Theaters Aren’t The Only Place To Do Theatre Anymore

My first experience with “site-specific” theatre was in 1995 with a little musical called J.P. Morgan Saves The Nation, written by a then-unknown composer/lyricist named Jonathan Larson (the NY Times called his score “peppy”).  It took place on the steps of Federal Hall downtown.

But this blog isn’t about site-specific theatre.

While I do think we’re on the verge of seeing plays and musicals pop up in office buildings, bars, shopping malls, and everyplace else in the next few years (thanks to the high cost of actual theaters, not to mention the lack of availability), site-specific theatre is so 1995.

In the past week, a few blips have appeared on my trend-spotting sonar that make me think we’re on the verge of another kind of revolution.  And this one, surprise surprise, has all to do with technology.

First, I can’t help but notice that Netflix has taken a more aggressive approach to capturing theatrical content as of late and not just the big branded Springsteen-like shows.  They shot a movie version of American Son.  They announced a movie version of that Cinderella story of a musical, The Prom.  And now, the Off-Broadway one-woman show, Douglas, will be the latest addition to their growing theatrical portfolio.

Second, (spoiler alert!) but I spend a lot of time on my upcoming podcast with Tony Nominated art-trepreneur Paul Gordon (airs this coming Monday) talking about his StreamingMusicals platform, which is off to a strong start (and got him a licensing deal for a new musical that has never played NYC).  I expect the next generation of theatre-makers is going to see this approach as a way to get their shows into the world at a fraction of the cost that typically comes with putting up an actual production.  (And speaking of streaming, we just got a report on my own production of Daddy Long Legs from my friends at  BroadwayHD, and it’s exceeding expectations in the number of views.  Check it out here.)

Third, I caught a glimpse of an ad on a subway platform the other day for a new digital platform called STAGE, which states, “From classic performances to edgy icons and undiscovered gems, musical theatre and performance is the cornerstone of STAGE.”  What’s interesting about this isn’t the network itself, but the ad . . . which ain’t cheap.  That says to me that STAGE ain’t effin’ around.  They see a big future in the platform and are betting on it.

And fourth (because you know, everything comes in threes, so when there are four things, you definitely have a fourk-ing trend), and perhaps most interesting of all . . . a new podcast musical was released this week, called Next Thing You Know by Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham, starring Patti Murin, Colin Hanlon, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Lauren Blackman.  This on the heels of the high profile John Cameron Mitchell podcast musical “Anthem: Homunculus,” starring Patti Lupone to name a few (because she counts as a few).  Instead of readings and workshops, these creators have turned to tech to get attention for their new works.  (I wonder if critics will start reviewing them?)

All of this makes me think . . . are streaming and podcast recordings the new “concept recording,” made famous by Andrew Lloyd Webber with Jesus Christ Superstar? We all know how that worked out.  Answer?  Yes, yes they are.

And all of this points to one thing:  an uprising is underfoot.

The modern-day creators, who are part of the DIY generation, who grew up able to create and distribute their films and music without gatekeepers, are now finding ways to distribute theatre in the same way.

And we’re just at the beginning of it.

If you’re a theatre-maker, you should start to imagine other ways to get your shows the attention they deserve.

Because over the next ten years, the traditional walls of Broadway and Off-Broadway are going to come crumbling down as the next generation of creators continue to think outside of the . . . box theater.

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Do check out Daddy Long Legs on BroadwayHD, and then guess how much it cost me to shoot something that high of a quality.  And then imagine how you can do it for your show . . .

GUEST BLOG: To Stream or Not to Stream (or When to Stream) by Van Dean

The question of if and when to stream is something we strategize for each and every release. It’s certainly not an exact science, and reasonable people in our business disagree on this important decision.  The issue at hand is that the average Broadway cast album costs between $300,000 and $500,000 to produce.  Spotify pays between $0.001 and $0.007 per stream.  So an average Broadway cast album receiving average revenue from Spotify would have to receive 100 million streams to cover its production costs.  That doesn’t including paying for distribution, the songwriters royalties, the show royalties or anything beyond just the creation of the album.  Given that there are approximately 320 million people in the United States, your cast album has to be extremely popular to recoup it’s production costs from streaming alone.  Of course, repeated listens and international fans help rack up the streaming numbers. The Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen‘s of the world can do it, but not many others.

