The new casting director: reality television

One thing everyone agreed on:  The Grease reality show, You’re The One That I Want, sucked . . . hard.

What no one could agree on was whether the idea of casting through a reality television series was a blemish on the beautiful Broadway process, or if it was a marketing coup.

The argument is about to resurface with the upcoming Legally Blonde reality television show on MTV.

Sorry to say but there isn’t a black or white answer on whether or not it’s appropriate.  Like most things in life, you have to weigh the many factors surrounding the decision before making it.  The big question . . . what show are you casting?

Grease makes sense.  It’s immensely popular with the public and everyone on the planet has done the show.  In fact, when I worked on the revival of Grease in 1994, I mentioned to Jim Jacobs, the author, that I had played Kenickie in a summer theater production (that’s me in the photo). He looked at me, smiled, and said, "Ken . . . I haven’t met anyone who HASN’T done the show."

So Grease and reality television go together like rama-lama-ding-dong.  If I was the producer of Grease and I had the opportunity for a television show, I would have hula-hooped at the chance. 

If I was producing Hamlet?  No.  August:  Osage CountySpring Awakening?  Not gonna happen.  It doesn’t make sense.

Legally Blonde
?  On the same network that aired a live version of the show?  You bet your Bundy I would.

For the shows that it’s appropriate for, it’s a marketing bonanza.  And not only for the show, but also for Broadway in general.

Because as much as You’re The One That I Want did suck (hard), even sucking on television means millions and millions of people every Sunday night hearing the words Broadway over and over, and hearing how people dream about getting there. 

And that’s good for all of us.

(Oh, and no comments on why I’m standing on a 1969 Volkswagon Beetle in a production of Grease that i ssupposed to take place in 1957, because I have no flippin’ idea.  Summer stock, baby.  Summer stock.)

How many projects are you working on?

If you’re like me when I got started, your answer is “one”.  And here’s why you need to go out and get a few more right now.

The development of a show is like walking through a mine field.  Something could explode at any time.  You could fail to get the rights, an author may quit, you may lose funding, and so on.  You could literally be working on a show for years and have it end just like that!  (insert finger-snap noise here)

Having multiple projects gives you an insurance policy for your career (and your mental state) if a project does disintegrate during development.

See, I know you guys.  Once you get an idea, you run with it like you’re in the Boston marathon, right?  You write scripts, develop marketing campaigns, t-shirt slogans, etc.  That’s great, but you have to be careful.  Don’t get yourself so emotionally invested that you can’t move on if you have to quit the race, due to no fault of your own.

True story . . . I had an idea to do an evening of monologues and songs based on the book Mole People.  I wrote half of a script.  I started contacting songwriters.  I was really pulling it all together . . . before I had finalized the rights agreement.

Then guess what happened when the Author changed agents, and her new ten-percenter and his ten-dollar haircut refused to give me the rights because they were holding out for an HBO film deal (never came, by the way).  Go on, guess.

I lost the rights.  And I cried.

I did too much.  I went too far.  I wasn’t just emotionally invested.  I was emotionally obsessed. And when one of the mines went off, I was destroyed.  A year and a half wasted, and I had nothing to show for it.

If I had another project to work on, it wouldn’t have been such a heartbreak.

Cy Coleman used to say developing shows was like planting a garden.  You plant a whole $@%&-load of seeds, water them all, then stand back and see which grows first.

I guess that’s why, even when he died, he was working on a number of projects.  He’s probably in tech for three of them at the same time right now.

Be focused, yes, but diversify your project porfolio.  You wouldn’t put all of your money into one stock, don’t put all of your heart into one show.

Did I say inflation? I mean Enflation.

In Monday’s post, the article I referred to mentioned a capitalization of Wonderful Town of $225,000 and a ticket price of $7.20 in 1954.

A reader turned me on to a site that could tell us what those numbers would be in today’s dollars, taking inflation into account, using the Consumer Price Index.

The results?

$1,725,934.60 cap.


$55.23 top ticket

Oh, if only a major Broadway musical could be done for $1.7 million.  And if only the tickets were only $55.23.

Wonderful Town in 2008 would probably be $10 million, more than 5 times the 1958 version when adjusted.

We’ve got our own version of inflation.  Expense inflation or Enflation as I call it.

Should we be surprised that recoupment is more and more delayed when are expenses are increasing so dramatically?

