The cost of producing on Broadway has risen sharply, particularly in the last ten to fifteen years, and this has taken its toll on American productions. Inflation, higher priced labor and materials, theatrical union wage increases, featherbedding, and the enormous cost of advertising—a full page ad in The New York Times is upwards of $10,000, and the Times‘ daily alphabetical listings of shows must be paid for by producers—all are partly responsible for soaring production costs and ticket prices. These increased expenses have in turn forced a shift in who produces plays and musicals, changing the face of Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theater.
It costs nearly as much to produce a revival of a musical in a not-for-profit Off-Broadway theater in New York today as it did to produce one on Broadway ten years ago. Take, for instance, Sweeney Todd. Last spring the nonprofit York Theatre, an Off-Off-Broadway company housed in a church gym, mounted a highly-acclaimed environmental restaging of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical about a murderous barber whose accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, bakes his victims into pies. The York’s production, using only eight principal actors, five chorus members, and three synthesizers, was budgeted at $55,000. Fifteen thousand dollars of that was made up in ticket sales, and the other $40,000 came from corporate and individual sponsors. Under Equity showcase rules the designers, staff, and actors received an honorarium that amounted, essentially, to carfare.
The Circle in the Square’s transfer of the York company’s Sweeney Todd to their 681-seat uptown theater, with the same number of cast members and musicians, cost $600,000. Ten years ago on Broadway the show was capitalized at $900,000—only a third more than The Circle in the Square budget—and cost $1.2 million to open. Today a full-scale revival of the show at a large Broadway theater would run $4 or $5 million.
Costs have escalated to such an extent that nowadays a year of standing-room-only and eight-figure grosses do not insure that a production, especially a musical, will recoup its investment and show a profit. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s $8-million Phantom of the Opera took 65 weeks at capacity to return its capital. And the $7-million revue Jerome Robbins Broadway, which had an unprecedented six-month reconstruction period and 22 weeks of rehearsals, was expected to take 63 weeks to make back its investment—if it played to capacity (it hasn’t).
The change in musical theater from an emphasis on music, lyrics, and story to an emphasis on spectacle has added an additional $l-$2 million to already overexpensive production budgets. The falling chandelier and floating candelabra in Phantom of the Opera, or the special ramps and tracks for roller skaters dressed as trains in Starlight Express require hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and maintain. More troublesome, perhaps, than the expense is audiences’ addiction to these spectacles. They want to see every dollar of an eight-million-dollar budget on stage for their $55 or $60 ticket, and so producers are beginning to demand special effects where there, is no need for them.
The theater has long been a chancy investment. Today with costs so high and returns more elusive than ever, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recoup. The increased recoupment period, and the combination of theater owners and conglomerates that have now become Broadway’s producers, have driven the independent producer and the small investor out. One unit in a $6- or $7-million production can cost $120,000—too much for the small investor, and too little for a producer, for whom too many small units would be needed to make-up such a budget.
The high cost of producing on Broadway is stultifying it in other ways. The musical theater needs new blood—Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Cy Coleman, and Sheldon Harnick are all in their 50’s or 60’s. But at several million dollars a production Broadway producers won’t take a chance on untried talent. Workshops and readings have replaced productions as virtually the only way for younger people to see their work on stage. Often today’s musical theater writers are well into their 30’s or even 40’s before their first show is produced. By contrast, Harold Prince has pointed out that he and Sondheim did all of their experimenting on Broadway. Today, he says, it would be impossible, even for men of their stature, to raise the money for any project whose popularity could not be guaranteed.
Nor is this paralysis affecting only musicals. The multi-million dollar price tag has also driven serious theater from Broadway. Fewer and fewer plays are produced on Broadway, and with few exceptions (notably, M. Butterfly and most of Neil Simon’s shows), those that are come from London, Off-Broadway, or regional theater.
Yet New York does not lack dramas. Plays that would once have been produced on Broadway are now being produced by Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater companies and commercial producers: productions such as The Cocktail Hour, A.R. Gurney’s play about the dynamics of an uppermiddle-class WASP family in Buffalo; The Night Hank Williams Died, Larry L. King’s drama about the hopes and dreams of a young man in a dusty Texas town in 1952; Only Kidding, Jim Geoghan’s study of comedians; and Jerry Steiner’s Other People’s Money, which concerns the struggle to take over a New England manufacturing firm. Last season there were so many more good plays produced Off-Broadway than on that the Dramatists Guild, the organization of playwrights, composers, and lyricists, lobbied seriously for the inclusion of Off-Broadway in the annual Tony Awards. (As has happened in the past, the majority of Broadway theater owners, producers, and union executives vetoed the idea. The Tony Awards mean big business: an award-winning play and musical immediately registers increases at the box office, sometimes enough to keep a production running another year, as was the case with the 1985 musical Big River, and those theater owners and union executives want the option of being able to move popular attractions to Broadway to reap the larger financial rewards.)
New York has now reached the point that some producers are avoiding Broadway. The producers of Other People’s Money, Susan Quint Gallin and Jeffrey Ash, turned down an offer from Donald Trump to finance a move to Broadway. If, Ash says, they sell 400 tickets at their present theater (Minetta Lane) they are sold out; if they were to sell 600 tickets on Broadway they’d be only half-full. Though the show has been popular, especially with the Wall Street crowd, a move to Broadway does not seem to the producers to make good financial sense.
Having taken over Broadway’s role as the source of new plays and musicals, Off-Broadway and the regional theaters now find themselves aligning more closely with Broadway. They have increasingly become Broadway’s tryout spots, some even receiving “enhancement” money from Broadway producers for certain productions. Neil Simon’s new play, Jake’s Women, will have its world premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre this month. David Hare’s The Secret Rapture, though it originally was set to premiere on Broadway, was tried out first at Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. The Piano Lesson, August Wilson’s latest and due on Broadway in the spring, began at the Yale Repertory Theatre, was presented by the Seattle Rep, and will play several more cities before arriving in New York. Clearly, the commercial and not-for-profit theater is starting to merge. This means, for better and worse, that the center of American theater has moved off of Broadway and to a substantial extent even out of New York—better, in that places like the Milwaukee Rep and Actor’s Theatre of Louisville are originating interesting plays; worse, in that Broadway’s problems are often finding their way back to places like Louisville: the influence works both ways.