these shows that were really big titles, they got a second chance to really revisit, figure out what didn’t go right in New York and fix it for the road. More often than not, the road productions were far superior to what was in New York. It’s not always about the production values.

Ken: And what about shows that don’t play Broadway? Is it possible to tour a show that doesn’t play Broadway? I know you have The Bodyguard out now.

Meredith: Going out, yeah.

Ken: Or going out now. What are the odds? I come to you and I’m like “I’ve got a title, I really think it will be great for the road,” he says condescendingly, “but I don’t think I want to bring it into New York.” Is it possible?

Meredith: I’ve had a lot of people ask me that recently. Generally speaking, I would say the answer is no. I mean these are Broadway series, by definition they’re booking Broadway shows. There are titles, let’s see, so there’s The Bodyguard, there’s Dirty Dancing and then there’s Flashdance, so titles like that, where there’s a familiarity, there’s no learning curve on what the show is, those tend to do pretty well if it’s a big enough title. Those titles have performed fairly well because, again, there’s no learning curve, you say Flashdance, you say Dirty Dancing, people know exactly what that is – they  haven’t seen it in a musical form but they know what that is. Those can often do better than the new show that came to New York, that even won a Tony award, but nobody knows what the title means – In the Heights, great show, beautifully received, beatifically produced, and a little guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote it and he seemed to know what he was doing, but it didn’t do as well as some of the other titles might have done because there was no name recognition. Memphis struggled a little bit in the same way and we’ll see what happens with Fun Home. These are titles that require education of the audience so presenters have to work a little harder on those.

Ken: I know I am super thankful that you got a tour of Bridges of Madison County out this year.

Meredith: Me too. I’ll go back to your question – how can I tell what’s going to make it on the road – sometimes I actually lose my aim, it isn’t an objective at all, it’s just about something that I’ve fallen in love with and I just feel like it needs to be seen or it didn’t get as full a life as it might have gotten here or maybe this time it will be true that it’s a great show for the road and it just wasn’t for New York. So Bridges is certainly one that fell into that category for me. It won Best Score and it was actually pretty well received in New York, it just, for whatever reason, didn’t find its home here, but it’s out there, it’s a beautiful production right now, it’s a little tour, it’s 29 weeks, and I’m thankful that Networks was able to figure out a way – because they had the same passion that I did – to make it work and it’s beautiful and it’s out there and I’m truly proud of it.

Ken: Well as a producer on the Broadway company I am so thankful because everybody I talk to about it says “Meredith got that thing out.”

Meredith: Sheer force of will!

Ken: So thank you. What about plays? Is there a market on the road for plays anymore?

Meredith: There hasn’t been for a while, which has been distressing to me. There was a while there that I tried to get a play out every year. The pinnacle, I think, of touring plays, at least in my tenure, taking War Horse out of the equation because that is a play, of course it is, but it’s sort of a phenomenon in and of itself, but prior to that 12 Angry Men was the most successful play that I had seen and it was out for two seasons and it did really good business, it was with Richard Thomas, and it was kind of the perfect storm – people were familiar with the title, they liked the star, it was a brilliant production and reasonable priced and everybody did well with it, so that was kind of the heyday of touring plays, and then, in subsequent years, other plays went out and people lost money on them or they, correctly or incorrectly, perceived that Broadway series audiences didn’t want to see them, that they only wanted to see musicals, which I’m not sure how true that was, maybe there wasn’t necessarily as much money to be made out of plays, but you’ve done a podcast with Jeff Chelesvig who makes a mission to do a play and I know that his subscribers come up to him and say to him “Thank God you still do this. Thank you for bringing that in. I never would have seen this if you hadn’t.” August: Osage County, which is another one that had a pretty good tour and was also a bit of a phenomenon for its time, that had a 35 or a 36 week tour, that did fairly well. Maybe without naming names, there have been plays since then that didn’t do as well, people did lose money on and I think people just lost their nerve to do it. Now, the good news is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is going out, it will open in October, which probably has, next to War Horse, the second longest tour booked for a play – it’s 52 weeks already and, from what I understand, the reactions to the season announcements, when they announced Curious Incident is coming, it’s got a huge response, which is great, really, really encouraging that the public is ready for that again.

Ken: Do you credit that knowledge of the book or is the audience just…

Meredith: More accepting of what’s happening in New York?

Ken: Yeah, is it because of the internet? Are we finding that they’re just more in touch with what’s happening here?

Meredith: Maybe so. It might have to do with social media. It’s the experience of seeing that show, you just can’t stop talking about it, so I think the word of mouth, the reviews it got, the Tony award, the book, certainly people are familiar with the book, it’s just an amazing, once in a lifetime theatrical experience and I think that word has gotten out.

Ken: So this is a very big country with lots of different cultures and different accents and all sorts of different types of people and you have to sit in the middle of the producers and presenters – I know, when I’ve produced tours, I always get the presenters coming to me and they’re like “Ken, we want to talk about this marketing because this isn’t going to work in our market, our people are different.” Do you find that marketing should change, has to change, when it reaches certain areas of the country?

Meredith: Yes, sometimes. I think that producers certainly need to be open to that. Oftentimes a producer will become very entrenched and very precious about their artwork or their marketing campaigns – and some shows, by the way, have to be that way. I wouldn’t mess with the formula of The Book of Mormon, why would you? It’s not broken, don’t fix it. It works, it’s always worked and it continues to work, but there are other campaigns where you have to listen to the local presenter, you really do. Sometimes they’re not necessarily always right but if there is some perception that their audience is not going to receive or get or appreciate what you’re putting out there, marketing wise, why not be flexible and work with them on it? They’re, most of the times, at risk so, yeah, I think that there can be some marketing campaigns that stick more in some markets than others.

Ken: You mentioned earlier that you have a non-union division. What is the place for non-union tours in the market? Has it grown, has it decreased? There’s been lots of this controversy, certainly on the union front, about it, but how necessary are non-union tours to the health of the road? How big of market is it? Many of us may not even know how large it is.

