The trouble with the transfer from Off Broadway to On.

One of the well worn paths to the Great White Way is the Off Broadway to On Broadway route.  A show starts out at an Off Broadway theater, gets some great reviews and some even better word of mouth, and uptown it storms, the buzz of its success still working its way around cocktail parties (and the impressions of its advertising campaigns still on everyone’s minds).  Early previews are bolstered by the Off Broadway kick off, and the show takes off much faster than it would have without the preceding Off Broadway production.

Rent, Spelling Beeand Spring Awakening are all shows that were able to move on uptown just a few short months after their Off Broadway production (Spelling Bee opened less than a month after!).

So, for those of you who are looking to spring-board your show to Broadway, this is a smart and strategic approach, right?


Sort of.

I often advise my General Management and Consulting Clients that one of the ways to get their show to Broadway is to go the Off Broadway route first, especially if you are a starless vehicle, or you lack the political capital to get yourself a Broadway theater or a $10mm capitalization.  Going Off Broadway is 10% of the cost, and everyone takes notice when a show garners raves – including the theater owners and Broadway investors.  (And if things don’t work out, and you don’t get the reviews or the word of mouth you want, well, then, you just saved nine million bucks and you can go on to your next show.)

So why the sort of?

The times have changed in the last decade.  Getting a Broadway theater ain’t so easy anymore . . . even if your show gets raves, or has money thrown after it.  That means if you produce an Off Broadway show commercially, or if you enhance a non-profit, you can’t just expect to bounce straight to Broadway.  You might need to wait a year, or more.  And while waiting may not be the worst thing in the world (In The Heights and Next To Normal treaded water successfully), it’s certainly not the preferred path.

Does that mean you skip the Off Broadway idea altogether?  By no means.

It just means that as a Producer, you may have more time between your Off Broadway run and your eventual Broadway run, which means you have to work harder at keeping your marketing ball in the air (without spending much money).  You need a strong social media presence, you need to “sample,” maybe even go out of town (Next to Normalanyone?) and do anything you can to keep your show in the theatrical conversation.

Things are tougher when theaters are getting so scarce.  But that just means we have to get more creative.

And isn’t that more fun anyway?


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  • Tom says:

    I believe Avenue Q also started Off Broadway, Broadway then returned to Off Broadway.

  • Larry says:

    Too many Broadway shows have been running for way too long: Mamma Mia!, Chicago, Lion King and Phantom are the worst culprits, but Wicked, Jersey Boys and Rock of Ages, are all way past their primes. Yes, they are there largely for tourists, and yes these shows were great in their day. And yes, they are raking in the dough. But they are also taking up prime theater real-estate. I say, close the lot of them. If the demand is still there, revive them in a decade or two. In the mean-while, make room for a new generation of shows.

    • Joanne says:

      In total agreement. Time to move on.

    • Rich says:

      Not saying I disagree conceptually, but why would Producers intentionally close shows that continue to recoup or are close to recouping? Remember, b-Way is a financial proposition and investors would rightfully have the hides of Producers who fail to maximize their ROI.

  • George Rady says:

    The only consideration that I would add is that “Spelling Bee” is kid friendly… hence a MUCH safer bet to move forward to a theatre that can hold a “family” (4 to 8 tickets) vs a work that will satisfy… couples “2” duckets!

    And I’m not sure that playing the Big House(s) is really THAT meaningful anymore – in matters of “dollars and cents” IF you save a s*load of $$$ in productions costs and rent… and the crowd will still come to see the work more suitable for that “crowd” (thinking “Linky Boots” why move anywhere???) Also, “Venus and Fur” got swallowed up by the BIG STAGE and it was only – marginally – Broadway…

    I think one would be foolish to NOT notice the mass of audience that are filling the big houses today… YES! Tourist! And, moreover, Touriist Families!

    As a dollars and cents guy – I can’t see ANY reason NOT to keep running “Lion King” “Phantom” “Les Miz” and whatever keeps packing the houses???

    (It kindas reminds me of the “New Coke” geniuses back in the mid 1980s – we have an iconic soft drinke that people prefer over Pepsie… let’s try to make it taste more like “pepsie” because??? We are bored???)

    Bottomline – this is ALL “entertainment” (more like a “soft drink” than bread and milk) and I would just factor in that IF your show is NOT kid friendly (and don’t try to foll yourself into thinking that it “should” not be an issue…) then leave it where it stands to make the most money by sustaining the longest run.


  • Thanks Ken for always getting us to think, especially with the idea of “sampling”. As Off-to-On becomes less of an option, would love to hear more from you on some good strategies to opening up a show out of town that’s already playing in NYC.


    Thomas and Judy

  • Michael Edan says:

    I’m going to spout off here a bit. I’m surprised by some of these comments. I don’t know any Off Broadway or Broadway Producers, but common sense tells me their primary concern is going to be what show will make money, or how can we possibly make money with this show? Like bring in a movie actor/actress which may or unfortunately may NOT have the training and SKILL necessary to be on a Broadway stage. But hey, they’re famous/well known . . . won an Oscar, etc etc, so they will probably sell tickets. John C. Riley is a case in point for the revival of STREETCAR. When I heard he was doing Stanley I thought, really? What are they thinking? He’s PERFECT for Mitch, but NOT for Stanley. Another example of the fleeting nature of common sense and the poor discernment of certain ego’s. And yes I know it’s all personal opinion, so why not. Sometimes it really is beyond my understanding. Producers making money is obviously not a bad thing, because if they make money it means the show is running, actors and theatre technicians are making money, and people are being entertained, and hopefully moved. But I do get tired of yet ANOTHER revival of DEATH OF A SALESMAN or LE MIZ. There are lots of wonderful plays, classics and contemporary plays [meaning past 25 years], that deserve to be revived, but apparently in the past revivals of DEATH OF A SALESMAN, GLASS MENAGERIE, and LE MIZ have made money, or enough money, so let’s do it again. The old ‘what’s worked before can work again’ in terms of [product sales]. The phrase in the movie FIELD OF DREAMS “Build it and they will come” does not often ring true or relevant to my ears when it comes to Broadway Producers taking the road less traveled to promote as best they can a piece of theatre they believe in with possible unknowns, and hopefully make some money, because the piece itself and not the profit margin is their primary motivation. [I’m an idealist what can I say]. And I’m not say this does not happen, but I certainly don’t believe it’s the norm.

    Now on another note, I personally think PHANTOM is classic first rate Broadway and I hope it runs for another ten years, which it probably will, and LION KING is one of the most awesome musical theatre experiences I’ve had, so I hope that runs for another 15 years. I do think there are shows that for reasons relevant to the optimum presentation of the show itself should not have been transferred to Broadway from Off Broadway, or should have been mounted Off Broadway instead of Broadway [THE ANARCHIST is one example], but when you’re a famous playwright who has two well known stars in the show, then a producer is probably NOT likely to say “you know I really think it would serve the show to be in a smaller, more intimate venue”. I wonder if THE ANARCHIST had been in a smaller venue with a 16 week limited engagement, if they might have sold more advance tickets. The intimacy of this two character show certainly lends itself to a more intimate venue. Another issue I don’t understand as I don’t produce professional theatre, is how the play RED could win a Tony [I forget if it was for best play or best actor] and shortly after that close. It made no sense to me whatsoever.

    Do I hope than one day I will have a play on Broadway? Absolutely. Would I probably want to go the route from Off Broadway first? Probably. Unless I win the lotto.

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