This is why when using the current music business models, CD and digital download sales are still so important for cast recordings.  Luckily, they still represent the lion’s share of our sales.  Broadway is a unique niche within the music business in that a Broadway cast recording is still considered an important collectible or keepsake of the musical experience.  We always make sure that our cast recording packages are chock full of photos, lyrics, essays and more to help enhance the fan experience. For those fortunate enough to see their favorite Broadway or Off-Broadway musical, the cast album is a cherished remembrance.  For those who live further from New York City, the cast recording is their way of discovering all of the amazing shows that are difficult for them to see in person. At any one time, there are around two dozen musicals running on Broadway.  Of course, there are thousands of musicals in the theatrical canon that can also be discovered and embraced through their cast recording, as well as through Off-Broadway, regional and licensed productions.

Whenever we work with a Broadway show, an Off-Broadway show, or a solo artist, we have the streaming conversation.  Most often, with Broadway shows, we wait a minimum of 6 months to a year (and sometimes longer) to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, etc.  This is to allow the recording time to reach its audience amongst CD and digital download buyers. The aforementioned high expense of Broadway cast recordings frequently necessitates this approach.  However, if the marketing and wide exposure of the show’s score are deemed more valuable for a particular production than the financial considerations, then early streaming may make more sense. Part of this decision depends on who financed the recording.  If the show financed the album via its marketing budget, it is much easier to justify prioritizing the marketing needs of the show.  If the album was financed by direct investors expecting to make their money back, then the financial considerations must be given more weight.  Without investors supporting the cast recordings, these important preservations of a show’s score and performances will become less and less common.

Off-Broadway recordings and solo artist recordings are far less expensive, so the pressure on streaming to deliver financially is less.  Streaming is excellent for getting more ears on an artists’ work, so early streaming is very attractive if the artists’ primary goal is wide exposure.  However, since many solo artists finance their own albums, we have this streaming conversation with each of them so that they can make the decision regarding the balance between exposure and financial return.

The next phase in cast albums will require innovative use of social media and streaming, collaboration with the unions to make the finances more efficient, and collaboration with creators and show producers to evolve with the changes in the industry and technology. Continued love and attention to quality and detail will be essential in the preservation of the art form that we have made our life’s passion.  The ability for future generations of theater lovers to discover new musicals, as well as rediscover the classics, depends on our industry’s ability to keep the cast album business strong for the foreseeable future.


Van Dean is President and Co-Founder of Broadway Records. He is also a Tony Award-winning Broadway Producer of 12 musicals and plays and is a Grammy Award-winning producer of The Color Purple (New Broadway Cast Recording).  Broadway Records has released 150+ albums including the Grammy-nominated Matilda, Once On This IslandMy Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof as well as AnastasiaGroundhog DayBandstand and also created the popular “Live at Feinstein’s/54 Below” album series and the Tony Award Season series. Van’s philanthropic work includes being a producer of “Broadway For Orlando: What The World Needs Now is Love”, “Broadway Kids Against Bullying: I Have a Voice”, “From Broadway With Love” benefit concerts for Sandy Hook, Orlando (Emmy Award winner for sound design) and Parkland and his work with NewArts in Sandy Hook/Newtown, CT. www.BroadwayRecords.com

GUEST BLOG: Taking the Risk & Expense Out of Producing off-Broadway by Form Theatricals

Taking the leap from your reading, workshop or Showcase production to the off-Broadway stage can be intimidating. Budgets for small off-Broadway shows can reach into hundreds of thousands of dollars for plays and well into the low millions for musicals, not to mention the challenge of filling a larger house for six to eight performances per week.

Luckily, there’s a smaller step onto the off-Broadway stage that’s more affordable and less risky: the Periodic Performance Agreement. This is a specific type of Equity Contract that allows you to produce your show as an open-ended run for between 1 – 4 performances a week, with limited fixed costs. By its nature, the agreement will limit your budget – you’ll be sharing a venue with another production, so your rent will be about $1,000 per performance. Having to strike your set after each performance will limit your physical production. The total compensation (salary + benefits) is set for each actor at $121 per performance at the minimum. If done right, you can produce an open-ended run of a play for under $50k with a minuscule weekly operating cost. This allows you to experiment with who your production’s customer is, how to reach them and how to convert their interest into sales.