Meredith: It’s pretty big, I mean I have a staff of five people that work just in the non-Equity department alone, mostly because it’s much more time and labor intensive and takes much more time. Instead of doing one city a week or every two weeks you’re doing four to five cities a week – that’s a lot of bookings. It’s much more intricate and, frankly, much harder than what I do. I look at it as sort of the natural evolution of things – if you’re looking at the full life of a title, a show will go out and, take Cinderella for instance, which has had a hugely successful Equity tour, it’s played almost all of the Equity markets, done phenomenally well in all of them and that’s a two year tour, and then the natural evolution is, after that, it will go to non-Equity where it can play the tertiary markets and it’s physically lighter on its feet and able to load in more quickly than the current Equity tour so it’s able to play the little Harlingen, Texas and more markets than the other tour physically could have done. Whereas if we just stayed Equity with that tour, maybe we would have gotten another half a year or something but it wouldn’t have given us time, even though it was very successful, for a successful return. If we’d only been out there two years, if we come back two years later, it’s too soon for a repeat. However, you’ve got the non-Equity tour going out and suddenly you’ve got two or three more years of touring, five years later it is time to go back to Hartford or Milwaukee or wherever it had a successful date on the Equity tour, so it kind of gives you that chance to extend the life of it and to come back to places and not come back too soon but it also allows us to play the smaller markets that, physically and financially, can’t handle the bigger tours.

Ken: I never actually thought about it as a way to loop back. I’ve always thought, yeah, it’s this natural evolution you described perfectly, how shows trickle down successfully, but then to get a chance to go back as well, that can be very lucrative for all the parties, including those New York investors, which is what our Broadway producers are always concerned about. What’s the timeline for booking a show these days, in terms of a show opens on Broadway this spring, 2016, and is successful – we won’t call it a massive hit, it’s successful – when does that tour go out?

Meredith: If a tour opens in the fall of ’16?

Ken: Spring of ’16. Right now.

Meredith: Spring of ’16. Well, normally I would have said 2017-18 but we’re in a very odd cycle right now, it’s a big topic of conversation because it’s, what, the end of March? The 2017-18 season – and, by the way, the current season hasn’t finished opening yet – the 2017-18 touring season is almost put to bed, which is crazy early and I’m not sure that it’s necessarily going to set the standard for the way things go, going forward, it’s just an odd set of circumstances that led us here, which is that we’ve had two enormously successful seasons in New York – knock on wood for all of us – it’s a great thing, so there are lots of shows that are going into their second year, which would be the 2017-18 season, An American in Paris, Something Rotten, Fun Home, there’s all of these shows that still have to complete their two to three year run so they have to play out the rest of their bookings in 2017-18 so they should, in theory, get booked first. Then you have this new slate of shows that opened this fall – and mostly shows don’t open in the fall, they open in the spring – this is an unusual season as well, where so many shows open in the fall, maybe it’s a reaction to Hamilton, I don’t know, but that many shows opened in the fall, and that many shows opened to great reviews, so to have two seasons where so many shows were so successful and they’ve opened to such critical acclaim, it’s almost like the presenters didn’t have to wait and see what happened in the spring, which is a good thing and a bad thing, it puts the shows that are opening this spring, in particular, at a disadvantage because now they’re late to the ball through no fault of their own, it’s just the way things happened to be, so many of those slots are already taken by those shows that opened this season before or by the shows that have already opened in the fall that people already know they want, whether it wins a Tony award or not, that’s not what they’re waiting for this season, they’re not waiting to see if On Your Feet wins a Tony award – they’ve seen it, they know their audiences like it, “Give me a date!”, and who am I to say no?

Ken: They’ll get two, whether they like it or not. So we’ve all heard about how well Broadway is doing lately – grosses are way up, attendance is very good, sometimes it slips a little bit but it’s overall good. Is there a correlation between the business in New York and the business on the road? Is the business on the road at its best?

Meredith: I think it is. Yeah, business on the road is pretty spectacular right now. Shows haven’t gotten any cheaper, by the way. Neither have global expenses, going back to that, but I remember four or five years ago, it was, I would say, on the average show, not the blockbusters, maybe 20-25% of the time a show would go into overages. I’m looking at Cabaret which just opened, maybe seven weeks ago, I think, and six weeks out of seven we’ve gone into overages. It’s Cabaret! It’s a beautiful production of Cabaret, by the way, but I’m not sure that would have happened five years ago, so more often than not shows are hitting those overages and that, I think, has to do with dynamic pricing because grosses are going up. Somebody should really – I’m sure somebody already has – do the analysis of whether the attendance has or not, but the grosses are certainly higher. I think the attendance is up as well, I know the subscription bases are up substantially from where they were five years ago, so the road is very healthy right now.

Ken: We talked a bit about things that have changed and things that haven’t changed – generally speaking, have the deals changed? Are we still seeing the traditional guarantee model of a piece of overage or a four wall? What are you seeing? Are people going “Let’s try something different and unique,” or generally are you see the same?

Meredith: There’s really three structures – there’s the guarantee; the majority of shows go out on a guarantee. A guarantee with a quote-unquote “royalty” – it’s really a variable guarantee. Reimbursement for local musicians if you’re a musical and a split is determined by, frankly, how hot the show is, the back end split. Then there’s the terms deal, which is a shared risk deal. The Book of Mormon and Wicked and most of the blockbusters go out, generally speaking, on that sort of a deal. Then there’s the four wall which I think Disney tends to favor with things like The Lion King where the presenter has no risk but the producer takes the lion’s share of the profit. So those are the three standard deal scenarios but there are variations on those themes – the guarantees can be higher or lower, the backend split is higher or lower. Terms deals is probably where there’s the most variance because a terms deal can mean any number of things, it’s either just advertising off the top or it’s advertising and musicians off the top or it’s advertising and labor off the top and then the split can be a staggered split off the back end, so that’s probably where the biggest variance is in terms of the deals structure, and then a four wall is basically the show goes in and rents the building and cuts the presenter in in some way for letting them into their building and putting them on their subscription or helping them present their date.

Ken: Average guarantee for a big Broadway show these days?

Meredith: These days?

Ken: Yeah.

Meredith: That’s another big topic of discussion because it hasn’t gone up exponentially. If you look back, or if I look back – and I have – to ten years ago, the guarantees now are just creeping back up to where they were ten years ago, which is kind of remarkable because I guarantee the expenses have gone up a lot more than that. There was a time – again, going back about five or six years ago – where there wasn’t a lot of great profit coming out of New York, the economy was off and presenters were getting hurt pretty badly and they were becoming more and more risk adverse and there was just kind of a battle cry about how much they were willing to pay for shows and that season and maybe the season before and after $275,000 was the benchmark, like “We can’t pay any more for that, no matter what the title is,” and so producers just had to back into that number which necessitated, sometimes, shows having to go non-Equity because the presenters just couldn’t afford it and weren’t going to pay it, so you had to figure out a way to get the shows out for that number. The road’s gotten healthier since then and guarantees have gone up and now we’re, I think, more often than not, above the $300,000 mark, or probably a lot of them are in the $325,000 range right now, but again, interestingly enough, if you look back ten years ago, that’s about what they were back then too.

