Will there ever be another Dark period on Broadway?

The last time Broadway had a number of dark theaters was in the 70s and early 80s. (That period is one of the reasons Broadway lost the Mark Hellinger Theatre to the Times Square Church.)

A lot of people whisper that a bunch of empty theaters is exactly what we all need to get our costs back in line. The theory being that some dark houses might put the power back in the hands of the Producers, since we’re the ones who fill them.  Unions, Theatre Owners and Vendors might need us more than we need them.

Makes sense, right?

But will it ever happen?  Will there ever be another Dark Ages?

I’m thinking . . . No.

How come?

Something else happened in the late 70s and 80s that forever changed the theatrical real estate landscape.

The super duper long running musical was born.

When Oklahoma! first opened it ran for a magnificent five years.

When West Side Story first opened it ran for two.

My Fair Lady?  That one got six!

A show running for a decade . . . or more . . . was unheard of.  And then A Chorus Line happened.  And the British Invasion happened.  And then the 90s brought us the Disney shows and Rent and so many more that made the run of Oklahoma! look like a limited run revival starring Isaac from The Love Boat.

What the uber-long runners have done is taken a bunch of theaters off the table. They are simply not-in-play for Producers.

See, there are about 40 Broadway houses.  Take out the non-profits and that number drops to 35. I count eight shows that ain’t going anywhere any year soon, which drops the availability by 23%!  And that’s not even counting any of the shows that just opened as potential long runners (and I think we’ve got a couple that could go the distance).

That means only 28 theaters are in play.  Take the play houses out, and the musicals are left with just a handful.

As long as the 5+ year shows are more the norm, theater availability will be forever decreased, and a dark period becomes a thing of the past . . . which leaves the power with the Unions, Theater Owners, Vendors, etc.

Unless, of course, you’re the Producer of one of those megahits.

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Should all Pulitzer Prize winners be produced on Broadway?

The 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded this past Monday to Bruce Norris for his play, Clybourne Park.

Clybourne had its New York debut over a year ago Off-Broadway at the non-profit stalwart, Playwrights Horizons.  It received across the board raves, but didn’t make the move to a commercial run.

So now what?

Should it be resurrected now that it has the Pulitzer seal?  Do we “owe” it to Clybourne?  Do we owe it Mr. Norris? Do we have a responsibility to the public to expose them to what has been deemed the great work of the year?

Since 1990, six Pulitzer Prize winning plays (30% of the 20 winners) have not been performed on Broadway.  They were:

  • Three Tall Women by Edward Albee
  • How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel
  • Wit by Margaret Edson
  • Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies
  • Ruined by Lynn Nottage
  • Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris

I know a lot of people still wonder why Ruined didn’t make the move.  Are people wondering that this week about Clybourne?

Would you move it?

– – – – –

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Why I want the press to shut up about Spider-Man.

There’s an article in today’s Wall Street Journal in which I, and several more of my Broadway Producer peers are quoted about the attention that Spider-Man is getting.

The crux of the complaints are focused on the fact that since everyone in the press corps (and the public) seems to have been infected with Spideritis, no other shows are getting any ink.

But that’s not why I’m sick of it.

Yes, I am getting a bit bored by article after article about the injuries, and who is really in charge, and what the cast had for breakfast the day they found out Julie Taymor was out.

But the real reason I’m over it is that many members of the press (not all, mind you) and the public are constantly calling for Producers to risk more on Broadway . . . to push the boundaries of what Broadway is about . . . to stop thinking about budgets and pursue excellence, instead of just excellent economics.

Has anyone actually realized what just went down on 42nd St?

The Producers of a $70+ million dollar musical that has been plagued with issues since its inception, but has been grossing 1 million plus per week just said, “We’re shutting the show down, because we think we can make it better.”

Yes, that’s right, they are grossing 1.X a week already . . . maybe not making money every week, but certainly breaking even . . . and that’s not enough.  Many Producers would have thrown in the towel by now . . . twice.  But no, these guys fire the most important person on the team and put more chips on the table to see if they shape this sucker up.  I mean that takes a giant set of these.

Oh, and by the way, the critics have already written their reviews, so it’s not like they are trying to pretty their girl up before the big ball. They’ve had their opening, whether they like it or not, and they’re still assuming great expense to try and make a better experience for their audience.

