An Off-Broadway trend that could be creeping on to Broadway.

The nominations for The Lucille Lortel Awards (for excellence in Off-Broadway theater) were announced a couple of weeks ago, trumpeting the beginning of our trophy season.  I was reading through them again (and you can do that here), and something caught my eye.

There seemed to be a lack of nominees from commercial productions.

So I started counting.  And then I had Katie, one of my awesome DTE interns, double check me.

But the thing is, I didn’t even need the smartie-Katie to count the number of nominees from commercial productions.  I could have gotten a four year old who counted on his hands to do it.  In fact, I could have gotten a four year old who counted on his hands and was missing two fingers to do it.

Because there were only eight.

Out of 67 nominees, only 8 were from commercial productions.

For those who like to divide, that’s 11.94%.

Not a good indication of the number or the status of commercial off-Broadway productions out there, is it?

When I first arrived to NYC, commercial Off-Broadway was cranking, with Forbidden Broadway, Forever Plaid, Nunsense, And The World Goes ‘Round, and a whole host of others doing good business and running for years.   But that’s changed over the last couple of decades.  More non-profits have come up, and more commercial productions have gone away.  My production of Altar Boyz ran a “thank-you-God” 5 years, and when it closed, I remember thinking . . . I don’t know if we’ll see one of these shows again.  And I didn’t say that because I thought the show was so good (although I did think the show was that good), I said it because I had watched the market change so dramatically over that half a decade.

And the above nomination stats make me a little nervous.

Because you see, when a flood hits a city, it’s the villagers lowest to the ground, the poorest folks, that get hit first . . . and in this depressing analogy, that would be Off-Broadway.  But after a while, the waters rise and eventually get to the houses on the hill, which would be Broadway.

My greatest fear is that the economic and other challenges that have almost crushed commercial Off-Broadway will creep up to Broadway over the next twenty years.

I’m going to run some nomination numbers tomorrow for Broadway to see if we notice a similar trend.

So stay tuned.  More stats tomorrow.  Hopefully less depressing.


(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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  • Morgan M says:

    Why is it a bad thing that off Broadway is mostly non-profits now? As long as the quality of theatre is high it is a good thing. The problem with long running shows is they lack immediacy. Because Broadway is so commercial, and to make money from a show the goal is it to be long running, isn’t it a positive thing that off Broadway balances that out? Just because the market for commercial theatre in smaller venues has gone down doesn’t threaten Broadway. If anything I think it strengthens it. Yes, many non-profits seem to be acquiring Broadway houses (which I do NOT think is a positive thing especially for those of us who work in theatre and don’t want to work under LORT contracts) but I don’t think this is going to become an epidemic. Most off Broadway companies see the value in the distinction between the two. I think the two are forming an interesting ying and yang that compliment each other and help each other out while still maintaining quality and diversity in the NYC theatre.

  • Steven U says:

    In my opinion, commercial Off-Broadway is dead. Those of us who produce in not-for-profit Off-Broadway theaters do so with shows we have developed and hope for a commercial (Broadway) move or having our shows go into a licensing catalogue to reap the benefits of our subsidiary rights and repay our “enhancement” money (we pay for all production costs and the theatre puts up its space, staff and infrastructure). Unfortunately, commercial Off-Broadway today is where Broadway branded shows go after they close.

  • Queerbec says:

    While there seem to be fewer commercial off-Broadway productions (except for the elephant graveyard known as New World Stages), there do seem to be many more off-Broadway productions mounted than ever before, in large part due to the increased activity of the non-profits. We’ve just seen Signature Theatre triple the number of productions they can mount at any one time. So for the average theatergoer, the product is there. Does that mean that the market is there too? If so, that would mean that theaters like the Little Shubert, Westside and Minetta Lane would not be dark so much of the time. Or is the demand that results in so much product made artificial by the ability of the non-profits to limit runs and use non-profit models that thanks to tax regulations are able to avoid free market economics? Certainly Broadway economic models can accommodate limited runs that have the potential to benefit investors, but what is it about off-Broadway that prevents a commercial producer from mounting a production of today’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play? Are the long term results (economic, prestige, notoriety) so great that only a Broadway engagement will suffice for producers, authors, creatives, even certain performers?

    • Jennifer says:

      Interesting comment from Morgan about immediacy in theater, sure, sit-downs probably work better in markets like Chicago, Boston, Florida. And Steven is right-on, the collaborative approach between commercial interests and non-profit infrastructure (especially the artists & creative contracts)really make fiscal sense, a win-win for development of any new show if you can get in. Like Ken, I remember a really fortuitous time Off-Broadway commercially in the late 80’s early 90’s – Forever Plaid and Nunsense, good plays, True West, Steel Magnolias, Three Women. You could do a revue or play for $350K to $500. It’s 1.2 MM ++ today for the same, and the auds are looking for 2-1 promo, and avg tix just don’t cut it. Stars are out! That said, the Off-Broadway non-profits are doing a great job, and look at the money in the new real estate at Playwrights and 2nd Stage, and refurb of Public. This is good money spent well. Hard work maintaining season programming and vital marketing, it’s impressive. When I think of the plays and stars that came out of the Promenade from Ben Sprecher in the early 80’s, whoa! All gone. Ken saw about the last of good opportunity with his contribution to commercial theater Off-Broadway in the late 90’s early 2000. The last overblown productions off-Broadway at peak of transition? The writing was on the wall: Joy of Sex and Evil Dead the Musical. Over-produced, inflated budgets for shows too kitch for Broadway market. Last, I’m super-impressed by the production of Silence! Saw it twice. Hilarious, packed auds, and great marketing campaign. Excellent script, cast, song-writing…like the old days Off-Broadway.

  • Travis B says:

    This challenges an assumption that I have had that the non-profit theater model is on the decline. I have thought that with the shrinking government budgets and the decline of corporate sponsorships and donations, that theater was going to have to explore a new way to survive financially.
    Ken, do you think the future of theater is in the for-profit or non-profit arena?

  • Sarah P says:

    As a former coworker of smartie-Katie, I have to say how much I miss having her around to double-check my work! Of course, she’s game for so much more than that… I think she accomplished more in 3 months there than I did in three years. Brava!

  • peter says:

    Since when does “commercial” = “quality”? Just because the show makes money, doesn’t mean it’s good. And maybe if it’s good, it may not be commercial. I don’t see the problem…or the rationale.

  • Thanks Ken, fascinating to read your column regarding the current commercial based Off-Broadway industry. Hopefully we can find new outlets for commercial success on Broadway and Off-Broadway in the midst of current nominations. Thanks for the update.


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