Yes, it’s the stagehands.  Yes it’s theater rent.  Yes, it’s health insurance.  Yes, it’s advertising.  Yes, it’s everything. And, as producers, we have to look at everything.

Interestingly enough, the article also mentioned a weekly nut for Town of $44,000 (a weekly “nut” on Broadway is a term used to decribed the amount of money required by a show to pay all its expenses, or the show’s breakeven).  .  Converting that to current dollars gets you $337,516.10.  That’s closer (I’d guess that a new revival would cost about $500k/week give/take).

This is a down and dirty statistical analysis, and inflation indexes don’t measure improvements in quality which come with price tags (although, if we can’t financially support it, maybe we shouldn’t buy it – would you buy a brand new computer with the best technology if you knew you might be out of work and lose your house in 3 months?).

However, even with these rough numbers, if I were looking to start addressing where our biggest Enflation has occured (and I am), I’d start with the upfront expenses.

At $15 million dollars a musical, we’re starting ourselves so far in the hole, it’s hard to get even halfway out.

And then we look like A-holes to our investors.

Hit the street to find out how to sell.

Guess what is happening in the photo to the right.

Give up?  I’ll tell you.

That’s Janine and her daughter Ellen.  They’re from Ohio and they came in to New York last weekend.  They’re staying at the Milford Plaza and plan on seeing a musical and going to The Empire State Building.

That’s Duane in the red sweatshirt.  He’s from the Bronx.  He’s an underground rapper who records his own music and then sells it on the street in midtown.

And that’s Ellen, digging into her purse to buy this unknown artist’s CD for $10, even though she’s never heard of him before, and even though she “doesn’t really like rap.”

So what happened here?  How the heck did Duane get a tourist to fork over cash in the middle of midtown, and how did he penetrate an alternative demographic?

There is nothing more powerful than the live pitch. It’s why telemarketing, Tupperware parties and door-to-door sales still work.  It’s not as fast as the internet, but if you’ve got an unknown product and are trying to break through to a resistant demo, do you really think a banner ad is going to do it?

Duane believes in his product.  And Janine and Ellen could feel that.  And they aren’t just buying a CD.  They are buying Duane.  Great sales people know how to make themselves a part of their product.  That’s not only how to convert one sale, but it’s how to get a customer for life.

This is why who works at your box office and who is answering your phone line is so important.  This is also why Broadway is at a significant disadvantage in its current model.

Box office ticket sellers are hired by the theater.  Not by the Producer.

Imagine if you were the owner of a GAP. You rent a storefront on 5th avenue.  You stock it with your product, you advertise, etc.  And then your landlord sends in your sales team.  Huh?

You don’t get to screen them.  You don’t get to train them.  They don’t have to wear your product.  You can’t fire them.  You don’t even sign their checks, yet you have to reimburse the landlord for every penny of their salary and benefits.

You wouldn’t stand for that, right?  You’d find another storefront.

That’s the way it works on Broadway.  And because of the limited availability of “storefronts”, we take it.

Same thing for the phones.  As a producer, you have no control over Ticketmaster or Telecharge.  And, as a producer, you also have no choice but to use them.  They come packaged with your theater agreement.  And yes, the theater owners get a kickback from the ticketing companies, and the Producer gets no financial benefit.  In fact, Telecharge is owned by the Shubert Organization.

With the amount of money producers are risking on shows, we deserve to be able to choose the best sales team for us.  Maybe we’d use Telecharge and maybe we’d hire a lot of the great Local 751 members out there.  But we deserve that choice.  Having a choice means competition.  And competition is what makes businesses and industries stronger.

If I were choosing my sales team today, the first person I’d interview would be Duane.

I wanted to be a Goonie. Didn’t you?

Goonies was on TV in the wee hours last night.

I was 13 when I first saw it.  When it was over, I started looking for buried treasure in my own backyard.  Why not?  I lived in an old and historical part of the country.  If Sean Astin, Corey Haim and that red head that was also in Lucas could find some doubloons, surely I could too, right?

You all know this feeling, don’t you?  It’s when you see A Chorus Line and you want to dance.  When you see American Idol and you want to sing.

Your shows have to inspire people . . . to move them so much that they want to do something.

Do that, and then do you know what else they’ll do?

They’ll see your show over and over again.

That’s right.  You bet your Chunk I stayed up until 4 AM, watching Sloth save the day and One-Eyed Willy sail off into the sunset, even though I’ve seen it 30+ times before.

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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