The unholy alliance between commercial theater producers and subsidized theaters – where shows often try out en route to Broadway – took a bizarre twist Wednesday with news that Duncan Sheik’s musical adaptation of American Psycho was heading directly to Broadway.
The change of plan, reported in the New York Times, follows the announcement last week that the musical’s Los Angeles-based producer, Act 4 Entertainment, had pulled the plug on a planned U.S. premiere of the show. It was set to begin in February 2015 at the highly regarded off-Broadway nonprofit Second Stage Theatre. The abrupt cancellation caught Second Stage off guard, leaving a last-minute hole in its season schedule in the wake of major publicity touting the anticipated premier.
Yet the move surprised no one, given advance word from the show’s successful U.K. premiere last spring and the casting of Benjamin Walker, a hot young star on the rise (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), in the central role of Patrick Bateman. The part was created on film by Christian Bale in the 2000 film based on Brett Easton Ellis‘ 1991 novel about Wall Street, excess, sexual violence and couture labels.
It’s been decades since commercial producers discovered that funneling money to nonprofit theaters was cheaper than the old system of trying out in New Haven, Boston or Washington D.C. The practice has become so standard that shows produced directly for Broadway are the rarity, and the vast majority of Tony Award– and Pulitzer Prize-winning plays and musicals have gotten their start in nonprofit, tax-exempt theaters. Indeed, Broadway itself is home to three nonprofit companies (Lincoln Center Theater, the Roundabout Theatre Company and the Manhattan Theatre Club) operating five of the 40 Broadway-designated theaters.
In exchange for providing publicly subsidized venues for commercial projects, the nonprofits get cash infusions, bragging rights, a piece of the Broadway box office if the show is a hit and face time on national TV if the show wins a Tony.
Two of today’s most prolific subsidized developers of commercial ventures are the Cambridge, MA-based American Repertory Theatre, whose Broadway transfers include Pippin and the upcoming Finding Neverland, and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, whose revival of This Is Our Youth opened last week on Broadway with Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin.
These deals have unquestionably helped keep Broadway thriving even as critics question the predominance of commercial considerations at nonprofit enterprises. What makes the American Psycho switcheroo so tantalizing an example of the inherent conflict is that Act 4 Entertainment is a film- and new-media-development company founded by David Johnson that describes itself as committed to projects that “motivate and inspire audiences across the world toward social action.”
A tyro in Broadway’s financially treacherous waters who’s managed to remain something of a mystery figure, Johnson turned to more experienced producers for advice. Would that he had done this before striking his arrangement with Second Stage. Given the title’s high recognition value, its young star and Sheik’s success with Spring Awakening, it’s not surprising that the producers advised Johnson to stick it to Second Stage, never mind social conscience. Which is what he appears to have done. Nonprofit theaters, take note: It’s just bidnez.