Broadway Follies: On Hal Prince, The Tony Awards & Art V. Commerce

UPDATE Wednesday morning, adding link to N.Y. Times column below. 

Earlier: Jeremy Gerard has covered the evolving fortunes of Jujamcyn Theatres since it became a formidable competitor to the larger Shubert and Nederlander organizations in the late 1980s. In 2013 producer Jordan Roth became Jujamcyn’s majority owner and the Street’s youngest power broker. Here they talk about the state of the industry, the only stipulation being no holds barred.

GERARD: Last week I reported that The Prince Of Broadway, Hal Prince’s new show, will open this fall in Tokyo. It’s a look back over the career of someone who as producer and then director is more responsible for Broadway as we know it than anyone else — by a very long margin. Tokyo’s about as far out of town as an out of town tryout can get. Why there? Because the man who produced West Side Story, A Funny Thing Hal Prince, Daisy Prince and Stephen SondheimHappened On The Way To The Forum and Fiddler On The Roof before directing She Loves Me, followed by Cabaret and Stephen Sondheim’s decade of shows from Company through Merrily We Roll Along and of course Evita and The Phantom of The Opera –- couldn’t raise the money here. Hal has 21 Tony Awards. His successes — and failures – re-defined producing, and no-one brought Broadway staging into the era of spectacle and special effects more decisively than he. And yet I remember spending time as a young reporter shadowing him, along with the legendary Betty Comden and Adolph Green, at backers’ auditions for a new show. What does the guy have to do to get some respect?

ROTH: Hal Prince doesn’t have to do anything to get respect. He already has it and he always will. I don’t think it’s fair to say he couldn’t raise the money here, as he was not producing the show and therefore wasn’t responsible for capitalizing it. There was first one and then another producing team, both with different production plans, neither of which came to fruition. This is now the third and happily it’s happening. And if it ends up opening a new market where shows can be developed and financed pre-Broadway, we will add that to the remarkable list of Hal’s innovations in the theater.

‘Hal Prince doesn’t have to do anything to get respect. He already has it and he always will.’

GERARD: A “Pacific Overture,” then, to cite one of the Sondheim shows Prince brought indelibly to life. OK, let’s talk about the Tony Awards. Today, three nonprofit companies operate five of the 40 houses in the Broadway commercial bazaar, and they’re soon to be joined by a fourth group when Second Stage completes its renovation of the Helen Hayes Theatre. At this month’s Tonys, the only nominee for Best Musical that was a purely commercial venture – no regional theater tryout, no “enhancement” funds from commercial Something Rotten Broadwayproducers – was Something Rotten! in your St. James Theatre. The winning show was Fun Home, which was developed at the Public Theater and while it certainly was a risky move, it’s benefited from breaks not available to Kevin McCollum, the producer of Something Rotten! You’re both a landlord responsible for booking five Broadway houses and a producer. If I were in your shoes, I’d be pretty miffed about that imbalance. Especially when the nonprofits are competing not only for Tonys but for tenants, as in the case of Beautiful, for example, a big commercial hit that’s running in a theater owned by a nonprofit company.

‘Today, three nonprofit companies operate five of the 40 houses in the Broadway commercial bazaar, and they’re soon to be joined by a fourth group.’

ROTH: Actually, collaboration between commercial and non-profit theaters (or as Jerry Schoenfeld used to call them, tax-paying and non-tax-paying theaters) can be very healthy. At its best, it’s two partners, each doing what they are uniquely suited to do. The non-profit may be better suited to lead the development of a show whose commercial potential may not be obvious at first or even ever. The commercial producer may be better suited to build that show into a multi-year, multi-market hit.

To me, the core of what you’re getting at is what work should non-profit theaters be doing and what work shouldn’t they be doing. And this is where Schoenfeld’s distinction is helpful. Non-profit theaters are subsidized by taxpayers, by donors and by anyone who works there for reduced fees. The reason to subsidize any work is that we as a society think it should exist even if the free market doesn’t bring enough money to it The coast of Utopia cast: Martha Plimpton, Tom Stoppard, playwright, Jennifer Ehle and Ethan Hawketo completely support it. So to me, non-profit theaters should be doing work that the free market (read commercial) theater can’t or isn’t doing. The Coast Of Utopia, a 3-part play with over 30 actors, would never have been a commercial enterprise, but it had great reason to exist. A perfect example of non-profit subsidy at is best. And we can all think of examples at its worst –- shows that could just as well have been commercial, but just didn’t happen to be.

So actually, that healthy collaboration we’re talking about can be not just a given show but the total offering of all shows… if non-profit and commercial are each doing what they are uniquely suited to do.

GERARD: While I was researching that Prince Of Broadway story, I found a guest column in The New York Times in which the author lamented the fact that in the public mind, Broadway has come to stand for commercial greed while the real “art” is taking place in the nonprofit sector. “There has grown an unnatural imbalance in prestige regarding repertory companies and regional theaters,” he wrote. “Let me say right off that I am fully respectful of both. I think their growth throughout the country a healthy sign; that they are often instrumental in introducing new people to the special pleasures of live theater; that a living theater depends on a continuous revival of classics and semiclassics. On the other hand, when repertory becomes an airing ground for new plays, it takes on all the elements of the Broadway theater.” Astonishingly, Hal Prince wrote those words in 1964. (And here it is: Hal was both prescient and wrong: Broadway today thrives on revivals, while the very Tom Stoppard play you mention, The Coast Of Utopia, was mounted by Lincoln Center Theater.

ROTH: Wow, ’twas ever thus! Even the great Hal Prince and even back in 1964, Broadway was struggling with the commercial vs. art perception.  And lest I let you tip those scales, I don’t think we can say Broadway today thrives on revivals when this season there were 10 new musicals compared with 5 musical revivals, 2 of which were produced by non-profits, including the exquisite The King And I by the same Lincoln Center Theater.

Reading Hal’s column, I’m interested in how much he focuses on risk. Risk both as a prerequisite for calling something art and as determining how much one deserves success. Then and now, we seem to easily forget the great risk originally associated with shows once they turn out to be hits.  Hal’s list includes the original production of Show Boat and West Side Story but could now include The Book of Mormon and The Lion King. Easy to forget how risky those shows looked before they happened. And easy to forget there was ever a world without those shows until someone decided to write them and someone decided to produce them. Someone like Hal Prince, “the producer of the forthcoming Fiddler On The Roof” as the article calls him. Amazing!
And let’s be clear — even if a non-profit was involved in the development of a show as we were discussing before, that doesn’t mean the commercial producer takes no or even less risk. Fun Home, as you mentioned, was developed at the Public, received rave reviews there, and was still a giant risk to bring to Broadway. A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder was developed at Hartford Stage and the Old Globe in San Diego, received rave reviews there, and was still a giant risk to bring to Broadway. The nonprofit theater’s risk is essential and so too is the commercial producer’s risk. Both making art, both deserve success.

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