The Soaring Cost Of Broadway Land (And Air); A $25M Freebie; And The Promise Of Rumer Willis: Gerard & Roth

By Jeremy Gerard, Jordan Roth

MCC Theatre

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: As a longtime champion of non-traditional casting,  I couldn’t resist starting off with this clip from MCC Theatre’s MisCast gala, in which On Your Feet! star Ana Villafañe raps Aaron Burr with Broadway youngsters Joshua Colley (Les Miserables), Luca Padovan (School of Rock) and Douglas Baldeo (Kinky Boots) in the “Schuyler Sisters” scene from Hamilton. Over to you, Jordan.

ROTH: Love it! MCC always miscasts that event so perfectly. So: Remember when everyone was watching the same TV shows? Or at least had heard of them? Now, when the topic turns to TV, many of the shows I love and talk about (You’re The Worst, Casual, Catastrophe) are often met with blank stares. As our network options continue to multiply exponentially and now stream infinitely, the need for a critical mass of viewers across all demographics has gone away. TV can and does make shows for all of our many particular niches. On the other hand, Broadway has gone the exact opposite over the same time. It used to be that if a show appealed to middle-aged women or to gay men or other individual demographic groups, it could be a solid hit. Not anymore. Now, shows need to cast an ever-widening net to find success — they need everyone.

Broadway Theater District

Neither the TV nor the Broadway trajectory is particularly surprising on its own, but fascinating when taken together. Why has TV splintered audiences while Broadway has centralized them? One answer is money: Broadway expenses have risen year after year (and with them, ticket prices) while TV has figured out how to make shows from micro to max budgets. Another is space: growing from three networks to hundreds of cable outlets to tons of streaming opportunities, the space for TV feels like it’s approaching infinity. Space for Broadway on the other hand has stayed the same — 40 theaters, give or take a few. I can’t help thinking, though, that a deeper cultural shift is causing filmed story-telling to go one way and live story-telling to go the other.

GERARD: I wonder if this is your way of saying that the options available to Broadway theater owners are limited by the landmarking of theaters that prevents the owners from repurposing their properties. Of course, that hasn’t stopped anyone from building new theaters, as was the case in the ’70s when the Gershwin (née Uris), Circle In The Square and the Minskoff were put up with help from the John Lindsay administration. This is a long and complicated history that ended up with the city allowing theater owners to sell the oxygen above their landmarked buildings to other developers in the neighborhood — the benefits of which you and I disagree on. I believe it has profoundly changed the human scale of the Theater District. One good consequence has been the creation of the Theater Subdistrict Council, which gets a share of the money from the sale of air rights and distributes those funds to nonprofits that contribute to that sense of community builders are working so hard to destroy.

Times SquareNow the city wants to renegotiate the formula it uses to calculate how much theater owners must pay the Subdistrict Council from the windfall of their air rights sales. I fear this is bad news for the owners, who will have to pony up more money to the fund. Forgive me for diverting our conversation from show to business but in my look into this subject I discovered something pretty interesting: Last year’s sale of the Helen Hayes Theatre to the nonprofit Second Stage for $25 million specifically excluded the air rights. Those were just sold to developers for — wow, another $25 million! So the owners banked about $50 million, according to city records, and Second Stage is paying debt service on a $25 million fixer-upper. I asked Second Stage — a vibrant company and one of my favorites — about this, and they acknowledged that the air rights were never on the table. When I asked why, they declined to comment.

ROTH: That’s not where I was going, but I’ll go there with you now. That’s not a fair characterization of the Hayes deal. A Broadway theater — a landmark that is hugely expensive to maintain, which is why the air rights transfers always made sense and why increasing the tariff more than 600% seems punitive — is one of the rarest pieces of real estate in New York City. Just ask a producer trying to book one. And these theaters are almost never for sale, so in the very uncommon event that one is, of course it will command a good price. It’s worth it. Had the air rights been included, the price would have been higher, because that’s what they’re worth on the open market. Had the theater not needed renovations, the price would have been more, because less investment post-sale would have been required. But as it is, the sellers got a good market price for a very rare asset and the buyers got a permanent home on the world’s most prominent theatrical platform from which to further their mission and impact. Win-win.

GERARD: Hmmm. As I recall, the commercial theater world passed on the chance to buy the Hayes because the asking price was too high and it’s tough to make such a small house profitable. (Though I should mention that several shows, including Rock of Ages, were commercial hits there and it’s currently home to the superb play, The Humans, in a commercial production.)

New York, America - May 2011Next subject: Speaking of Times Square, New York’s City Council passed legislation this week to regulate costumed (and, in the case of the desnudas, uncostumed) panhandlers on the plazas south of Father Duffy Square by designating zones that will corral the Elmos, Buzz Lightyears and their pals. (Will there be separate ones for comedy clubs? Ratso Rizzos?) I see that the Shubert Organization and Jujamcyn were supporters of the bill.

Not surprisingly, one consequence of this saga has been the organizing of these street people into a political force claiming interference with their rights of assembly and free speech, and casting the businesses as Goliaths stomping on immigrant Davids trying to earn a living. I sympathize with them — even as I dodge them assiduously every evening as I make my way through the congested, chaotic Times Square thrum. Far be it from me to decry chaos and congestion in Times Square, the entropical center of the live-entertainment universe. Still, I can’t help but be amused by the increasing political stickiness wrought by the plazafication of the Theater District.

ROTH: Progress isn’t always a straight line and solving issues often brings up new issues that in turn need to be solved. The City Council, led by Daniel Garodnick and Corey Johnson who introduced this bill, are to be applauded for this important step. To be clear, no one’s rights are being infringed — in fact, the opposite. Those who make their livings as costume characters, desnudas and others will continue to be able to work in Times Square in designated commercial areas, so that you can exercise your right to walk safely and unimpeded through public space. This is about making Times Square safer, more welcoming and more available to all, rather than dominated by some.

Rumer WillisGERARD: I am in awe of your optimism, and in that spirit, I want to end on a high note. Two, actually. I missed Rumer Willis’ stint as Roxy Hart in Chicago a while back, but heard she was great, so I went to the Café Carlyle this week to see her debut there. You only have a couple of more chances to see her, and you should, because she’s brilliant, and this time she doesn’t even have to compete with Daddy Bruce playing just down the block. Her set list ranges from classics like Billie Holiday’s sardonic “God Bless The Child” to Amy Winehouse’s haunting “You Know I’m No Good.” Rumer has a powerhouse voice yet she knows how to belt it out in an intimate environment without making your head hurt. And she projects a vulnerability that’s just touching in ballads like “Since I Fell For You.” See her show and follow the career of an artist I’m confident will only get better as she matures.

Someone I’ve already been following for a long time is jazz pianist Bill Charlap, son of Broadway’s own Mark “Moose” Charlap (think “I Won’t Grow Up” and “Hook’s Tango” from Peter Pan). A musician of dazzling technique and incomparable style, Bill knows the songbook better than anyone. So when he headlines a show for Jazz At Lincoln Center titled “Broadway To Harlem,” I’m there. You should be too — it’s tonight and tomorrow in the Rose Theater at the Time Warner Center.



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