EXCLUSIVE: Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard and Jujamcyn Theatres majority owner and president Jordan Roth talk about the state of the industry, the only stipulation being no holds barred.
GERARD: Last night Andrew Lloyd Webber confided to Stephen Colbert and a couple of million Late Show viewers that he wishes he’d written Hamilton. The entire show was a remarkable promo for Lord Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock, which opens in a couple of weeks, as the musical’s 12-year-old guitar prodigy Brandon Niederauer sat in with Jon Batiste and Stay Human for the whole program — brilliant. I couldn’t help but wonder which aspect of love Andrew had more of, the acclaim for composer-lyricist-star-emcee-cheerleader Lin-Manuel Miranda, or the show’s $60 million advance.
ROTH: I would very much like to answer your aspect of love question with an equally witty song line, but it’s not immediately coming to me and we’re on deadline (in more ways than one), so I implore our readers to come to my aid in the comments below! I’m curious though that you only mention the acclaim and the money as the possible aspects of his love. How about the work itself?
GERARD: Next subject. I’ve seen two Off Broadway shows in recent days that disappeared prematurely for want of a proper space where they could have had extended runs. Topher Payne’s Perfect Arrangement, produced by the estimable Primary Stages, is a sharp, subversive dramedy about secret lives in post-War ’50s Washington, when the feds were intent on ridding the government rank and file of communists, homosexuals and anyone who didn’t play golf. In White America, a lost 1963 play by Martin Duberman that uses first-person testimony to bare the African American experience from slavery to the present, was given a beautiful revival by the ever-struggling New Federal Theatre and Castillo Theatre, in their little space on West 42nd Street. Both shows were exceptionally well-produced, timely and entertaining — ripe for any commercial producer to pick up and move to the right commercial venue. And it’s not as though they don’t exist, from the excellent Minetta Lane in Greenwich Village to the New World Stages five-plex recently taken over by the Shuberts. What a missed opportunity, or two.
ROTH: I loved Perfect Arrangement as well — a simultaneously entertaining and troubling piece brought to life by Michael Barakiva’s expert direction of an exceptional cast — and I wish I had gotten to see In White America, which of course is part of your point. These short non-profit runs could connect with more audiences if given extended life. But extended non-profit life doesn’t consistently exist yet (let’s work on that!) so we’re left with commercial off-Broadway. It’s not for want of a space to go to nor for want of commercial producers to lead them there (Perfect Arrangement was enhanced at Primary Stages by a commercial team), it’s for want of a model to succeed there. Commercial off-Broadway has, in large part, become an impossible model to depend on. It used to be that these kinds of pieces could readily transfer to any number of sought-after commercial off-Broadway houses and have a fair chance of financial success. Musicals like Little Shop of Horrors and Hedwig and Pulitzer Prize-winning plays like Three Tall Women and Dinner With Friends. If those shows were happening now, they would likely have to transfer to Broadway or not at all.
Part of the dilemma comes from Broadway, whose expanding canvas (Fun Home, Hand To God, Gentleman’s Guide, for example) has created an existential challenge to commercial off-Broadway, which used to be where you went for edgier, hipper, smaller work. Those distinctions no longer have meaning – even more so as commercial off-Broadway ticket prices are in many cases comparable to Broadway’s. Until we redefine what commercial off-Broadway uniquely means (for artists and audiences), it will continue to struggle.
GERARD: I’m amused, Jordan, to see you note the high price of off-Broadway tickets. Tickets to Hamilton over Thanksgiving weekend are going for $2,802 a pair in the last row of the orchestra at the Richard Rodgers, but I digress. I don’t think theatergoers necessarily make a distinction between off-Broadway and on; they want to see a great show, or a hot show, wherever it is. Last year at this time it was Hamilton at the Public; this year it’s David Bowie’s Lazarus at the New York Theatre Workshop. My fear is that producers no longer seem interested in the modest hit. (The exception may be Scott Rudin, who gambled on the Pulitzer winning The Flick, a very challenging show, only to see it extend its run several times at the little Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village. I doubt it would have lasted a month on Broadway.) To be sure, having The Book of Mormon to keep your investors happy goes a long way toward taking the sting out of a risk like The Flick.
ROTH: Well it wouldn’t be one of our columns without a little pricing debate! My point is that commercial off-Broadway cannot market itself as the inexpensive theater-going option relative to Broadway when audiences can come to Broadway for a similar price. But since you took the opportunity to quote the highest possible price a broker may be asking on a singularly hot show on a singularly hot holiday weekend (which btw doesn’t mean those tickets will actually sell at that price), I will take the opportunity to remind you that across Broadway, for every premium ticket sold, many more are sold at the lowest price range.
The hot shows you mention are not commercial off-Broadway, they’re non-profit off-Broadway, which is thriving and continues to be an important foundation for growing the work that will ultimately fill Broadway houses and theaters of all sizes around the world. But commercial off-Broadway is suffering. It’s not that producers aren’t interested in a modest hit. It’s that if that modest hit doesn’t make sense for Broadway, going off-Broadway is no longer the consistently viable option it used to be. Of course there are exceptions, but on the whole, we’ll have to reinvent the commercial off-Broadway model in order to assure its future.