Here’s where you belong

A near-future conversation I’m rather dreading goes like this:

“You write musicals? Like, on Broadway?”

“Off-Broadway, actually.”

“They do those there?”

Once a dynamo of musical experimentation and activity, Off-Broadway’s tuner output has been diminished to next-to-nothing. I’ve long heard producers and others who’ve run the numbers gripe that the economic model no longer works. That’s something that sticks in my head, if not in my craw. What do they mean by that?

There was a time when you could make a killing off-Broadway. Now, it’s where angels fear to tread. For some reason, I recently found myself staring at this Wikipedia paragraph:

The 1954 Marc Blitzstein adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, which ran for six years, showed that musicals could be profitable off-Broadway in a small-scale, small orchestra format. This was confirmed in 1959 when a revival of Jerome Kern and P. G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Jane ran for more than two years. The 1959–1960 Off-Broadway season included a dozen musicals and revues including Little Mary Sunshine, The Fantasticks, which ran for over 40 years, and Ernest in Love, a musicalization of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 hit The Importance of Being Earnest.

Off-Broadway, as a concept, as a type of theatre, as an alternative to Broadway, barely existed prior to that famous production of Threepenny Opera (which, surprisingly to some, landed on my list from last week of Shows You Should Know).  In its infancy – and even more so with straight plays – Off-Broadway was home to astounding and rather profitable pieces.  And could these musicals possibly be more different from each other?  Threepenny Opera is harsh and caustic.  Avarice, not love, makes the world go round and the actors face front to harangue the audience.  The polar opposite would have to be Leave It To Jane, a silly tale from (and for) a simpler time.  Little Mary Sunshine is a full-blown spoof of those operettas everyone began to consider silly, post-Oklahoma!  The Fantasticks celebrates its elemental smallness, with innovative and pretty music, on the subject of love and maturation.  Ernest In Love is entirely conventional, like many a Broadway show, but, with no chorus, smaller in size.  Its lyricist was very kind to me at a low point in my career.

But this sets me thinking how my oeuvre is somewhat similar, and, one might say, belongs Off-Broadway rather than On.  Murder at the Savoy spoofs Gilbert and Sullivan operettas the way Little Mary Sunshine spoofs American and Continental operettas.  Such Good Friends is a musical dramedy sans chorus: We did it with ten players at the Julia Miles but I’ve since rewritten it to be done by nine.  The Heavenly Theatre is every bit as caustic as Threepenny Opera.  The Christmas Bride doesn’t sound anything like The Fantasticks, but similarly puts the spotlight on love and family.

But the devil lies in the differences.  My shows all played limited runs: a theatre was booked for a certain period of time, and that theatre had something else booked to come in as soon as we were over.  The five from over fifty years ago were all commercial enterprises, set up to run as long as they could find an audience – and boy, could they!  With the revival of The Fantasticks running for so many years now at the Snapple Center, it’s hard for me to recall the brief period of time when it wasn’t playing in New York.

What we have today that we didn’t have before I was born are theatre companies that produce a season, largely for a fair number of subscribers.  Examples are Playwrights Horizons (Floyd Collins), New York Shakespeare Festival (Giant), and Manhattan Theatre Club (Murder Ballad). Sometimes, when a show has to close because the next one’s coming in, they’ve their own selves to blame. But, ever since The New York Shakespeare Festival’s experience with Hair, in the late Sixties, shows have been produced Off-Broadway in the hope that they’ll move on to Broadway. If enough money is raised, the Off-Broadway run can serve as the pre-Broadway try-out, and play at a financial loss.  When I saw In the Heights on 37th Street, there were empty seats all around me. And such a big cast! Probably not profitable until it came to Broadway.

Producers can rent Off-Broadway spaces – if they’ve got the dough – indefinitely.  But advertising costs are tremendous.  Unions set different pay scales for Off- and On- Broadway.  And there’s a substantial portion of the ticket-buying public that doesn’t want to figure out where Minetta Lane or Lafayette Street are.  These issues all act as pressure to bring shows to Broadway.

But what if you’ve written a tiny show? I was rather taken with [title of show] but boy did its cast of four seem dwarfed by their big Broadway theatre. Passing Strange got a lot of raves, but didn’t sell a lot of seats since what could have been an extended cabaret auto-biography felt out-of-place to some audiences. A walk around the theatre district sometimes seems surreal: large cast shows with big sets (I’m thinking 42nd Street) co-exist with intimate revues (like Ain’t Misbehavin’) and I spend way too much time fretting that those who pay over $100 for a seat want to see where that money’s going.

Speaking of spending way too much time, I’ll wrap this up with some modest proposals. The New York Times, in their print edition, should feature a comprehensive listing of Off-Broadway productions, like they used to.  It also seems unfair that a tiny ad in what’s called The ABCs costs so much more than similarly-sized ads in other parts of the paper. New York City should value Off-Broadway’s proven ability for creating new art by reducing taxes on Off-Broadway venues. Actors Equity and the other unions should reassess the question of whether they’ve set salary rates so high, too few members are getting work. And those companies that produce new musicals should set up contingency plans so that if audience demand is such that they could run forever Off-Broadway, they can stay Off- and do just that.

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