Yes, they are obviously trying to improve the show in order to protect their mammoth investment, and yes, they’ve made mistakes that got them to this point that maybe you wouldn’t have made.

But I ask you, as well as the press, and everyone else out there . . . what would you have done if you found yourself where they were one week ago?  And don’t cheap out and say you never would have gotten in the same place as they did.  Just pretend you did.  Now what would you do?

Whether you like the show or not, and whether you agree with all the decisions they’ve made or not, you have to at least admire the Producers for not jumping ship, and continuing to try and better their show for the sake of their investors, and more importantly for the audience.

That’s a risk that I don’t think many people would take.

And in an industry that is getting more and more risk averse thanks to the escalating economic challenges, you gotta give ’em a little props, don’t you . . . even if what they’re doing makes your head spin like this.

—–

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My Top 5 Broadway Special Effects

There was some great Spider-Man coverage in Variety over the weekend that looked at the show from a bunch of angles, from branding, to storytelling and yes, to spectacle.  (The show actually got the cover of Variety – and for a Broadway show to snag a cover, when the mag usually only gives us a page, says something about the power of the Spidey suit).

In the opening paragraphs of the article about the technical challenges of this super-sized musical, book writer Glenn Berger had this to say . . .

What really amazes an audience isn’t a big set pice.  It’s how you can theatrically overcome narrative solutions. A simple, elegant solution is where the spectacle lies.

The quote made me think about some of my favorite “effects” from over the years, and, well, I gotta agree with Mr. Berger.  Sure, chandeliers and helicopters and heavyside layers are cool, but my real “ahhh” moments come from effects with much simpler concepts (and simpler budgets).

Here are my top five Broadway special effects:

1.  Raoul Takes The Plunge

In the 2nd Act of Phantom, after the chandelier has crashed, and we’ve seen the Phantom’s face, Raoul leaves Madame Giry to search for Christine and jumps off a bridge into a river of fog.  He does a pencil dive (his body perpindicular to the floor) and drops right through the floor . . . and the audience doesn’t hear a sound.  It’s so unexpected, it’ll take your breath away.

2.  Old Joe Becomes Young Joe.

In Damn Yankees, Joe Hardy makes a deal with a devil, and with the help of some great underscoring, makes his transformation from old to young by simply walking through a door.  If you’ve never seen the show before, you’ll find yourself with some chills, as the young Joe capitalizes on the magic with a thrilling reprise.  Again, fast and unexpected is the name of the game.

3. This Disappearing Houdini Trick

This trick was so good it actually disappeared!  In the early incarnations of the original Ragtime, including the first year or so on Broadway, the 2nd Act started with the character of Houdini performing a trick, where he was put in a straight jacket, locked in a box and raised 50 feet above the stage.  The chains on the box would “break”, and you’d see Houdini’s legs scrambling to stay inside, and then, the box would blow apart, and Houdini would be . . . gone.  And he’d appear in a box seat next to a surprised audience member seconds later.  It was an applause moment, and it also made sense with the story.  Unfortunately, it was “tricky” and after a lot of complications, the trick (designed by super illusionist Franz Harary) vanished.  But if you were one of the lucky ones that saw it, then you were colored impressed, I’m sure.  I worked on the show, and it made me feel like a kid every night.

4.  Bloody, Bloody, blood.

Whether I’m watching someone get stabbed at West Side Story, or whether I’m sitting in the splatter zone at Evil Dead, I’m a sucker for an old-fashioned blood packet.  Shoot (no pun intended), the blood on Eponine’s dress after she gets shot (which she merely reveals) used to get me, even the 12th time I saw the show.

5.  Do I Smell Bacon?

Everything is better with bacon, including Off-Broadway.  David Cromer’s beautiful production of Our Town served up some fantastic performances, and some actual bacon.  In the very vivid return to Grover’s Corners scene, Emily’s mom fried up some of the good stuff  . . . and filled the theater with that smell that makes even vegans drool.

While sinking ships (Titanic) and entire mansions that move (Sunset Boulevard) can be impressive, what’s most impressive are the effects that take the audience by surprise, capture its imagination, and most importantly, make sense with the story.

Otherwise, we might as well just go to the circus.

What are your favorite on stage special effects?

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Ken Davenport
Ken Davenport

Tony Award-Winning Broadway Producer

I'm on a mission to help 5000 shows get produced by 2025.

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