The Broadway Theater crunch just got crunchier.

It wasn’t a secret that Second Stage was planning to buy the Helen Hayes Theatre.  But since it has been six years since it was originally announced, a lot of folks in the industry wondered if it would ever happen.

And when Rock of Ages took up residence, it looked like the theater might stay on the commercial side of the force forever.

But last week the New York Times announced that the closing of the sale was getting fast tracked for February, and even though the price tag of the building and its renovations looks to be over 50% more than what Second Stage intended, it looks like the sale will go through.

I’m a big fan of Second Stage, and the boundary pushing, quirky new works that they do that others don’t.  And I’m thrilled that they are getting a place at the big kids table, because they’ve been producing big boy work for decades.  It’s truly awesome.

But, I can’t help but feel a little pang as one of the last two mom-and-pop owned Broadway theaters gets handed over to a non-profit.  I guess I just think the commercial side of Broadway operates a little bit better when there are a few more wild card theater owners in the mix.  After this sale, all of the other theaters are owned by big Broadway orgs, except for Circle in the Square.  Wouldn’t it be cool if a handful of the theaters were owned by independent owners (yes, I’m saying I’d find a way to buy one myself if one became available)?  I just like the idea of have some disrupters in the market.

Probably never going to happen.  So let me get off that mini soap box and go on to my next point, which is the obvious.  As if it wasn’t bad enough already, there is now one less Broadway house available for commercial theater producers.

Remember that post I wrote about how our mega-hit environment has changed the number of new shows that open each year?

There are currently 40 Broadway theaters.  5 of them are controlled by non-profits.

Nope, scratch that.  With the new Second Stage space, make that 6.

That’s 15% of our houses run by non-profits.

The good thing about non-profs having Broadway theaters, especially a theater dedicated to new and diverse work like Second Stage, is that they guarantee a season of shows . . . so Broadway can continue to be a fountain of great new plays and musicals.

The tough part is . . . well . . . it just got a bit harder for Broadway producers to get a show up and on.

And I’m going to make a prediction.  That 15% number will increase in the next ten years.  Non-profit Broadway Producing has become less of a risk than commercial Broadway producing (partly due to the friendly deals they can get with vendors, unions and the like), and there will be more non-profit theaters a comin’.

And in 50 years?  Well, it could be 50% non-profit.


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  • As a nonprofit professional theatre producer, I have been involved with arts alliances, cultural programs and initiatives across the country that have served as important drivers for the recovery of economic development in cities of varying population and budget size — including Theatre Row and the 42nd Street Development Corporation in NYC.

    As you are no doubt aware, the 42nd Street Development Corporation was created in 1976 to rescue the west end of Manhattan’s 42nd Street from 50 years of neglect and misuse. The Corporation built Theatre Row, including Playwright’s Horizons — a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose 43-year-old mission continues to support and develop contemporary American playwrights, composers and lyricists, and to produce their new work. Playwright’s Horizons has produced numerous award-winning productions throughout the course of its history.

    On a much broader scale, the Regional Theatre Movement, which took place from the 1940s through the late 1960s, laid the foundation for today’s network of nonprofit, professional regional theatres of comparable professional quality and artistic vision to that found in NYC. Many of these, members of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) have been awarded Tony Awards for their work!

    Your comment that, “Nonprofit Broadway Producing has become less of a risk than Broadway producing…” is applicable only when applied to the concept of financial return on investments! The primary difference being that nonprofit “investors” (donors) expect no personal financial return on their investment. Their ROI is their pride and satisfaction in ensuring that the nonprofits which they support have the long-term capacity to build productive artistic and business relationships, and to promote the development of ongoing partnerships and social enterprises to secure enduring dividends for both the participating nonprofit partners and the communities which they serve.

    Evidence continues to support our country’s ability to galvanize such local nonprofit performing arts and cultural organizations in ways that are truly transformative for citizens and their local communities!

  • Somewhere between the hyperbolic extremes of Manny Azenberg’s oft quoted “the commercial theatre is the only theatre” and Ralph Salter’s “today’s network of non-profit professional regional theatres of comparable professionL quality and artistic vision to that found in NYC” lies some middle ground that most of us can stand upon more comfortably. Ralph’s comment would seem more appropriate if Kenneth had in someway disparaged the non-profit sector which he clearly did not, except to suggest that they are distinct, specifically in the risk area. I find Ralph’s argument urn compelling in this regard. A lousy review is a threat to both business models, but in the commercial sector a great review speaking to the artistic merit and audience appeal of a show is the pot of gold for a non-profit whereas, as the case of a Sideshow clearly demonstrates it may mitigate risk but certainly doesn’t eliminate it. The payoffs for the staggering risks of commercial production (not to mention the risk to patroons of staggering ticket prices) are the “rock star” rewards that a mega-hit promises producers, investors, all of the artists involved, and indeed the audiences (I’ve seen undeniably great regional theatre, but nothing beats the thrill of a truly great, inspired Broadway production, and that thrill explains why I endure countless disappointing nights in the theatre in anticipation of once again striking gold). Kenneth’s point is very well taken. The twin trends of increasing concentration of theatre ownership in the hands of a tiny group of huge corporations, the accelerating increase in production costs by the inflationary and accelerating increase in the value of the real estate, and the conversion of commercial to non-profit houses guarantees that production decisions will be made by a handful if people trying to “mitigate” risk out of existence by avoiding the new, the different and the untested. I have enjoyed two splendid, brilliant evenings of theatre in recent weeks. Both were revivals. One was written in 1944′ the other in 1936. Scary, no?

  • “The good thing about non-pros having Broadway theaters, especially a theater dedicated to new and diverse work like Second Stage,…” Just wanted to remind you that non-commercial is not equivalent to “non-pro.”

  • David Merrick Jr says:

    I think it’s a Big Plus for Broadway and feel that the Great White Way desperately NEEDS non-profits. Especially now that producing new plays without stars is almost extinct.

    The Tony scene just got more interesting…

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