Will what has happened to Off-Broadway happen to Broadway?

As I sat in my seat at The Laura Pels, one of the 143 Roundabout theaters, watching the new Off-Broadway musical Tin Pan Alley (directed by my ABz director, Stafford Arima), I started to think once again about the current state of Off-Broadway and more specifically, commercial Off-Broadway.

My mind wandered to when I was at NYU in the early 90s, a period that I call “The Golden Age of Off-Broadway,” when commercial musicals like Nunsense, Forever Plaid, and Forbidden Broadway, were all playing and playing profitably.
There are fewer and fewer musicals opening commercially Off-Broadway now . . . never mind running . . . and never mind running profitably.
You know what there seems to be more of Off-Broadway these days?  Non-profits.  I don’t have the numbers on this, but I’d bet that there are more non profit off-broadway and off-off broadway theater companies today than there were 20 years ago, and fewer commercial productions.
20 years ago, there weren’t many non-profits with Broadway houses either.  Now the Roundabout has three.  MTC has one.  Second Stage bought the Helen Hayes.  And they might as well give the keys to The Belasco to Lincoln Center, because they are the only ones that seem to want that space.
Notice a similiar trend?
So, in another 20 years, will we see only non-profits producing on Broadway?
Isn’t that what happened to opera over the last two hundred years?
  • I used to have the exact stats at my finger tips, but I can tell you without question non-profits now account for over half of the shows produced off-Broadway (using the AEA contract for such productions). If you add in the non-profit theatres that most people think of as off-Broadway and qualify for the Lortel Awards as such, the number is more like two-thirds of the shows.
    I actually discussed this topic two days ago with another commercial producer. Without question it is a fast-growing trend – 6 theatres in the last decade (7 total when you add in the Vivian Beaumont), but I am still on the fence as to whether it is a healthy one for non-profits or the theater industry.
    However the opera comparison (although valid in many ways) fails slightly when you look at the commercial success of some of the big shows over the years and the investment structures created for theater. Shows like Cats, Phantom, Rent, Mamma Mia, and Wicked certainly make enough profit to keep the adventurous producer in the game, I don’t think opera ever had that significant element of commercial appeal – it was always a bit of a patronage game. Of course non-profit theatre is veering more and more to a contributed revenue model similar to opera as costs escalate.
    I think that without question off-Broadway as we remember it in the 90s may be a thing of the past and will increasingly become a non-profit game – if for no other reason than the cost of producing.

  • The show you saw, Tin Pan Alley, is a good national example of that. I saw the show back in the mid-1990s (I don’t have the exact date handy) when it was at the Pasadena Playhouse. Even in the regional theatre world (or should that be “especially in the…”), the non-profit is king: be that smaller theatres like the Blank out here in LA that starts a lot of LaChusa’s work, to the mid-size regionals like the Pasadena Playhouse that have spurred on works such as Sister Act, Mask, Vanities, Looped, and others, to the larger regionals such as Center Theatre Group and the LaJolla Playhouse (CTG, and the former Chandler tenant LACLO) has been the source of many shows over the years. The main reason may be the subscriber base that comes for the fixed number of different shows every year (I just renewed my Pasadena Playhouse subscription of six shows, for example: two orchestra tickets, six shows, about $815).
    The regional non-profits are the ones originating work; the regional for-profits (such as Broadway/LA at the Pantages) seem to bring in the tours and not take the chances.

  • Gosh I hope so Ken !
    Michael A Pizzi, Founder, Artistic Director
    Touching Humanity, Inc., a non-profit 501c3 working to promote disability awareness and social justice through the arts and education 🙂

  • Lincoln Center has used the Belasco only three times: Joe Turner right now, Awake and Sing! in 2006, and Ring Round the Moon in 1999. Since then, there have been 11 other shows that had nothing to do with LCT. I don’t think quite qualifies as LCT being “the only ones that want that space.”

  • Richard says:

    This is a great topic to talk about.
    It’s not news that Off Broadway has been a shadow of itself for several years. I think you can roughly trace the beginning of the decine to 9/11. But no one has really ever figured out what happened to that core of Off Broadway-goers. But you can easily point to a number of people who “came up” Off Broadway and just stopped, and not just because Broadway seemed more lucrative.
    Everyone knows that the only people who can count on making money on Broadway is NFP. Why shouldn’t that be true Off Broadway, as well? It’s going to end up resulting in the same effect as when a manufacturer gouges pricing on its own product in an effort to gain tremendous market share, and everyone else gets pushed out.
    It’s a crude example, but an anecdote comes to mind. Some years ago, I heard Marsha Norman being interviewed. I don’t remember the question exactly, but it had something to do about writing for Off Broadway, and her answer was something like, “I HAVE to write for Broadway. I don’t have a patron like MTC, like Terrence McNally.” I think that just about says it all.
    NFP’s don’t have the same issues. Commercial producers face stiffer union rules to start with. But more importantly, it’s all about making the nut and turning a profit. As Todd Haimes once said in an interview, once you know that even if you fill every seat and you’re still going to lose money, it’s liberating. Their issues are of subscriber and donor development. And image, of course.

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