Tuesday, November 11, 2008

You can't always get what you want...

I wonder what would happen to a Broadway show if its budget was capped? Would we lose the concept of the spectacle as we know it? It was actually John McCain who gave me the idea when he proposed to ease our national debt by freezing all government spending. Although this probably would not be beneficial on a national level I think the same idea applied to Broadway productions would heed a positive result. The gears do not stop turning when you tell a true artist “No.” Instead they turn harder and faster. Artists may not like limitations, but we like challenges. Creating theatre is about overcoming challenges and solving problems; it shouldn’t necessarily be easy. If we pulled a McCain on Broadway, we may not be able to go with our first instincts. We would be forced to think creatively and our productions might turn out to be even better. Although perhaps, when you consider the projected $40 million that Julie Taymor requested for Spiderman the Musical in contrast to a continuously plunging governmental support for the arts, Barack Obama’s concept of “spreading the wealth” might be an even better idea.

Now is not the time to increase Broadway’s budgets. Broadway has been stuck in a sort of artistic lull for awhile now, but more money is not the answer. Bigger budgets are leading to more expensive tickets, and the coveted student rush seems to be slowly fading away. Patrons are paying almost $200 a ticket to sit in a plush seat while our economy steadily crumbles down around us. These are prices that most students and artists definitely cannot afford to pay. The most expensive ticket to a performance that I’ve ever purchased was $85 to see the Rolling Stones because I wasn’t sure they’d all live to tour again.* It was truly a matter of life and death. There are a handful of productions currently on Broadway that interest me, but I just can’t bring myself to pay those prices. What we’re in need of now is theatre that will engage and enlighten us without leaving us completely broke. Smaller budgets and lower ticket prices will fill the houses and diversify the spectators. They will eliminate the idea of elitist theatre that makes bohemian shows like RENT and In the Heights so ironic.

You must be thinking that I’m crazy. Theatre is finally being massively funded, so I should just shut up, right? All of us complain about having insufficient budgets, anyway. I know I do. Well, this is a gutsy statement for a designer to make, but I think we should start rethinking the way we physically create theatre. It is incredibly difficult to be both a theatre artist and an environmentalist. The conventional way of producing theatre is not only expensive, but quite wasteful. I shudder to imagine of the greenest of green theatre, a literal interpretation of Brook’s concept of the empty space, but maybe it’s time to start thinking of ways to reduce the theatre’s carbon footprint. Blogger Mike Lawler has some simple suggestions on how to get the green theatre revolution started.

For all artists out there who are skeptical, I am confident that we can still create beauty on a budget. The spectacle may no longer be found in elaborate scene changes, trap doors, and flying actors, but something a little subtler…like leaving the theatre and realizing that I still have enough money for dinner. If I learned anything from Mick Jagger, it's that you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you nee-eed. Yeah.

*They’ve toured three more times since I saw them. None of them died, but Keith Richards did fall out of a palm tree.


Joshua said...

While I can appreciate the sentiment and understand where you are coming from, the reality is that the lavish expenditures and accompanying budgets that personify and define a Broadway show is, for better or worse, a necessity in order to ensure the continued existence of all theater. The truth is that the vast majority of theatrical works, from Off-Broadway on down, never come close to turning a profit for the simple reason that most ‘straight’ plays do not have a widespread appeal and thus cannot adequately sustain the theatre community. What keeps these shows and theaters opening and staffed season after season are their Broadway counterparts because every family with children knows what to expect when they purchase tickets to any one of the plethora of Disney musicals and for many, that is their only reason for coming to the city. We rely on the tourists from throughout the country and world to ensure that our bills can get paid while continuing to professionally pursue our passion. Recently, a renowned fight coordinator commented that he does the big budget Broadway shows so that he can afford to do the downtown shows that he enjoys.

