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.
ROTH: I’ve been having the most exhilarating play-going experiences lately, most recently the opening night of Eclipsed, an astounding new work giving vital voice to riveting stories and monumental talent new to Broadway. Eclipsed marks the first time a Broadway play has been written, directed and performed entirely by women. And just a few weeks from now, Waitress will become the first Broadway musical with a creative team of all women. Eclipsed is not only a production of all women, it is a production of all women of color, many of whom, including the astonishing Lupita Nyong’o, are making their Broadway debuts.
This is an historic first, and firsts, especially on Broadway, are hard to achieve and should be celebrated. And for making this first happen, huge congratulations to lead producers Alia Jones-Harvey and Stephen Byrd and their Eclipsed team, who also point the way for producers of color. But no less important are the seconds, which turn the firsts into change that has roots. Seconds not only for the artists who will follow in these inspiring footsteps, but also for the next projects of these artists. Liesl Tommy needs to be on every short list of directors for upcoming Broadway projects, and not just those pieces about communities of color. We all need to be vying for Danai Gurira’s next piece; happily she already has a current second in Familiar, now playing off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. And every single one of these fearless actresses needs to be seriously considered for next season’s Broadway casting. Not only for black characters but for all characters, just as Sophie Okonedo is giving us an Elizabeth Proctor for the ages in The Crucible.
And when you add up The Crucible, Eclipsed, The Humans, Blackbird, Long Day’s Journey and The Father all opening within weeks of each other, can we please agree to the death of those articles on the death of serious plays on Broadway?
GERARD: Before we crack our clavicles in a paroxysm of back-patting, let’s recognize that celebrating all-female production and creative teams on Broadway underscores, rather than resolves, the issue. Did I mention that it’s 2016? And please let’s not use Hollywood as the bar against which we measure the triumph on Broadway of diversity. For the moment, I see exactly one woman playwright on Broadway. One.
But of course I agree that this season has a lot to recommend it as we throw ourselves down the inevitable black hole of openings before the Tony nominations cut-off date. Even more if (unlike, say, the Tonys), you open the aperture to let in light from off-Broadway. Sure, let’s salute producers willing to chance an arm (and a leg) by bringing non-smiley-face dramas like Eclipsed or The Humans in the commercial bazaar, and I look forward to all of the shows you mentioned.
On a related subject: I’m not a big fan of “Is Broadway Dead?” stories either, though I’ve no doubt written my share of fabulous invalid, live-theater-on-a-resuscitator articles. We can’t tell yet how these terrific dramas and highly entertaining-slash-socially conscious musicals will do for their investors.
But Broadway, as you love to point out, is more than just theaters and the shows inside them. It’s an idea, of that place in the middle of the city distinct from the rest of the town, with its unparalleled three-dozen beautiful theaters and the businesses that support them. The reality of that idea, however, is as distant a memory as the smoke ring that once floated lazily above Times Square from the analog Camel cigarettes billboard. Times Square today is a nightmare. A different nightmare from the Midnight Cowboy ’70s, to be sure, but a nightmare nonetheless, with the idiot plaza that makes traffic worse than ever for cars and the gauntlet of panhandling Fuzzies and Nudies appending themselves to pedestrians; to the forest of skyscrapers that are destroying the scale of the Theater District and which will inevitably price the few remaining small businesses out of the area. And only for the sake of propriety, I won’t even mention the cost of producing and the price of tickets. I think there remains plenty to be on guard against to protect both the show and the business of Broadway.
ROTH: My idea of the idea of Broadway is not a protected enclave but rather a constant conversation with our world, changing as the culture changes to reflect and refract who and where we are right now, like it or not. Times Square is in many ways an embodiment of that evolving culture, in all its glories and challenges, and the fact that Broadway is physically entwined in it is one of the ways we can stay engaged in and deliver on the promise of that idea. Of course, pushing for change is always part of our ever-changing world, so yes, there are parts of our life in Times Square we want to push, but we want to push them forward to what our world can become, not back to what we think it once was.
To me, growth and development is forward and the idea of Broadway is robust enough to thrive amid and benefit from the reaching skyscrapers, not wither. You are right that traffic has gotten worse in Times Square, but the plazas are only one small reason. The others are more people coming into the city by car, the addition of bike lanes on Eighth and Ninth Avenues, the proliferation of street fairs and the surge in hop on/off tourist buses. With less furniture, obstacles and commercial events the plazas can become thoroughfares of motion, allowing pedestrians to plug into and traverse the energy of Times Square. But to achieve that we need legislation. Last week City Council Members Corey Johnson and Daniel Garodnick introduced a bill giving the Department of Transportation authority to manage and regulate the plazas, just as the Parks Department does for city parks. This would clear the way for designating commercial areas for costume characters and vendors and other areas where pedestrians could walk unencumbered. And before we complain about all the people filling those plazas, let’s remember those people — who were only a few years ago spilling into the streets for lack of sidewalk space — are also filling our theaters.
The idea of Broadway is also that it is a community, and our community got a little better this week. In the wake of the truly unfortunate cancellation of Nerds due to lost financing, one of its stars, the great Patti Murin, took to her blog to call out the anonymous posts on BroadwayWorld’s chat board for their snark, misinformation and cruelty. Almost immediately, her post reverberated around the theater world, gaining support and social shares from so many who have also felt attacked and shamed by anonymous posters. And then something just as remarkable happened: Within a few hours, Rob Diamond (who runs BroadwayWorld) created several new features to help readers report abuse on every post and to separate the chat board from the site’s editorial coverage. Sensitive and immediate action demonstrating how one of the core tenets of a community is to constantly make itself better at being a community. But while these changes will do much to prevent cruel language from spreading (and to be clear, the issue here is cruelty, not opinions), they will not change the root problem. Why do we ever take pleasure in the demise of something we profess to love? I say we, because I know we’ve all done it at one point or another, whether we’ve posted it on a chat board or not. Whether we’re in the business or in the audience, we’re all there because we love the theater, so why do we ever want it to lose?
GERARD: That’s always struck me as one of the most enduring anomalies of the theater world. Who supports theater more than actors, directors, designers and producers? They go to shows on their off nights, spend hard-earned dollars and valuable time on risky projects. And yet the toughest critics I know — and not infrequently the nastiest — are those same people. Gossip, backstabbing and character assassination have been a staple of showbiz plays and musicals (not to mention movies) — think All About Eve; think 42nd Street; think A Chorus Line; think Something Rotten! for starters. Add in the anonymity promised by the Internet and it becomes a virus, which like all illnesses tends to bring out the worst in people. I wish Rob Diamond well in his attempt to bring civility to his chat rooms. But more important — to both of us, I think — is that we not squander the lesson of the season: When we pay more than lip service to inclusion, the art soars.