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: My box office report this week turned a spotlight on the bleak outlook for the serious plays on Broadway this season even when a star’s name adorns the marquee. Hughie, Eclipsed, Blackbird all showed signs of struggle or worse (Hughie already has closed weeks before its run was scheduled to end) despite the big names in their casts (Forest Whitaker, Lupita Nyong’o, Jeff Daniels & Michelle Williams). I think this is an economic, and not a cultural issue. Folks will pay the big money for shows that reveal exactly where the money went: costumes, eye-popping scenery, eye-popping chorus dancers. But they won’t gamble on a downer, even when it comes with a star, for that kind of money. Especially when the show runs 90 minutes or less with no intermission (unless Al Pacino is in the cast, but he’s sui generis, a phenomenon unto himself).
One test may be the revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, beginning performances this weekend under the Roundabout’s nonprofit banner with a cast led by Gabriel Byrne, Jessica Lange, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher Jr. Brilliant actors all, in a major downer of a play. Those shows are spinach, and only a certain kind of theatergoer, generally found south of 14th Street, wants spinach, not for the main course and certainly not for dessert. This is one area where I might concede that the commercial-nonprofit collaboration is a good thing: Connecting the subscription list of a big nonprofit like Lincoln Center Theater with a commercial producer who has an unnatural lust for Ibsen guarantees bodies in seats (or at least a chink of the subscribers’ money) and can lure big-name actors in search of “serious-actor” cred and a Tony nomination.
ROTH: Before we read too deeply into the last few weeks’ grosses, we need to remember that spring break is a time when many tourists (more likely to choose that eye-popping musical) flock to New York and many New Yorkers (more likely to know about these new plays already) may head out of town. Blackbird and Eclipsed should build as awards season heats up. And it’s worth noting that the strength on the musical side was spread very wide across many shows, with 10 musicals grossing over $1 million and three musicals topping $2 million.
But to your point, here’s the thing about spinach: Sometimes it ends up being seriously delicious (I’m looking at you, creamed spinach). But if we think it’s spinach before we taste it, we often won’t go so far as to actually put it in our mouths to find out. These plays are exhilarating experiences, but too many people aren’t tasting to find out. That is the beauty of a subscription audience — they don’t buy a la carte so are willing to taste more. Though while I love commercial/non-profit collaborations, if we’re talking limited runs of average-size plays, one might argue the nonprofits can just do that on their own — as you point out with Long Day’s Journey.
The part I’ll challenge is this: While all theatergoers want to get their money’s worth, I don’t think they primarily measure that for plays by seeing money on the stage; we get that feedback more about musicals. But while the concern may not be that kind of economic issue, I wonder if it’s a social/emotional issue. We all go through phases of wanting to face the world … and wanting to escape it.
Oh, one more challenge: “Ninety minutes, no intermission” are the most popular words in the theater. It’s strange that this thing we love we want to get over with, but that is a selling point for many audiences. As the great Harvey Fierstein says, “Laugh, cry, home by 10:00.”
GERARD: That first quote sounds perilously close to James Schamus’ dictum that the four most important words in the movie business are “No Outside Food Allowed.”
I don’t think I can recall a situation in which a play no one was going to — even with critics’ raves — was saved by Tony nominations. Next subject: I’m alarmed by the increasingly officious, not to say martial, tone of the theatergoing experience. We’ve all gotten used to announcements telling us not only to turn off our phones but also to unwrap candy, adjust our headsets and other such useful business. But lately, I’ve been handed more and more programs that say No Late Seating, or No One Will Be Admitted After the Play Begins. At one recent critics’ preview, my colleagues and I were asked to restrict our note-taking so as not to distract the actors!
None of this has stopped the boorish behavior of people who should know better — I still cannot recall a single performance in recent times when some idiot’s phone didn’t go off somewhere in the theater. But if I have reason to take momentary leave during a performance and someone tells me I can’t return to my seat, I will seethingly explain that no one has a right to deny me courteous access to the seat I’ve rented for the duration of this performance. And I might add a request that the theater owner provide an inch or two between my knees and the seat in front of me, so that if I must return, the disturbance I cause will be minimal. Of course, that seems about as likely as more stalls in the ladies restrooms.
ROTH: Generally, I’m with you on this one. We must create a welcoming experience for our theatergoers — both our frequent guests and first timers who may become frequent if we deliver — and nothing says welcome like a long list of rules and restrictions and requirements. We have tried to remove as many of these as possible, relieving our teams of the responsibility of constant “stop, don’t, no” and instead “welcome, thank you, yes.” Our audience is an essential component of our art form, not to mention our business, and we need to make them feel that their presence is essential to us, not merely tolerated.
But here’s where I’m conflicted: I too recently sat in the audience of some of these plays — intense, intimate, quiet work — and was aware that the spell was never broken by people awkwardly maneuvering around me after coming in late or getting up and coming back. It was a kind of social contract: We stayed put out of respect for each other and for the artists on stage. Once we took off, we were on the journey to this other world and nothing pulled us back down to Earth until the end. So how can we balance both? How can we create both a transporting and a welcoming experience? That’s what we have to keep working toward.