Ken: If you had a crystal ball and looked into it to see what the road will look like twenty years from now, would it look the same, different?

Meredith: It would just be bigger. I think it would just be bigger again – the same as the change that’s happened over the last twenty years.

Ken: So you see an expansion – more markets, more theatres.

Meredith: I do, yeah, more theatres I’m seeing now. The theatres that used to be backend split markets are going into becoming full week markets. Cleveland just went from being a two week subscription market to a three week subscription market – hugely successful. There are new theatres being built – there’s one going up in Greensboro that I think is coming online in 2018-19 so that will be another market that will be a four week market that wasn’t previously. So, yeah, I don’t see it shrinking, I see it expanding.

Ken: So obviously, as the mediator between producers and presenters, you do a lot of negotiating throughout your days. Do you have a style of negotiating? Any tips you could give for negotiating to the people listening?

Meredith: We all have secrets! I think, going back to what you were talking about, about fiduciaries. My fiduciary is, again, to the producer because they’re the ones that hired us and they’re the ones that pay us. However, it’s also our responsibility to be blunt with producers and, given the fact that we are oftentimes more familiar with the road and with the presenters than they may be, if a presenter has brought forward an argument that’s valid and needs to be heard, it’s our job to bring it back to the producers and, even though the argument may not necessarily be what the producer wants but ultimately it’s in the tour or the show’s best interest, it’s our job to facilitate that and kind of take the presenter’s point of view back to the producer. You can’t just blindly say whatever the producer says because then you’re not serving them very well. You have to facilitate that relationship, you have to make sure the relationship between them continues because the producers don’t have a tour if there’s no presenter and vice versa so it’s our job, even though there is that inherent mistrust that we talked about. It’s also a really small community, we all know each other, and while there is that little bit of mistrust about each other, I think most of us genuinely like each other. You go to these conferences and people are glad to see each other and they are, generally speaking, respectful and I think we’re all feeling pretty privileged to be part of this whole community. You tell people that don’t do what we do – you’re sitting on an airplane or you’re sitting in a neighbor’s backyard and you tell them what you do and they go “Wow, that must be fascinating!” and you have to go “You know what? I’m lucky to be doing this.” It’s not always that fascinating, sometimes it really is drudgery, but for the most part it is fascinating and we are lucky and, you know what? No two days are alike. I never know, coming into my office in the morning, what’s going to hit me and that’s the part I love the most. Kind of like living on the edge.

Ken: If a producer came to you before their show opened in New York and said “Meredith, I really want this thing to tour. Is there anything I can do right now, before my show has even finished rehearsing, before it’s up, something you can tell me to do to make sure it has a long life on the road?”

Meredith: Yeah, make sure you get the presenters involved and interested early on. Invite them into the process, invite them to the readings, get them to invest, give them a vested interest in wanting to see the show succeed as well.

Ken: As I was looking over the shows that you’re booking and have booked, you’ve worked with, obviously, some of the biggest powerhouse producers in the business – who also couldn’t be more different from one another. From Scott Rudin, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin and Jeffrey and all these folks. How do you work with these different styles and is there a type of producer you like to work with? Who’s your favorite? No, no, just kidding! But what type of characteristics do you look for when working with a producer?

Meredith: I don’t know that I have the luxury of looking for a characteristic – sometimes people are attached to a certain show, I have no say in that. Who do I enjoy working with? The people who have a real curiosity about the road and aren’t just interested in their show in New York and aren’t just interested in the road as another source of income. The people who are genuinely interested in that other life because, honestly, that’s where most of the money is, is on the road, so people who are interested in the health and the wellbeing of the road and have a genuine curiosity and want to get to know the presenters, rather than just having that be somebody out there in Des Moines who writes them a check, who wants to know who they are. I find that to be something that makes my job easier and more pleasurable.

Ken: Alright, last question. This is my Genie Question. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin knocks on your office door and says “Meredith, I want to thank you for delivering high quality Broadway entertainment to all of these audiences all over the country and grant you one wish.” What’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that gets you mad, that keeps you up at night, that can have you slamming the phone down? The one thing that drives you so nuts you’d ask this genie to change with the rub of his lamp.

Meredith: Wow, I’d have to give that one a whole lot more thought to be able to come up with it because I’m not sure. I’ll tell you what a pet peeve is, though. People not doing what they said they were going to do. People not honoring a commitment. People who aren’t true to their word. That I have very little tolerance for.

Ken: Does it happen a lot in the booking business?

Meredith: Honestly not as much as one would think. We are a pretty honorable lot. Sometimes there’s selective memory, which is why I document everything – I have every email everyone’s ever written me, I know exactly where to find it. A lot of it is just covering my own ass, quite frankly – I document every conversation, every call I make is immediately followed up with an email so there’s no “We never held that date” later on. Also you have to be respectful of the fact, especially as we’re this far out in the process, than when you put a date on hold for 2017-18 and the rest of the season hasn’t opened yet, you have to know that some of those holds are tentative because something could open in the next month that could change their mind about something that they’ve booked from the fall – suddenly they want that one more – and I know that, going in. I know that, even though I’ve got all of these routes laid out for 2017-18, they’re all going to change – and that’s my problem, that means I have to do my job multiple times, but that’s okay, it’s the nature of the beast. So when I say people not honoring their word I’m not saying that somebody that’s holding a date for the spring of 2018, for a show that hasn’t expend yet, that they absolutely have to do it. We’re talking about things that already exist.

Ken: Well I want to thank you so much for spending time with us and for delivering these shows all over the country – and the world, actually. It is true, Broadway is the longest street in America and a lot of money for investors in Broadway shows is on the road, so without you those guys and girls wouldn’t see a lot of money back, so thank you for that. Thank all of you for listening. We will see you next time!

UPDATE: Do Tony Nominators & Voters Forget The Fall? Part II

Yesterday we proved (again) that there is a statistical advantage to opening your show in the spring should you want a Tony nomination, and a win.  And, in fact, over the last six years, that advantage has grown.

So why do these spring shows get a leg up on the fall?  And what can we do about it?