Build-Measure-Learn

You might want to jump into doing four performances per week, but at Form, we advocate that you start with as little as one performance and view each week as a learning opportunity for your marketing campaign. Frequently shows close because their marketing and press was based on assumptions about the audience and their buying patterns that have not been tested or proven. By the time these producers realize their marketing assumptions were wrong, the production has often spent its reserve and has to close. Our alternative methodology is called build-measure-learn and allows for real-time feedback to be incorporated into your marketing campaign in order to segment and target your audience effectively.  You’ve built the minimum viable open-ended production – a show that’s performing once per week – and you’re going to relentlessly measure your sales and the related metrics.

Methods include:

  • Start out with free listings and build your marketing campaign from there.
  • Do experiments with different ads and distribution channels.
  • Interview audience members to discover their journey from hearing about your production all the way through attending.
  • Stand in the lobby before and after the show to hear what the audience is saying.

Relentlessly experiment with new marketing techniques and view yourself as a scientist: you’re evaluating which marketing assumptions work and which don’t. You’re able to do this because the show’s running costs remain so low that you can fail repeatedly until you learn how to successfully sell out the house. When you learn how to sell out one performance per week, add a second and begin your build-measure-learn loop all over again. Rinse and repeat for weekly performances three through eight.

The Periodic Performance agreement provides you with highly affordable running costs which, when married with a build-measure-repeat marketing campaign, gives you the time you need to turn your assumptions into facts, and your little once-a-week performance into off-Broadway’s (or, gasp, Broadway’s) newest long-running hit. The beauty in this method of producing is two-fold. The first is that you’re able to test your assumptions in a low-risk way and really learn how to attract an audience. The second is that the upfront costs are so low that off-Broadway can be opened to productions and voices who can’t raise the funds for mid-six figure productions.

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At Form we’re big proponents of the Periodic Performance agreement and approach all of the productions and theater companies we work with as the start-ups they are. We offer one hour of free consulting services to artists and producers. Email us at af@formtheatricals.com if you want some advice about your project.

An out-of-town tryout . . . in town.

Here are the hard facts about looking for a regional theater for your out-of-town tryout in the teen 2000s:

  1. They are hard to get. Just like a lot of shows are waiting to land a Broadway house, even more shows are waiting for their close-up out-of-town.  That means it’s getting even harder to secure one of the hotter tryout spots across the country thanks to the sheer volume of competition.
  2. You may have to wait for years. Regional theaters plan seasons well in advance, and from what I hear, they’re starting to do this further and further out, especially with their enhancement slots.  That means even if you are lucky enough to snag a coveted spot, you might be waiting two or three years for it to happen.  That means your option agreements may expire, your team may drift away, your cast may age out (!), etc.
  3. They are more expensive than ever. On my podcast, Des McAnuff, who helped build the whole idea of tryouts at regional theaters, called the current financial enhancement model around the country “dangerous.”  That’s because so many theaters are relying on these supplemented shows to help balance their budget.  And, like any smart business owner, as regional theaters have gotten more in-demand, their prices have gone up.  Can’t blame them, but it doesn’t stop your budget from ballooning.

So that’s just the way it is, right?

Wrong.

We’re never satisfied here at TPP and you shouldn’t be either.  The enhancement path was and still is, at times, a great one . . . but it may be time for a little innovation and a whole lotta disruption.

So, what do we do?

Here’s one idea.

Off Broadway is super challenging and unfortunately, much riskier than Broadway.  But, since the price of a first-class Off Broadway musical can be as much as a regional theater enhancement . . . why not produce it Off Broadway?  

You get the trial audience.  You get the reviews.  You get elements of the physical production you can take to the next step.

And it’s even easier for the Broadway theater owners to check you out if they’re interested.

And if it doesn’t work?  Well, your show is much more likely to be licensed or even go on tour if it’s played New York, rather than just played an out-of-town tryout.

Here’s the bonus . . . you won’t owe a regional theater 1-1.5%.

So, for the same budget, you actually own more of the show.  That makes it actually cheaper!

Downside?  You expose it to the critics early . . . but you’d be doing the same thing if you were trying out at The Public or any of the city-based Non-Profits.  And you’d take one of those if they came up, right?

With rising costs and a logjam of titles, producing your show in-town might be the only way to get your show up with a shot at Broadway, which makes it worth the risk in my book.

And it just might save Off Broadway in the process.

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