Forbes, that source for business information, reported, earlier this month, “Musicals Make More Money on the Road than on Broadway” and that would certainly seem to be good news. Some days later came the not-so-good news that last year’s Tony-winning musical, The Band’s Visit, has posted its closing notice. The Forbes story had already troubled me, and I found myself in a conversation with a lady from Phoenix (like Sally Durant) about Rent, which, she informed me, is now greeted with audience participation, people on the wrong side of the footlights shouting things, or singing along.
There’s a lot to digest, here. The Band’s Visit, I’m happy to tell you, recouped its investment on Broadway. Whatever road money it makes may be considered gravy. But we can all recall a time when winning the Tony for Best Musical meant you’d run for years. The Band’s Visiting for a little over a year, despite universal rave reviews and excellent word-of-mouth. Its closing is a reminder that high quality doesn’t necessarily mean high profit.
And we can turn this into a trivia game: Which musicals got raves, the top Tonys, were widely loved by audiences and yet didn’t have substantial runs? Redhead? Less trivially, did Fun Home find an audience on the road?
I get perversely perturbed about certain things related to show business. A few years ago, a show bombed on Broadway: got pans, played roughly 100 performances, word-of-mouth was pretty poor. Yet it toured. And this had nothing to do with its quality or how it was received. It had everything to do with the celebrity status of one of its authors, someone who’d never written a musical before, but is beloved for an affable personality and good humor in a completely unrelated field. The same show, written by someone who isn’t famous, wouldn’t have ever been seen again – maddening.
There’s another sort of show mentioned in the Forbes article. Imagine a musical that the New York community of critics and theatre-goers don’t consider good enough for New York. It may play in Peoria, where, it’s said, people don’t have the same standards for quality that we do in the Apple. That doesn’t bother me at all.
This notion recalls Arthur Laurents’ great exchange in Gypsy: “New York is the center of everything!” “New York is the center of New York!” Here’s what I wonder: If the rest of the country has different requirements of entertainment, there should be plenty of examples of musicals that have cleaned up without ever playing The Great White Way. And I’m just going to leave that there as another trivia question for you.
The New York production serves as a de facto imprimatur. Ooh! This show played in New York! It must be good! It must be better than this show that never played New York! This ludicrous proposition is widely believed by theatre people everywhere. On the road, people buy tickets to shows “fresh from Broadway” even if the show was only there a few weeks. I know writers who create fine musicals in different parts of the country who always aspire to get their work seen in Manhattan. And I’m writing this knowing that my next show will play in Los Angeles but not in New York, where I’ve had about a dozen works done in the past.
Rent, which had a partially live TV broadcast last month, has been much on a lot of people’s minds.Here’s what I said to that Phoenician: I feel for Jonathan Larson, who, like me, toiled for years writing little musicals that very few people have ever heard of. His rock amalgam of La Bohème and the Tompkins Square Park riot attracted the attention of what would seem the perfect theatre for it: The New York Theatre Workshop is a grungy little space on East Fourth Street, just a couple of blocks away from where the action takes place. When you create a musical for off-off-Broadway, you consider the audience experience. Attendees would have to be brave enough to walk a stretch of the Bowery, enter a storefront not known for musicals, and then listen to rockers bouncing sounds off of near walls. This wasn’t your parents’ musical comedy, but something different, cutting edge. And then, its sole creator died, days from his 36th birthday. He doesn’t live to ride the skyrocket of the show’s success. Soon, the pressure’s on to bring it to Broadway.
Cagily, the producers sought to retain some of that off-off experience on-on Broadway. They renovated the only Broadway theatre south of 42nd Street, a rarely-used 1,232 seat house and did something truly clever: The renovation didn’t make it look new, it made it look old. Dirty, grungy, positively redolent of the East Village setting. I saw Rent there and had more fun finding my seat than at most of the show. The environment was apt: I felt like I was in one of those lofts, with the characters, their voices – including Idina Menzel – bouncing off the nearby walls.
Twenty years later, I saw the touring production (cast by my wife, Joy Dewing) in the least apt environment imaginable: Orange County, California. The theatre was cavernous, with 1700 non-fixed seats – that is, they weren’t even screwed in to the floor. While the show was amplified, it seemed oddly remote, as there were no walls for the sound to bounce off of. The ceiling was so high, I wondered if this was a converted sports arena.
If you saw Rent on TV (I’m not one of the few), you missed the thrill of rock ricocheting off thick walls from performers who breathe the same air you do. But don’t get me started on televised musicals. Consider, instead, how far we all are from Larson’s vision. He created an intimate musical for a couple hundred brave souls to see together. Unless you took yourself to a grunge club for the telecast, you got nothing like that.
A highly-regarded little musical is on the road as I write this, in a 3000-seat theatre. It’s the first time its creators are making money, and I’m happy for them. But I wonder if history has repeated itself: They fashioned something with a certain level of intimacy, and then, in the provinces, it’s placed in a monstrous edifice larger than an airplane hangar. And I don’t care that the setting of the show is an airplane hangar; that just seems wrong to me.