Well, first, it’s important to acknowledge that there is no “fault” here . . . no collusion.  No one is deliberately choosing shows from one season or another.  It just happens . . . and the reason it happens is the same reason that advertising and marketing work. Let me explain:

The first and most obvious reason as to why these shows are remembered most come nomination and voting time is that they were just seen by those nominators and those voters.  The experience, the performances, the designs, etc. are fresher in their minds, compared to the shows from months and months ago which may have blown them away at the time, but have since faded.  The old show tune says, “Time heals everything,” right?  That’s because time makes you forget.  And in some shows’ cases, that’s unfortunate, because I don’t believe the nominators or voters want to forget.  They just do.  And hey, I’m one of those voters too.  It happens!  It’s why when I see a show, no matter what the season, I keep notes and give it and the elements (performances, designs, etc.) a grade (A-, B+, C) so I can have an “in-the-moment” quantitative score to compare it to the others when I have to cast my vote.

The second and more specific reason as to why the shows in the spring get more awards love is that nominators and voters, just like consumers, respond to advertising.  Shows that open in the spring are in the peak of their advertising campaigns, which means nominators and voters are more likely to be served with more impressions for a spring show than a fall show . . . and that’s if the fall show is still open!  If the fall show has closed, well, shoot, is it any wonder that a spring show is more top of mind when the nominator or voter sits down to make those important choices?  Hours before that individual checks the box, they may have seen an email blast, a billboard, an article in the paper, a TV ad, the theater marquee itself, etc., etc.  And whether we know it or not, advertising, publicity, etc. does affect us.  It just happens.  That’s why all businesses do it.  But fall shows that are no longer around just can’t do it.  They are closed.  And since winning an award can’t affect the box office of a closed show, it doesn’t make sense to actually advertise the way movie companies do to try and win that Oscar (movies have DVDs, Netflix, extended runs, etc. which we just don’t have . . . yet).  (One of the reasons the Best Musical Tony Award is one of the few categories that are more evenly distributed between fall and spring shows is because those musicals are more likely than the plays and revivals to be around . . .  and to be advertising heavily.)

So while yesterday’s stats are certainly alarming, they are not surprising.

What can we do about it?

Well, the first and most obvious thing would be to try and open your show in the spring, right?  Unfortunately, Broadway Producers can’t program like TV networks, since theater availability is on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis these days.  If a theater owner gives you a theater, you take it.  Or you get back at the end of the line, it seems.  So that’s not an option.

Yes, we could advertise like I discussed above, but for most shows, that just doesn’t make sense.

Yes, we can look to the League to help provide fall shows more opportunities to be in front of the voters at events like the Spring Road Conference, or in other promotions events (although this is also tricky, because closed shows mean that the Actors and creative teams are often in the wind).

There has also been rumblings of changing the Tony deadlines, or changing the date of the awards themselves, but if the awards were in the fall, do people start forgetting the spring?

But the most important thing we can do about it is be aware of it.  Nominators, voters, all of us need to be aware that our minds are naturally gravitating towards the spring (again, me included).  Knowing that may help us put a little more time into remembering the experiences of the fall.  To use a more serious subject to illustrate what I mean . . . it’s just like when Lynn Ahrens called me out on my podcast asking me how many women guests I had on.  When I did the math, I realized women were under represented.  Lynn told me to just think about it before I went out to my next potential guests.  And now, because I’m aware of it, I take extra time to make sure I’m including more women.  (By the way, if you haven’t heard that podcast, click here, because it’s a master class in musical theater and in gender studies.)

It’s a tricky subject, because again, no one is doing anything wrong here.  It just happens.

But understanding there’s an issue is the quickest way we can even the seasonal playing field in the hopes that the nominations and the winners truly represent the best that each Broadway season has to offer.

Or to put it in a hashtag context . . . #ThisSpringDontForgetTheFall.


(Got a comment? I love ‘em, so comment below! Email Subscribers, click here then scroll down to say what’s on your mind!)

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Podcast Episode 31 Transcript – Al Nocciolino

Ken: Hi, everybody, it’s Ken Davenport. We’re back on the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Today we are heading back out on the road. Several weeks ago, when we were talking to booking agent Steve Schnepp on this very podcast, I vowed to speak to one of the presenters of Broadway shows at a leading touring house. Well, today I am thrilled to have one of the leading presenters of touring Broadway in the country with us. Welcome to the president of NEC Entertainment, Al Nocciolino. Welcome, Al!

Al: Thank you, Ken. This is fun. Thank you for having me.

Ken: Al has been a presenter for over 35 years, putting up shows in theaters in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and many more in New York State and Pennsylvania. He’s been a producer of both shows on Broadway and on the road. He’s an extremely active member and beloved member of the Broadway League, he is the vice chair of the Road Committee at the League, he’s a founding member and chairman of the National Touring Council and is also a past president of the Independent Presenters Network, which he’ll tell you all about in a little bit. As you can tell from those credits, Al is a guy who eats, breathes and sleeps the road, and every time I hear him speak about it at a conference you can tell how much he loves it, which is why I’m so thrilled he’s here today. So, Al, tell me how you got started in the world of presenting Broadway shows.

Al: Completely by accident. First of all, I always had a . . . I’m going to use the word “passion,” which I’ll use several times, I think . . . I’ve always had a passion for entertainment and music and acting. As a young person, I thought I could do all of that, and found out very soon that I couldn’t do very much of it very well. But I did find my way, again, at a young age, to managing a band and putting on dances at the high school and then on to college, running a ticket agency and promoting concerts with a local concert promoter. But I didn’t think I would be pursuing a career and ended up with a major in finance and pursuing that initially, but that changed in a short time and I found my way to the venue business as the assistant manager of a brand new arena and theater and, a couple of years later, at the young age of 24, I realized that there wasn’t any touring Broadway in the theater, and I remember ushering in my home town at the local theater when touring Broadway would come, and I thought, “Well maybe I can figure this out and do it while I’m still getting paid for my job.” It kind of all started that way, and I went on to develop and to promote concerts, and a marketing agency where we specialized in handling some of the large family shows in New York State and Pennsylvania . . . Ice Capades and Globetrotters and Sesame Street and all of those things. You know, a way to find some business that was bringing in fees while we were learning to take risks. Eventually it evolved into more markets, and then producing and investing and raising money. I just covered 35 years in 35 seconds.

Ken: That’s it, that’s the end of the podcast. Thanks, everybody, we’ll see you next time! What was that first theater where you were working?

Al: It was a little place called the Capitol Theater in Binghamton, New York, which no longer exists, unfortunately, because they tore it down and put a brand new bank there, which happened in many of the older north eastern communities. For instance, Buffalo had over 20 theaters at one time, and places like Binghamton had seven or eight theaters, and Syracuse and Rochester and all of those north eastern cities that were the big cities of America at the turn of the century had many vaudeville houses and theater houses and music houses and they obviously . . . as time moved on, there wasn’t a need for all of them, and so there was this consolidation and we saw many theaters disappear in the north east, and this was one of them. Subsequently they renovated another one and that’s where I presented my very first show, which was Charley’s Aunt with Vincent Price and Roddy McDowall and Coral Browne. And it sold out and I thought, “Well, this is easy!”

