Each week Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard and Jujamcyn Theatres majority owner and president Jordan Roth talk via email about the state of the industry, the only stipulation being no holds barred.
GERARD: If all the houses were as packed as the final performance on Monday of The Odyssey at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, that still means only about 8,000 people got to see this amazing musical. It featured a cross-cultural, multigenerational cast of seeming thousands (apparently it was merely over 200) including a gospel choir, a marching band, a youth orchestra and actors of every stripe and level of professionalism, from pros including Karen Olivo and Brandon Victor Dixon (soon to be seen on Broadway in Shuffle Along) to passionate neophytes. All for just four performances, under the wing of the Public Theater’s Public Works program.
You often use the word magic, Jordan; it applied here in spades. It seems a shame that it had such a brief run before disappearing like Prospero’s staff into the sea of memory. In his introductory remarks, Public Theater chief Oskar Eustis gave special thanks to a group I’m sure most folks in the audience never heard of, with the decidedly unglamorous title the Theater Subdistrict Council. That got my attention. The Council is the group commissioned by the city to collect a percentage of the profits from the sale of air rights above Broadway theaters and dispense the cash to nonprofit groups around the city for the development of theater audiences.
The air rights have been a windfall for the theater owners but precious little has gone to the Subdistrict Council, which has doled out a pittance in relation to the amount of money it should’ve collected, especially in recent years. I was heartened to see that the Public Theater uses its $500,000 grant from the council for the Public Works program. The Odyssey was an awesomely powerful, fun, exhilarating theater experience. It should not have evaporated after four performances. Or it should have left us hungering for more — along with the promise that there was more to come. But only one other theater company got a grant from the Council last year. I think that should change, well, dramatically.
ROTH: Separate from where the money comes from and how much it is, you’re getting at something larger that I’ve been thinking about lately too: Our nonprofit system is great at developing and producing shows that otherwise wouldn’t happen in the commercial theater, but it is not set up to run them for an extended period of time. Sometimes it’s just four performances as with The Odyssey, sometimes as long as 10-16 weeks, as with the Broadway nonprofits, but that’s still a relatively small number of people who get to experience those shows. The only answer for extended life has been to transfer that production to a commercial run, and that’s increasingly risky and expensive. A show as ambitious in scale as The Odyssey would probably never make commercial sense — even though thousands more would want to enjoy it. So what to do with a show that isn’t commercially viable but that audiences still want to see? Right now, we don’t have a sustainable answer.
The issue, as always, is resources — both money and space. For many nonprofits, their mission speaks to supporting artists and engaging audiences with as many shows as possible, not one show for as long as possible. Once their subscribers have seen a show, they have to redeploy the theater it was playing in and use their remaining budget to produce the next show. The goal is multiple, high-quality productions, rather than one long run.
Lincoln Center Theater offers a unique alternative to this system: membership rather than subscriptions. Members pay an annual fee to get first access to lower-priced tickets to LCT productions. They are not guaranteed a specific number of shows, nor do they guarantee that they will buy tickets to any that are offered. This is what allows LCT to use the Beaumont to run War Horse and South Pacific and currently The King And I for as long as audiences want to come (which in all of these cases is a deservedly long time). But they have that long run in mind when they mount the production. Most other nonprofits don’t and can’t, so when that elusive show emerges that could continue but not in a commercial environment, there’s no model for it. Second Stage may be pointing the way, as they plan to use their newly purchased Helen Hayes for exactly those shows.
GERARD: I have to challenge you a bit on that. The nonprofits operating on Broadway are all in the commercial producing business, if only to stay afloat. The Roundabout had the good fortune to get two profitable runs out of Cabaret and currently has a big moneymaker – Beautiful, The Carole King Musical — comfortably stashed in its Stephen Sondheim Theatre. They do this because without that income, they’d be unable to continue the great development work going on in their smaller theaters. And while it’s nice that commercial Broadway sent a $500,000 check to the Public that allowed The Odyssey to happen, it’s Hamilton, and before that Bring In Da Noise/Bring In Da Funk and A Chorus Line that made it possible for the house that Joe Papp built to survive. Because we have such piddling public policy in supporting the arts. So I’m still looking for a bigger handout from the Sub-District Council. (Shameless plug: And if you want to know about the origins of the membership model for nonprofit theaters, read Wynn Place Show: A Biased History Of The Rollicking Life & Extreme Times Of Wynn Handman And The American Place Theatre. APT created the membership model in New York — in 1964. The Drama Book Shop has it. Yeah, I wrote it.)