Roth & Gerard Clash On Limited Runs, Hyped Stars, Culture Gulches

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: I was posting a lengthy interview with Hal Prince yesterday as he prepares to head to Tokyo for the opening of Prince Of Broadway when I received the announcement of Scott Rudin’s newest Broadway project. One of the many provocations in my talk with Hal came when he said this: “In 1974 I said, ‘Someday, Broadway will be a stop on the road.’ Well, these 10-, 12-, 14-week limited productions are really the equivalent of that. You’re hedging your bet. You’ll get your money back because the name over the title is so big it doesn’t matter how good it is. I don’t know what that has to do with the theater.”

And there was the release from Scott, announcing the 18-week limited run of Blackbird, starring Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams. I had to laugh at the coincidence. On the one hand, Blackbird is one of the most powerful, disturbing dramas in recent memory, Daniels was brilliant in the Manhattan Theatre Club production eight years ago, and I’m glad to see it get a Broadway turn. On the other hand, what Hal brought up was well-worth discussing, because I agree that these limited runs are not so great for Broadway overall. They inflate prices and scarcity economics becomes the norm rather than the exception.

ROTH: If the only thing we aim for is maximizing the run of a show, Broadway would be a very homogeneous place. There would be no plays at all, limited or otherwise, because musicals are bound to run longer. And of those musicals, there would be no Fun Home or Gentleman’s Guide, because the bigger shows are bound to run longer.

A run is limited either because the star(s) can only commit that much time, or because the producer has decided that’s the best way to mount and market the show, or both. In the first case, should no one be able to see Al Pacino in China Doll or Helen Mirren in The Audience because they can’t play indefinitely? In the second case, should no one get to see Michael Arden’s production of Spring Awakening because it can’t run indefinitely?

If we think we can’t have something, we want it even more. That’s not theater, that’s psychology. So if a limited run makes you run to buy tickets, then amen. And the flip side is the topic of every ad meeting of every long-running show. People think those shows will always be there so they have no urgency to buy tickets now, leaving that long-running show in danger of not running at all. I can’t wait to see Blackbird, and I won’t wait because then I’d miss out.

GERARD: I think that’s a false either/or construct. In too many cases, the stars are driving the revivals, and the box office underscores that. Consider the parallel experience a few seasons back of revivals of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Al PacinoThe Mamet was a moribund production, while the Albee was both electrifying and a persuasive reconsideration of the work. Yet the Mamet sold out, with tickets selling for $500 and more, while the Albee couldn’t get arrested. The difference? Pacino starred in the limited run of the Mamet, while the Albee was open-ended and, while boasting a company of some of the country’s best actors, lacked stars.

ROTH: Virginia Woolf got produced, so your issue is with the audience for not supporting it, and shows like it, more. But now you want producers to ignore that going forward?

GERARD: Next topic: Writing about the changes in (read: diminution of) arts coverage at the Post and the News, I was somewhat taken aback by the nonplussed attitude of many in the arts, as if it was all inevitable and really, who cares? What struck me was the unspoken belief that if it doesn’t sell tickets, it’s not worth supporting.

ROTH: I was also surprised by some of the comments on cutting arts coverage. Is it inevitable? Maybe. And is it bad for us? Yes. And while this is more frequently raised about advertising than press, I continue to be surprised by those who hold “print is dead” as their mantra. It may be, if you’re looking for a growth company to invest in, but not if you’re looking to make an impact on New York frequent theatergoers. Print is different, not dead. Let’s go back to Scott Rudin. He has revived the art of print advertising for theater. Look at the recent New York Times and New York magazine fall preview issues and his eight consecutive pages (for Book Of Mormon, Shuffle Along, A View From The Bridge and The Crucible) that dominate the front of each. These big statements, along with TV, radio and yes online, are tentpoles of a campaign that create the energy and urgency of must-see Broadway events. And sometimes the limited engagement is another.

GERARD & ROTH: We both want to acknowledge two powerful and moving stories recently unveiled offstage. As Jordan says, “Usually, we celebrate and learn from our beloved Broadway stars by the powerful ways they share themselves on stage. In the last few days, that happened off stage too. With profoundly inspiring honesty and generosity, Laura Benanti  wrote about her recent miscarriage and Jason Danieley and Marin Mazzie shared her ongoing struggle with ovarian cancer. If theater exists to help us know we are not alone, to speak the unspoken, then these brave artists, brave humans, brought the theater to life. To real life.”

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