Ken: Your first show, Charley’s Aunt. What was the second one?

Al: Man of La Mancha.

Ken: Did that do well as well?

Al: It did, with David Atkinson. I was 24, 25 years old and I thought, “Okay, maybe I’ll try to put a season together of four shows,” and the next season I did, with Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, Equus, A Little Night Music . . . and I’ve forgotten the fourth one already. Absurd Person Singular. So that was the first season, and then the reality hit home. I started trying to sell season tickets, and not all of those shows sold, and I learned very quickly that there’s substantial risk in our business.

Ken: Some of my listeners may not even know what a presenter actually does. We throw the word “producer” around a lot, of course, but can you explain what that means, to be a presenter? What that meant for you then and now.

Al: I just used the word “risk” a couple of times. We tend, in the theater business, to find nicer words to represent what we do. In Europe they call us “impresarios,” here we say “presenters.” In the music business it’s a “promoter” and I think that word better describes what it is we do. It’s the same thing, we’re the ones who decide to present/produce/promote a show, and we pay for it. We buy it from an agent who’s representing a producer and we bring it to our community, and then we do everything that’s necessary to put that show on . . . let’s set aside a subscription for the moment, but the individual show . . . from renting the theater to staffing the theater to marketing it and getting all of the writer requirements, and hopefully get enough bodies in those seats when the lights go out and the curtain goes up to cover those expenses or maybe make a profit because, the next day, we . . . those of us that do what we do . . . our asset has no value tomorrow. We live in a business that’s no different than selling TV commercials or radio commercials or airline seats or hotel rooms. We can’t add another thousand seats to the theater to make up for yesterday. So we’re the ones taking on all of that local risk and hoping that we can generate enough excitement and demand to sell tickets.

Ken: This is why I love doing these podcast, because I’ve never thought about it in that way. I think of New York producers having such an amazing amount of risk, but at least we have a bit of the ongoing property going forward. Not only are we selling tickets and hopefully have a long, open-ended run, but even when we close we have a little piece of that show when it’s done elsewhere. You don’t, you get it for a week, you get it for three nights, that’s it.

Al: That’s it and that’s the risk that we all take and what evolved in our business and maybe this would have been a question of yours, which provided for a lot of stability on the road, and it came over many, many years and we can go backwards to talk about it, is the subscription model. And so many of us, all of us now, have substantial subscriptions and make commitments to building those subscriptions and spending a lot of time and money on retention and new efforts to hang on to those subscribers. Learning about what their needs are, what their wants are, developing new audiences and expanding the audiences so that we can keep our subscriptions and grow our subscriptions and reduce our risk.

Ken: So let’s talk a little bit about the 35 years of presenting that you’ve done. How has it changed? What’s the biggest changes you’ve seen in those three decades?

Al: I think the obvious one is the economics, but that change is there for everybody . . . the cost of shows, the cost of producing shows, the cost of presenting shows. I think, for me, two of the biggest changes . . . and I’ll start with what we call the “product,” which I don’t like. I hate that word. But our shows . . . the quality of the touring theater industry is so much better than it ever used to be, and it started about 15-20 years when the big blockbusters started to hit the road and there was this commitment to deliver the shows, as much as possible, to mirror those shows that were here on Broadway. Cats did it, Phantom did it, Les Mis did it, most recently Lion King, Wicked, Jersey Boys. You can go on and on and on. But also it was the same with Kinky Boots now or Drowsy Chaperone eight or nine years ago, because there was a time when the “bus and truck,” as we used to call it, was very different, and what you saw on stage wasn’t necessarily very good, at least physically . . . maybe not from an acting standpoint, but physically. So the quality of the productions has really improved, which I think has attributed to the stability of the subscriber and the new theatergoer. Then, I think the other significant part of the business that’s changed, that came along with the commitment to these quality shows, is what happened to the theaters and their communities. We call it the “Phantom back wall syndrome.” When Phantom hit the road, most of the old theaters in America couldn’t fit the show, so they all decided to do what they had to do, and that’s blow out the back wall. Well, with blowing out the back wall, a lot of things happened, at least from my perspective. Not only did you physically change the theater, other parts of the theater became important . . . the seats, amenities, bathrooms, carpeting . . . so there was a serious commitment to restoring and renovating these magnificent community assets that existed all over the country, and then, with that, came the embracement of it by the local people . . . local citizens, local community, local politicians, local leaders. Because it became a focal point, particularly in the heart of the old urban cores, and with that came everything the redevelopment of a lot of downtown areas came with that. So, for me, the combination of those two things is really what’s changed over the years.

Ken: I remember reading about Cameron saying, “I’m not sending Phantom of the Opera out on the road until I can deliver what it is in New York, the same experience.” Do you think it’s a result not only of producers like Cameron saying things like that but, I’m just thinking . . . people come to New York more often now than they used to, so the demands of your audience . . .

Al: I think that’s a really good point, particularly from where I live and work in the north east, many of our patrons come to New York to see shows so, yes, there’s an expectation. But I think that expectation, even with those people who are further away, the Midwest or the west, who don’t get to New York that often, when they see a quality show like Cats or Phantom or Les Mis or any other show, they expect similar quality with other shows, and they respond when they’re not. They can respond both ways. When they are, you get their support, and when they’re not, you can hear them loud and clear. So I think you’re right, and I think the combination of all of that helped . . . but clearly, look.  We’ve set a record this year on Broadway, and the biggest growth we’ve had is, of course, in our tourist business, not necessarily from the tristate area. The combination of domestic and international tourists. So, yes, I think that’s right on.

Ken: What’s also striking me now is that you’re not very different than the artistic director of a non-profit theater, in that you have to pick a season for your subscribers and you are going to get the wrath when they don’t like and, hopefully, the benefit when they do. So how do you go about choosing those?