An even more basic response is that the entire purpose of Broadway is to make money; that is why it is commercial theater. Businesspeople will invest whatever amount of money into a Broadway show they think they can recoup because Broadway is a business, not an art form. While smaller budgets and lower prices may temporarily diversify the spectators, it will be a flash in the pan because the level of entertainment that has come to be expected from a Broadway production would suffer irreparably. As for filling the houses, Broadway shows do that already, and when they stop doing it, they close. That is the nature of the business. Nearly every morning at 7am when I walk by the Eugene O’Neill Theatre there are at least five people in line waiting for the box office to open at 10am so they can get student rush tickets to ‘Spring Awakening’. ‘Wicked’ still sells out almost every performance in the largest Broadway theater (excepting New York State Theatre and City Center) and hundreds of people wait in line every day to put their names in for the chance to win tickets in the raffle.

The spectacle that you propose doing away with is the lifeblood of the theatre industry. Without that spectacle the only thing that would distinguish a Broadway production from its downtown and out-of-state cousins would be its location. Selling 1,933 tickets (the maximum seating capacity of the Gershwin Theatre) to a scaled down production of ‘Wicked’ for $50 each (which ironically is the price for their least expensive ticket) would not make the profit margin large enough for producers to adequately fund the production. This, combined with the scaling down of positions that would accompany a less spectacular production would result in catastrophic job losses throughout the already fragile theatre community which would in turn force countless talented theatre professionals to turn elsewhere to survive in this city which is growing ever more expensive as every second passes.

What it all comes down to is that whether or not we like or agree with theatre’s modus operandi, without Broadway productions, other types of theatre would likely not exist. We can definitely agree upon the industry’s need to be greener, but rather than cut budgets, we could take a cue from the Ricoh Americas Corp. whose new billboard in Times Square will be powered entirely by wind turbines and solar panels and will keep an estimated 18 tons of carbon out of the atmosphere annually. We could also begin sourcing more environmentally friendly materials for our sets. There are numerous ways to make Broadway more eco-friendly, the problem in implementing them (like so many other ‘green alternatives’) is the exorbitant up-front cost which would inevitably push budgets even higher than they already are.

Hope that I could help contribute to the debate. See you Thursday.

Kaitlyn said...

Very strong argument, Josh, and you're right, of course. I failed to point out that this blog was specifically prompted by two shows with extra-large price tags: the recently opened $30 million dream-work that is Shrek, The Musical (which is NOT selling out) and Julie Taymor's proposed budget of $40 million for Spiderman, The Musical (which she's defending vehemently because it's "all for the art").

Yes, Broadway is commercial theatre and commercial theatre is about making a profit. A Broadway show should be bigger and better and have brighter lights and more scenery, and a budget that can produce those things. But private investors are not shelling out the dough for these two shows; they're being produced by companies such as Marvel Comics and Sony. These are both risky shows, and, with another $1 million a week to sustain them, they will not recoup.

What I want to know from my readers is this: given Broadway shows should have a generally large budget, at what point does it become ridiculous?!

My idea to cap the budget was nothing more than a modest proposal, but would there actually be benefits to having a limit on the amount of money spent on a Broadway show? I mean, for the sake of ones morality?

I also maintain that spectacle can be created with less than $30 or $40 million dollars.

You mentioned, Josh, that the problem with an eco-friendly theatre movement is in the up-front cost. But these outrageous budgets prove that the money for it is out there. And wouldn't a green show be a pretty awesome spectacle in itself? Personally, I think Broadway missed a great opportunity by not using Shrek as a beginning. Can't you just imagine the slogan?

Broadway Goes Green with SHREK THE MUSICAL!

Then all they'd have to do is add it to the long list of other recent Broadway spectacles, right under "Harry Potter's penis."

Kaitlyn said...

Also, with the recession, how much longer will tourists tolerate the soaring ticket prices?

Joshua said...

The key to your point that 'Shrek' and 'Spiderman' are being funded by Sony and Marvel is their intended audience. I don't think that they are risky shows at all purely because they both have such a massive built-in audience and the merchandising prospects are immeasurable. The expectations that both these shows will be required to meet are astounding because the cult following behind something like Spiderman spans generations and decades.

While a show like 'Shrek' is clearly targeted to the Disney audience (which is a whole different animal), 'Spiderman' will open doors to Broadway that had been previously padlocked shut. A show (especially a musical) with a following that is so deeply rooted in the 20-35 male demographic has, to my knowledge, never been attempted. If 'Spiderman' can capture this demographic, that would be an amazing accomplishment. To that end, in order to accurately portray in real life something that has its basis in animation/CGI will require a massive budget.

