Hal Prince’s missive on how to fix Broadway.
One of the reasons I’m a Producer today is because of Hal Prince.
And it’s not just because I fan-boy worshiped him and his twenty-one (!) Tony Awards from afar.
I was lucky enough to watch Hal work when I was a Company Manager on Show Boat, Candide, and the original workshop of Parade. And you can bet your butter beer I snuck out of the office to sit in rehearsals whenever I could just to watch the King they called Prince work.
This was the 90s, and back then Hal gave an interview where he said there were no more Creative Producers anymore, but there were only check-writers. (Remember, before Hal turned Director, he was a Producer.)
Well, I took that as my in, and in the middle of tech of Candide ran up to him and told him that I read the article, and being a Creative Producer was what I wanted to do.
He said, “Great, Ken, but I’m kind of busy teching Act II right now, so maybe come to my office and we can chat?”
Chat we did. And he gave me advice that day that changed my life, and poof, here I am (I’ve actually spoken about that day quite often, and it’s a big chapter in a book I’m about to release . . . sign up here to make sure you’re the first to know).
Well, guess what. The God that is Hal Prince isn’t satisfied yet.
Just yesterday another article was published in American Theatre Magazine with a byline by Mr. Prince . . . the title?
Broadway Needs Producers, Not Just Investors.
In the article, Hal trumpets the same thesis, that “there is no dearth of writers – playwrights, composers, and lyricists—or brilliant designers and directors. But stubbornly courageous creative producers…?”
And he also goes on with dismay about the investors who are now Producers, despite having no experience in the arts, etc., etc., etc. (And he tells some great stories about how he raised money in his day, with Scotch and peanuts, mind you.)
It’s a fantastic article with truth bombs about Producing all the way through. Read it and study it and apply it to what you do.
I know I’m still learning from him.
But that doesn’t mean I agree with everything he says.
First, I think he’s a bit hard on the many Above-The-Title Producers who may not have spent thirty years in the business, but hey, because producing theater is a heck of a lot riskier than it was in the days of Hal, we need to incentivize people in other ways than just monetarily.
Hal mentions paying back investors on a musical in 14 weeks. That hardly happens in 40 weeks on a sold-out-at-full-price-musical! (Today’s audiences have a lot more options for entertainment than the 1957 audience of West Side Story.)
With less chance of profit, there has to be another perk. And without all those names above-the-titles, as I wrote here, some great pieces of art (including some of the types of shows that Hal wants us to produce) would never, ever have happened (possibly including the original Spring Awakening for one).
And second, and the biggest change that Hal doesn’t talk about is simply the lack of theaters for Producers in 2016.
Theater availability has choked so much of the ability for producers to be creative. You can’t just put something up anymore. Back in the days of old, if you wanted to do a show, and had the cash, you got your show on. And something that might be super risky would get caught up in the publicity machine that is Broadway, and it just might catch on.
Today you need the blessing of the theater owners to get your shot. And God only knows what the algorithm is for their choices (with commercial potential, the art-factor, who-you-know, credits, ability to raise money all variables in the equation).
I don’t care how courageous a Producer is in 2016 . . . if they’re unknown, with unknown material, would they get a show on Broadway?
I’d argue that some of Hal’s shows from back then might not even get to Broadway if they appeared today. Merrily? Company even? Can you imagine the theater without Company?
Or, think about it this way. If Lin-Manuel was a newcomer, and had an unknown Producer but had the money, would it have gotten to Broadway in the way that it did?
I’d like to think so. Because the Pollyanna Producer in me believes that greatness trumps all.
But what Hal is forgetting is that the theater owners have the ultimate say in who gets to be a Broadway Producer and who doesn’t.
Until we find more alternative venues and more importantly, audiences that will go to them, and turn that power around.
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