Al: I think that’s probably the single best question that’s ignored by a lot of people who don’t really understand, even people who work in it every day. If you don’t know your market and you don’t know your subscribers and you don’t know how they buy and what they respond to, you can’t hang on to them, and so you have to find the right balance of shows. Clearly, our subscribers now, the ones who are committed, want the best of the new shows. They know what’s going on. They pay attention to Broadway. The want the best new shows. They also want family shows because our demos are higher than New York. Our demos are 55-plus, and many of them have grandchildren and older children, so they want shows that they can bring their children or grandchildren to. I think the biggest surprise, with the utmost respect, this past season was the success Cinderella had on the road. It was a huge, huge hit. Everyone said, “Oh, your subscribers aren’t going to like it.” Well, guess what? They bought additional tickets, brought family, brought grandchildren and that, for us, becomes a bit of audience development too, because once you get one of those young people into the theater, with their mother, with their grandmother, they’re coming back. They’re coming back. If they’ve got an experience at Lion King or they’ve got an experience at Cinderella or any of the other type of show that’s friendly and familiar and comfortable for them, they’re coming back. Maybe they’re not coming back next year, but they’re going to remember the first show they ever saw, because that’s what happens when you go to the theater. I heard someone say this at a conference this spring and I wish I could remember . . . Lin-Manuel, I think, said it . . . “You don’t remember the first movie you saw, but you remember the first Broadway show you saw.” So we try to find balance. I don’t like the word “revivals.” I like the word “classics.” We try to find shows that are the classics, that handful of shows that you can bring back so very often, the new shows and the family shows, and finding the right balance is key and we work very hard at that. And also knowing the landscape, knowing, “What’s coming up for next year versus this past season? What do I save for next year because I might have too much this year?” And balancing that over the course of a couple of seasons.

Ken: Have you ever run into a situation where you’ve seen a show on Broadway and been like, “God, I love this show so much. I just can’t book it.”

Al: No, not me. I’ve come close to that, saying, “I love this show so much, I know it’s not going to sell, but I have to bring it,” for many reasons. One, it might have won the Tony Award. Two, it might bring a whole new audience to the theater that don’t normally come. Or, three, most importantly, it’s important for people to see it because it’s a big, beautiful piece of theater, knowing full well it may not sell. So we call that “realistic expectations.”

Ken: I love it, it’s a very fancy MBA phrase. Let’s talk specifically for a second, because I’m very curious about this. So Fun Home obviously, the big Tony Award-winning musical this year, I expect it will tour. I’m very exciting about the possibility of that story getting all over the country. Is that a show that you will book?

Al: Well, in an effort to be completely forthcoming, I’m involved with the show. I have an investment in the show and I’m in love with the show, so that’s going to maybe taint my opinion a little bit, in order to be forthcoming. Yes, I think there are several reasons why. First of all, when a show wins a Tony Award, eventually everyone will find out about it. That idea that they don’t . . . they will. Will it appeal to everyone? Maybe not. Is it a show that I think is going to sell as many tickets as Cinderella? Of course not. It’s a small little theater. That’s not insulting the show, that’s completely realistic. Is it a show that I think my patrons will enjoy? I think they’ll cry like I did, love it, and leave there remembering this incredible piece of theater. So, yeah, if I can find a way to do it. The only concern that I have . . . and this is a small one. It’s very selfish and, Kristin and Mike, I apologize if you’re listening . . . in a 3,000 seat theater, I’m a little concerned as to how it’s going to play there. But I have complete confidence they’ll figure that out, because it is going from in the round back to proscenium, and we’ll have to figure that all out and, once we do, I think it will really, really work well so, yeah, I think they’re going to have a very successful tour.

Ken: Let’s speak hypothetically for a second. I just want to understand how important that Tony Award is. Let’s pretend you weren’t involved for a second, and let’s say American in Paris won the Tony Award. Do you think Fun Home would get out in the same way?

Al: I do. I think those are two questions. Would it get out? Yes. Would it get out in the same way? Maybe not, because, clearly, winning the Tony Award says Chicago, LA, Washington. It says you need and want that big show in your markets.  It won the Tony Award. It’s important to those really dedicated, committed theatergoers. They want to see that show, they want to see the show that won the Tony Award. So I think it looks differently when it tours when you win the Tony Award. And for those of us in the secondary markets, the large secondary markets, we have a commitment, I have a commitment. When something wins the Tony Award, I’m bringing it. I’m bringing it, in some way, shape or form, we’ll play it. And that’s the luxury of have a subscription base too, because when you go back to that realistic expectation, if it applies to a specific show . . . and I’m not suggesting it does to Fun Home . . . then you have the luxury of saying, “Okay, I may not sell all of the single tickets like I would sell with another show that has a broader audience, but I’ve got a subscription base and they’re going to enjoy it and I’m doing what responsible for and to them.”

Ken: I have a feeling they’ll thank you for it, for bringing it. Have you booked in the past or would you book shows that don’t play in a New York theater?

Al: I have the reputation, unfortunately, of being one of those guys who says, “Well it hasn’t played Broadway. How do you put it on a Broadway season?” Having said that, I have done a few over the years. Sometimes reluctantly, because I’ve waited and watched how they’ve sold and thought, “Okay, something’s going on here.” But as a matter of course, I typically will only book and program shows that have played on Broadway, particularly, I think, because of the part of the country I’m working and their familiarity with what’s going on on Broadway.

Ken: What do you think about the whole non-union tour controversy, in that regard?

Al: I think there are lots of parts of that conversation. Having grown up and worked in the smaller little markets of upstate New York where the large shows just won’t fit in the theaters . . . they won’t fit in the theaters because the stage is too small or the capacities are too small. The Binghamton, New Yorks or the Elmira, New Yorks, or the York, Pennsylvanias . . . there’s a community that wants to see theater. The only way they’ve been able to see theater, right or wrong, is when a show gets scaled down and goes to a non-Equity or non-union production, because the economics come down and shrink with it and it becomes fiscally possible. It’s impossible to do a full production show in those markets for several reasons. Again, because of physical limitations, the size of the venue. But more importantly, the size of the markets. So you can’t go in there for a full week. So I’ve always felt, and I’ve been a participant in many dialogues with Equity over the years, that there is a need and we’ve got to find a way to serve it. Like it or not, we all should work together to do that, and I think we’ve had healthy dialogue about it.

Ken: Having been a company manager for a non-union tour . . . that was one of the first jobs I ever got. I played Harlingen, Texas, one of these small theaters. They didn’t have the number of people to fill the theater more than one night a week, and we barely filled that.

Al: The first two shows that I mentioned that I ever presented were one-nighters.

Ken: You just can’t tour that in the same way. There’s a place for it, it’s just where is that place?

Al: And how it’s done. Exactly.

Ken: How far out do you book? This is something I talk to Steve a lot about. How quickly can a show get on the road? Is it speeding up or slowing down?