The problem with using the massive Broadway budgets as an example of how there is money to front the costs of making theaters eco-friendly is that the massive budgets are to produce the shows, not overhaul the theaters in which they are being performed. Theater owners would need to front all the money to implement the 'green' measures that would be necessary. So even though we are talking about a much larger scale, it is the same problem that homeowners face when contemplating installing solar panels on their roof.

As for your question as to how long tourists will continue to pay such high prices with the economy as it is, I do not believe that there will be much of an impact. The worse the economy gets, the more escapism people feel the need to indulge in. Plus, any family coming to New York City for vacation, is not exactly living near the poverty line. If the kids want to see 'Spiderman', they WILL see 'Spiderman.'

I think that as much money as producers are willing to put up is fine. They are not stupid and everything that they fund is a calculated investment designed to benefit their own financial standing. If Marvel thinks that it will benefit them to put up $40 million, there is a reason behind it. Even if the show is a massive failure, thousands of people will go buy the Spiderman movies, or their children will want action figures, or some father who read the comic books when he was little will revisit his childhood and buy some comic books. All of this turns a profit for Marvel that would probably not have otherwise existed.

Collin said...


I am struggling, because everything you are saying, technically, is right. But Kaitlyn and myself here are admitted idealists. And idealism to me does not mean coming up with great ideas or having great hope in something that is completely unfeasible - no, the idealist speaking here, Kaitlyn's text and my defense of it, is saying we need change, that in a broad sense, is completely rational. Especially now.

My bank just failed. And thank god for these technological times, because I never actually felt that moment in time when Washington Mutual went under and all the money I had to my name vanished. But we cannot forget that moment DID in fact happen, and for a split second, I was bankrupt. So in the face of a $30 M or $40 M price tag, and at a workshop with the League of American Theaters and Producers when Stephen Byrd (producer of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) tells me he nor anyone else did not see this economic collapse coming and Dori Berinstein (producer of Legally Blonde) says Legally Blonde and Shrek are great pieces of Art, am I not wrong in wanting to slap somebody across the face? And after that, demand they step back and take a real notice of what is happening in the world around them? Isn't that what theater is about in the first place?!

And while I cannot tell you what kind of audience Spiderman will be looking at, as it won't open for another couple of years, I can tell you Shrek will not be open much longer. Kevin Kennison, casting director for ABC and my Business of Acting professor, was given a comp ticket to Shrek the other night. He went. And when he got there, he found out that everyone else there that night had also received a complimentary ticket. According to Kevin, the house was not even half full, and the most enjoyable parts of the evening (judging from the verbal reactions of the audience) were when a child would react to something.

We can get kids in a Broadway house without blowing $30 million. Earth's Vacation, part of last summer's Fringe Jr., packed the house with families that left both kids and parents humming the silly, catchy tunes about how the solar system works, what global warming is, and why Pluto is no longer a planet. Sure, put Earth's Vacation on Broadway and it will flop because certainly no one will be traveling across the country to see it. But people aren't doing that now for Shrek either. I would give you the statistics on the decline of tourism, but the NYC & Company statistical website has disappeared. Of course, you could also hear what other producers (more conscious than those I had the privilege to speak with) are saying in an article from the NY Times yesterday: (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/19/theater/19bway.html?_r=1&ref=theater).

And as far as going green, I don't necessarily think we are asking the producers to use their money to overhaul theaters (though I truly don't see why not. How long does it take for someone to just CARE about something, for Christ's sake!), but to be conscious in how they produce it - artistically, I mean. I think a good example would be the most recent production of Sunday in the Park With George.

I do not think we are asking for anything too ridiculous. These are hard times for everyone, and Broadway will be knocked into an unfathomably low place if they don't stop throwing money all over the place. I mean, isn't that why the banks are failing and the auto industry is going under in the first place?

Collin said...

...sorry, that NY Times article link is:

http://www.nytimes.com/ 2008/11/19/theater/ 19bway.html?_r=1&ref=theater

... you just have to put the spaces back together in your browser.

