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: Well of course there is no Tony Award for Best Song, but there ought to be. We’re seeing a surge on Broadway of contemporary song-writing teams and the original cast albums they generate are best sellers; note the Grammy Award for Hamilton. This season we have Sara Bareilles in her Broadway debut with Waitress and songs by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell in their debut with Bright Star, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Glenn Slater with School of Rock and Duncan Sheik with American Psycho.
The Best Song wouldn’t necessarily come from the Best Score; in fact it offers a way to celebrate songs from shows that didn’t otherwise work. I’m thinking, for example, of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ “Once Upon A Time,” a gem from their 1962 flop All American, or “I Never know When,” a favorite sung by a very young Elaine Stritch in Walter and Jean Kerr’s 1958 Goldilocks (the songs were by the Kerrs with Leroy Anderson and Joan Ford).
This occurred to me when I saw Hamilton last week for the third time (I know what readers are thinking. Sorry, no one said life is fair) and concluded that “The Room Where It Happens” is the best new Broadway song since Rent‘s “Seasons of Love.” It’s the song Aaron Burr sings when he realizes that Alexander Hamilton has earned what he never will have: a seat at the power table. And it crystalizes in one dazzling lyric why: Hamilton lives for ideas, for revolution, for putting himself on the line day after day for what he believes. Burr wants the goodies of power without the risks. He’s an empty vessel. It’s such a perfect, terrifying metaphor for today’s entitled, risk-averse strivers, and the electrifying staging of the number drives the point home further.
But consider that, if we must have contests, “The Room Where It Happens” would get strong competition from Bareilles’ “She Used To Be Mine,” the show-stopper from Waitress. A killer number, a win for Best Song could spread some love to two musicals and encourage contemporary songsmiths to keep coming back to Times Square. Moreover, a Best Song Tony Award could be expanded beyond Tony voters to include the public and — is this really me speaking? — raise the bar on the Tony broadcast’s appeal beyond theater freaks.
ROTH: I’m sorry, I thought I was supposed to be talking with Jeremy Gerard. Who’s this? I’m into this idea, and I think you’re onto something in mentioning the contribution of the staging — and I would add Leslie Odom Jr.’s electrifying performance. The Best Song award could be shared by all the artists who made it what it is on stage, and in that way it wouldn’t just be Best Score Lite. The Oscars give Best Song and Best Score both to the writers, but in a film, a song and a score function differently, while in a musical, the score is the sum of the songs. Last season, my vote would have gone to “A Musical” from Something Rotten!, a perfect example of how multiple perfect elements can create a perfect musical theater number. Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick’s hilarious words and music, translated by Casey Nicholaw’s genius choreography and Gregg Barnes ever-changing costumes and brought to life by the extraordinary Brad Oscar and Brian D’Arcy James and a terrific tap-happy ensemble.
Speaking of which, if we’re adding categories, my vote goes to a new Tony for Best Ensemble.
GERARD: Next subject: The season is over and the numbers are in, and no surprise, they’re good-not-great. Total box office revenue was flat compared with last year and audience numbers are down a bit. This also got me thinking about a subject rarely broached: Is the Broadway audience finite? The year-on-year attendance numbers suggest it’s at least consistent. So the question is, do more shows mean increase the chance of failure because the audience is spread too thin and there aren’t enough ticket-buyers to go around even if every show is a hit? Would fewer shows mean bigger audiences? These are the kinds of issues that come to mind in the run-up to the Tony races, when shows open and fall like dominoes in a predictable seasonal ritual.
ROTH: Ah, there’s the Jeremy I know and love, spinning negative. Attendance and grosses were neither flat nor down. They were both up a bit — attendance by 1.6% and grosses by 0.6% (not a huge number, but if it were negative 0.6%, you’d call it down not flat). I’m surprised you didn’t highlight that, for the first time in history, the average ticket price went down, by more than a dollar. Adding up all these numbers finally gives us the answer to how do we lower ticket prices and still keep Broadway healthy: by getting more people to come. And happily, we have. Over the last three years, attendance has increased an impressive 15%.
But to your question, yes the Broadway audience is finite. Not because there are just so many people who’ll ever come, but because there are a finite number of seats in our theaters. That’s the limit, but we’ve got a way to go till every seat for every show is filled. And we can work towards that through our outreach, through our pricing, and most importantly through our shows. The best marketing for a show is a show, and the more shows we present that speak to and reflect wider audiences, the wider our audience will become. Would fewer shows mean more seats filled for the others? On the whole, I don’t think so. There are certainly some shows that can hover as one of the choices a ticket buyer wants to see but never inch up to Number 1 to close the sale. This can be true for many long-running hits as they soften. But if audiences aren’t interested in seeing a show, having fewer other shows to chose from isn’t going to change that.