Broadway Follies: Roth & Gerard On ‘Grey Gardens’, ‘Spring Awakening’, Ticket Lotteries And Political Correctness

Jeremy Gerard has covered the shifting 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. In this weekly email conversation they talk about the state of the industry, the only stipulation being no holds barred.

GERARD: Our ships passed each other last weekend in Sag Harbor where you and your husband saw the Bay Street Theater’s splendid production of Grey Gardens on Saturday night and my wife and I saw it the next day. Michael Wilson staged the show and Betty Buckley and Rachel York starred. It broke box office records, earned terrific reviews – deservedly so — and I gather they’re hoping a producer will bring it in, as they say in the business. I fear there’s little hope of that happening, not with producers lined up around the blocks to fill your theaters and those of your colleagues, and perhaps it’s too soon for a Broadway revival of a show that is still fresh in the memory. But who would have thought that this quiet little theater that used to discourage critics from attending, would think about jumping into the treacherous Broadway surf?

ROTH: Wasn’t it wonderful? A beautiful production of a beautiful show brought to new life by beautiful performances. Betty Buckley particularly got to my heart, as she always does.

Every time I come to Bay Street, I say I love coming to Bay Street. There’s something about the intimacy and casualness of the space, the stroll through town to get there and the wander on the wharf at intermission, the summer relaxation you can feel in the audience. The context literally sets the stage and the pressure, onstage and off, is low.

With Grey Gardens, artistic director Scott Schwartz took that idea of context to a new level by presenting the musical just minutes away from the actual house. I remember seeing the world premiere of Lanford Wilson’s Virgil Is Still The Frog Boy at Bay Street years ago. It was set in the Hamptons and the title referred to a line of graffiti Lanford Wilson outside the Union Square Theater where his 19that was once painted on an overpass on the road between East Hampton and Sag Harbor. To this day, every time I drive under it, I think of that play. This isn’t to say every piece has to be set in the surrounding towns of the theater, but it is to say this theater has a history of understanding and reflecting its community and its unique summer setting and mindset. It’s exciting to watch their artistic ambitions rise, and with that commercial ambitions may rise too. I think they’ll continue to do that by producing work that speaks to its specific context. If later that work works in another context, then great. It’s the difference between aiming for a future and discovering a future.

Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening were the first two shows I brought to Jujamcyn. They opened a month apart, in the fall of 2006. With the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening opening in a few weeks, I’m feeling particularly nostalgic to be able to experience reimaginings of both shows, just a month apart once again.

GERARD: Next topic: We won’t know the details for a few weeks but the Broadway League and Actors’ Equity appear to have come to terms on new contract that will cover actors and stage managers through spring 2019. No strike talk, no negotiations through the press. I wonder whether the Local One negotiation will be as harmonious as stagehands are faced with more complex technology to master as producers inevitably complain about the costs of load-ins and load-outs, not to mention staffing rules. Now I’m hearing that technology is playing a greater role in the theaters themselves (not just the sets), with all sorts of schemes afoot to make the theatergoing experience more, let’s say modern, for patrons. I’m a Luddite on this issue and shiver at such ideas, but I have to concede that when I go to a Broadway show I feel like I’m entering another century, and that since I myself come from another century, this might not be the best way to march into the future.

‘There are so many opportunities for using technology to solve problems and increase service. Especially given that the vast majority of our audiences carry phones around with them at all times that can allow them to access virtually anything.’ 

ROTH: I don’t think the goal is technology just for the sake of being modern, but there are so many opportunities for using technology to solve problems and increase service. Especially given that the vast majority of our audiences carry phones around with them at all times that can allow them to access virtually anything. (Uh oh, we’re back to the cell phone conversation.) One example: We’ve just started online lotteries at Kinky Boots, Jersey Boys, Gentlemen’s Guide and Something Rotten! so people can enter to win low-price tickets ($27-$42 depending on the show) for every performance from wherever they are. The problem with the traditional way is it excludes those who aren’t able to come to the theater to enter hours before the performance because they live outside the city or are working or any number of other reasons. The solution: Let people enter online and only come to the theater if they’ve won. Many more people have entered, so many more people have access to shows at the lowest price.

GERARD: That sounds like an improvement to me. Of course they won’t have Lin-Manuel Miranda performing for them as they stare at their smartphones waiting for the draw. And it doesn’t address fundamental issues of pricing that have made the habit of theatergoing all but impossible, a thing of the past. But the reasons for that change extend beyond just high ticket prices, and we can go into them another time. Two (oh, OK, three) cheers for anything that gets more affordable tickets to more people.

‘A number of readers called me names I won’t reprint here but among them were sexist and disgusting.’

Next subject: I liked a new play, Whorl Inside A Loop, alot. It’s by Sherie Rene Scott and Dick Scanlan, who co-directed with Michael Mayer (speaking of Spring Awakening…). Sherie Rene Scott is a wonderful actress who in her own plays often does a remarkably fine impression of Sherie Rene Scott. I noted that in my review, starting it off by saying “Sherie Rene Scott is beautiful, blonde and busty, an inspired comic actress with an air of practiced innocence that makes her not only irresistible but also believable — a dangerous thing for an artist with larceny on her mind.” I took a deep breath before posting that review. A number of readers called me names I won’t reprint here but among them were “sexist” and “disgusting.” I wouldn’t have characterized Scott that way if I didn’t think she was doing it quite purposefully. I’m actually (I’ll whisper this:) a believer in political correctness. But I seem to have been hoist with my own petard.

ROTH: I loved Whorl Inside A Loop and am still thinking about it a week later. Sherie is a captivating artist and a unique and brave voice, and this piece is so fascinating to me for being both an extension of and departure from her previous work. She uses what we think we know of her and her work to lead us to someplace Sherie Rene Scottwe never saw coming. She does the same for the men she gives voice to — or rather gives stage to so they can give voice to themselves. I hear you digging in the same area, and I’m interested in your saying that you wouldn’t have characterized Sherie the way you did if you didn’t think she was doing it purposefully. What does that mean for you and how do you think that could/should have changed readers’ reactions?

GERARD: Well, I learned long ago you can’t blame readers for not getting your sense of irony. Well, you can, but really, there’s just no profit in it. At Variety, one of my responsibilities each week was rating all of the reviews from the past week as “pro” or “con.” Inevitably one or more colleague would complain that I got it wrong. Oh well, it goes with the territory, I guess

I don’t want to sign off without mentioning that there will be a celebration, open to the public, of the life of the great Roger Rees at 1 P.M. on Monday, September 21, at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Rees, Nicholas Nickleby for eternity, died in July after a battle with brain cancer.

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