Al: It is speeding up, it’s really speeding up. I think it’s speeding up for a lot of reasons, though. First of all, we’ve created these . . . I use business terms, unfortunately, more than I should . . . but these franchises around the country, and that’s these locations, city performing arts centers, that have these wonderful subscription series. You know, the combination of the independent markets and what BAA has done very successfully with their markets. And there’s high demand. As soon as a show opens on Broadway and there’s some sense that there’s going to a life after Broadway, they find an agent and that agent’s on the phone, long before, sometimes, the nominations have even come out for the Tony Awards. I mean I’m almost completely done for 2016-17.

Ken: Wow, that far in advance?

Al: Yeah, and I’m starting to book some shows for 2017-18 right now, because some of them that are going out 2016-17, I just didn’t have room for. I just came from a meeting now, moving a couple of shows into the 2017-18 season because I don’t have any room in 2016-17. As an industry, we’ve talked about that because, with that also comes some fallout when you start so far in advance, because seasons get filled and then there’s not enough room for all of the shows. But I believe that that’s the process of supply and demand, and that stuff figures itself out and there’s a reason a show might not happen. But, yes, to your question, it has really speeded up and we’re all players in that equation right now.

Ken: You’ve also produced on the road, produced here . . . is there a difference from being a great Broadway producer as opposed to being a great road producer? Do you need different skills?

Al: Well that’s a great question. I think, certainly, being a great Broadway producer has an extraordinary set of skills and responsibilities going with it, but there are many great Broadway producers who do not know the road. And what they have learned, and I’ve been participant in this over the years, is that you need to find your way to people who do know the road. Good general managers, good agents, people who understand the landscape, know the marketplaces, know the players, know the deals, and try to do it and not go into any kind of a cavalier or blindfolded approach to it, because it is different. Because we’re taking on the weekly risk, whereas the producer is taking on the initial risk but once he decides to capitalize and build a show for the road, it immediately gets passed on to those buyers across the country so the question is always, “How much will I make? Will I recoup?” And the stability of the road has provided for at least almost most shows recouping and then, of course, you get a second year and you know what comes with that. Depending, once again, how big the show is. Let me say this . . . the creative process gets a little tricky sometimes, too, because converting from what’s on stage in New York, putting it into six tractor trailers, it can be very challenging. And getting your creative people to adapt to some of that, I think, has sometimes been challenging but I think there’s a better understanding of that now.

Ken: What do you think the current state of the road is right now? I often say to guests on the podcast, “If Broadway were a patient, what state would that patient be in?” Critical? Intensive care? Healthy? What do you consider the road right now?

Al: I think the road is very, very healthy and taking really good care of itself. I think that we did almost 14 million people in attendance on the road last year . . . that’s national Equity tours, not the non-Equity tours, just the first class tours . . . grossed about $1 billion. Healthy, very healthy. We had a meeting yesterday of what we fondly refer to as the entry industry and road presenters committee and did a little canvasing of how renewals are going and how subscriptions are going thus far in the season, and everybody’s renewal rates are up. Everybody’s growing at 3-4%. Yeah, we’re healthy, we’re very healthy right now.

Ken: What are the big hits out there right now?

Al: There are many of them, which is really nice. This past season there were several. I think you know them. Motown and Kinky Boots and Cinderella. A show like Pippin was, I think, an extraordinary surprise for our subscribers. I had never, ever presented a production of Pippin over the years. Just think about the last time that it was on Broadway. And if you go back to my little model, where I don’t do it unless it’s been on Broadway, of course it had been on Broadway many years ago. Our audience loved it. So there are a lot of big hits. Phantom, of course, is just killing again, booked very smartly, smaller runs than the last time, of course, it was touring. The big blockbusters continue to sell well. Wicked and Lion King have just been beautiful hits, and of course The Book of Mormon. I’ve got to be careful when I start naming titles because you forget somebody! But no, we have been able, I think, to measure very smartly the potential success and sales of our respective shows. Not all of them are going to sell out, but they are pretty much doing what we expect them to do, and the quality, again, is great. A lot of nice surprises this year.

Ken: Tell me a little bit about the Independent Presenters Network. I was the company manager on Thoroughly Modern Millie, which was when I first came across that phrase and that organization. Tell me a little bit about that.

Al: Well that was the first show, but the way, that we really were invested in. Several years ago, it became aware to us, for many different reasons, that, with the growth of the road and the road changing and the deals changing and the costs going up, that there was an organization called, at that time, something different than Broadway Across America, but they were very organized. And they were working as a unit and the independents were operating very independently, and once in a while talking to each other. So there was a need, a very simple need, to get people who worked on their own, either performing arts centers or independent presenters like myself, who didn’t have the ability to come to New York on a regular basis, to see and look at each other and talk about what they were doing and figure out a way to work as a group and find some way of helping each other. What became immediately clear was one of the things that we had to do, which Broadway Across America was already doing and which some of us were doing individually, was to commit to helping develop new shows and being part of that process and investing in shows and just being part of delivering new shows to the road, as well as sharing ideas and the classic networking and all of that other stuff that goes along when you learn from other people, which everybody admittedly did. And so we grew up, so to speak, by working as a whole, yet still being very, very independent, by helping each other and committing to this process of investing and co-producing and whatever else came along. And, of course, Millie was the first really big one we did.

Ken: And you’ve done a number of shows since then.

Al: We have, and multiple shows in the same season. Two seasons ago we were significantly invested in Kinky Boots and Matilda, and to a lesser extent Cinderella and Pippin. Sometimes it’s not the aggregate. It could be five or six or eight or nine or ten that decide to invest in a show, and so we were committed to three or four shows for this coming season. All producers would love to have the road presenters, all of us, as part of their producing process, because with that comes a commitment to see it grow and come out there after Broadway, and sometimes even though it might not be financially successful in New York. We’ve toured many shows that haven’t recoupled here on Broadway. Many of us have. And hopefully you make a little money on the road or a lot of money on the road that goes back towards the mother company which, eventually, can help out a little bit. So we learned early on that it was important and we continue to work together.

Ken: You’ve made some good picks. That season alone sounded like it was a really good season.

Al: We’ve made some good ones and we’ve been some bad ones.

Ken: Haven’t we all, Al? Haven’t we all. You’re very active in the League. Every time I go to a conference you’re always up there speaking.

Al: Not anymore, I let everybody else speak.

Ken: It always looks like you’re holding court . . . you should hold court up there. The Broadway producers and presenters in the same organization, even though . . . “If I have a tour I want you to pay me more money for that tour. You want to pay less.” There’s a natural “adversarial” relationship in that, and yet we’re all in the same organization because we all want theater to be successful. What’s the relationship like right now? What do you think? Is it more adversarial, less contentious? How are things?

Al: I think we’ve come miles. First of all, you have nailed with the question the reason why I believe that there’s been this wonderful synergy that’s evolved at the League, where everybody now has a better understanding of what everybody else is doing. Not just Broadway producers and Broadway presenters, general managers and agents and everybody else. Our goal, 20 years ago, when we started something called the National Touring Theatre Council, we were members of the League of American Theatres and Producers, but nobody really knew or cared about presenters. They were the guys who were going to give us the money when we went out on the road, they didn’t care what we did and, oh, by the way, the deals were different then. They weren’t participation deals. They were just looking to get guarantees and some other money. They didn’t care. So, as the business changed, there was a need for everybody to say, “Hey, these are my expenses and these are mine. Don’t think you can come into my town and it doesn’t cost me anything to put on a show, because there’s a building with 3,000 seats and we have to pay the electricity and the air conditioning and the 35 ushers.” So, in a very simple way, our goal was to make everybody better educated about what each other was doing, and now I think we’ve had tremendous success in doing that. The CTI program devotes not only time to producers but bringing in presenters and general managers in. They want these young people who decide to take the course to know all about the business. There are producers today who will tell you they know so much more about presenting than they ever did before. I’ll make this a really simple answer to your question. We just celebrated our 25th anniversary at the Spring Road Conference, and part of our growth has been the extraordinary numbers. We had over 700 people there this year, and it was like, “There are all of these people coming in from the road. We don’t know how to manage them all.” So we dissected it. Of that 700 this year, 300 were from New York City. Think about that. So, exponentially, our growth has been the New York community coming to the Road Conference, which is wonderful, it’s great. It means they want to know it, they want to understand it, because the more they understand it better they can manage what they’re doing and the better they can negotiate and understand and have fair deals for everybody and, when that happens, everybody wins. I tend to make my answers a little long, sorry.

Ken: No, they’re perfect, and you just encapsulated what I’ve felt myself over the past 10-20 years of my time in the business, which is that it felt like New York producers were a little snobbish about how we dealt with the road. “Oh, yeah, we’ll give you this show when we’re ready and you’ll pay what we want you to pay, and feel lucky that we’re giving this to you.” And now it does feel like we’re so much a part of the same team and that Broadway’s not just right here in New York City. Broadway stretches across the country.

Al: Yeah, I mean I give Paul Libin complete credit for this . . . Paul, who works for Jujamcyn and has been a stalwart in the business for many, many years. He says that Broadway is the longest street in America.

Ken: He’s 100% right about that. And one of the things that New York producers have to remember is that 65% of our audience comes from outside this city, which means they’re growing up on theater in local markets like yours.

Al: No question.

Ken: So how they’re getting exposed to it, what they’re learning, and them actually getting here is maybe a result of all the work that you’re doing in your markets.

Al: And because we all have so many subscribers, part of our commitment to them is to communicate with them. And today, with the social media ability, we can so easily tell them about what’s going on on Broadway, so easily tell them about what shows are coming out on the road or so easily tell them about the Tony broadcast. So we keep them very informed. They’re much more aware now, and they become better patrons, better educated patrons about the theater business.

Ken: Are deals changing at all? One of the arguments I hear constantly is, “Oh, we’re charging the same guarantees now that we charged 20 years ago. The guarantees haven’t gone up as our expenses have changed.”

Al: I stand up and get into many arguments with some of our producing friends about that, and for your listeners who might not understand this, I respond very quickly, “Yeah, it might not be the guarantees have gone up significantly, but now we have something called a ‘variable guarantee’ that used to try to hide under something called ‘royalty,’ and now you get 70% instead of 60%. So tell me what the company share looks like versus the old company share.” And when you start looking at company share, I think that’s where you see the growth has been and, to defend the producing side, that’s where they need to be because their costs have gone up as much as ours, if not more, but it’s come in different ways. Higher participation, the recognition that it’s not royalty, that it’s a variable guarantee . . . so if a show is getting a $300,000 guarantee and there’s a 10% variable guarantee, the guarantee just became $400,000 if you gross $1 million. So it might say $300,000 on the contract, but it’s really $400,000. And then they give the percentage afterwards. But we all know that. And as soon as I say that they sit back and they say, “Okay, let’s deal,” because it’s a reality. It’s numbers. They’re delivered differently, but they’re going up. And they need to and they should. I’m going to be careful about that, because I’m always trying to find the balance for all of us.

Ken: Okay, Al, last question, which is now being called the genie question by many of the listeners out there. I ask this of all of my guests. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin knocks on your office door . . . I imagine you will book Aladdin when it comes to your market.

Al: Absolutely, I’m waiting for it.

Ken: But when that genie knocks on your theater and says, “Al, thank you for booking us here and thank you for your incredible, dedicated service to the road over the past 35 years. I’m going to grant you a wish, one wish. What is the one thing that drives you so crazy about this business, the one thing that keeps you up at night, that gets you so angry? What is the one thing that you’d ask me to change or get rid of with the snap of my fingers?”

Al: That’s a great question. I guess I wished that the other half of our business, the creative side, would learn to let themselves learn as much about the business as the business side did, as the producers and presenters allowed each other to help each other learn. I wish we could get the creative side . . . and, to a certain extent, Equity, to their credit, has tried to do that. I wish we could get the creative side to understand some part of that as well, the risk that producers take, the cost that presenters take on. I mean I probably could come up with a better answer than that, but that’s one that’s, I think, completely frustrating for many of us. It drives me crazy because it’s passed on to all of us when it can’t be fixed or done better or correctly. But other than that, I’m particularly pleased, after all these years, Ken, to see how healthy the industry is at every level with the commitment to learning and understanding what we all do. I mean our presenters know more about producing now because they’ve invested, because they’ve become part of the process, and producers are better producers for the road because they’ve allowed themselves to learn about our economics, and so that’s all worked better for everybody.

Ken: Well one of the reasons that the road is in the current state that it is, which is healthy, is because of people like you. Ever since I attended my first conference and listened to you talk about the road and watched you talk to other people about it and get people inspired to learn more about it, you’re just one of the incredible leaders this industry has for the road.

Al: That’s very kind.

Ken: And thank you for it, because the road . . . as Paul Libin said, Broadway is the longest street in America. New York producers need it, our audiences need it, the theater needs it. So thank you so much for that. Thank you for being here. All of you true in next time. We’ve got some great guests coming up. Don’t forget to subscribe!