Mack said...

I think you guys are making wonderful logical arguments. But at the end of the day we can't have our cake and eat it too. There are people in the world who are driven by money and others driven by a passion for what they do. As a student actor I do agree with capping shows and making theater affordable for students so non theater goers can be enlighten and also it will help diversify the audiences on Broadway.

Art is art and business is business. However, what happens when the idea of making money is more important then art? That's the place Broadway is now. Broadway is filled with producers like Stephen Bryd (Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) and Dori Berinstein (Legally Blond) who come from finical backgrounds and are not trying to break even when they produce a show they want to recoup plus make their profit and make investors happy. We have to realize that Producers are into producing more money instead of producing art. They are tough cookies and we artists need to provide some milk. We won't be able to crush them but maybe we can soften them up to provide affordable tickets for students. Or maybe they're lactose intolerant?

I want to leave you guys with one more question: would I be a bad person if was in a big Broadway musical like “Shrek” and use those funds to produce new and affordable plays downtown at the Walker space or the Kraine Theater? Is an artist a sell out if he/she has to pay the rent and the only way to do that is by doing a Broadway show?


Mack Exilus

Joshua said...

One brief comment on the Washington Mutual incident. Collin, you were never bankrupt, just as I was never bankrupt, because Washington Mutual never went bankrupt. They filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection (as opposed to Chapter 7 which is actual bankruptcy) so that JP Morgan could buy them out for less money. Second, even if they filed for Chapter 7, they were FDIC insured so unless you had more than $100k in a single bank, your money was safe. Sorry, technicalities just bother me.

Now, the concept of making shows affordable for students keeps getting thrown around. Other than rush tickets to Broadway shows and the discount codes that nearly every other Off-Broadway theater offers, there is TDF which is a phenomenal resource for inexpensive tickets. For only $28 a year (I think) you can get really cheap tickets for most of the shows that are on Broadway without having to wait on line at TKTS.

On the Shrek issue: Shrek only started previews 12 days ago. They are handing out comps like water to fill the seats for previews (which is what most theaters do). They don't actually open until December 14th. As for the best part being the children reacting, that proves the point. The show is intended to entertain children, not their parents.

On tourism: While of course the downward spiral that is our current economy will have some impact on tourism, I seriously doubt that it will be as devastating as some may believe.

As for Mack's final question, that is precisely what I have been getting at the entire time. SoHo Rep is having massive success with Blasted (which is on its second extension) in their Walker St space and there is perpetual talk to move it to Broadway but they cannot afford to rewire the space so that both the heat and the monitors downstairs can be on at the same time without tripping a circuit.

I know countless people who do on a regular basis exactly what Mack has posited. They do the big budget shows that (usually) have decidedly less artistic merit so that they can not only afford to do downtown and summerstock shows, but also simply continue to earn a living in theatre. I know a costume designer who was literally one show away from quitting theater to be pilates instructor so that she could actually not live hand to mouth before she landed two big budget Broadway shows (one with artistic integrity and one decidedly less so).

That story is repeated in some form or another day in and day out because that is how theater works. It is the same reason that Law and Order and all its siblings exist, so that New York stage actors can actually earn some money to be able to do shows that they care about.

I have to run out, more possibly to follow when I have more time.

Collin said...

While I was in high school in the suburbs of San Diego, California, a couple friends and I had decided to start auditioning professionally (as we had a lot of work under our belts in the community theaters). We noticed that while we consistently were called back, the roles always fell to kids just a bit older than us - that is, out of high school. Understandable, but insulting non-the-less.

So we started our own theater company to do the work we felt was both important and strong, challenging work for us as artists. We started with a $0 budget. The three of us running the show dug through our pockets, bank accounts, and friends to come up with the money to pay for the rights to the show and the space, and our high school was gracious enough to lend us flats, lumber, and lighting equipment. Everyone in the show was running around town publicizing, talking to the papers, doing anything to get people to come see what it was we were up to.

Not to get sentimental, but opening night was an incredibly momentous occasion for us all - our hard work had paid off in the form of a sold-out 150-seat house.

We did not expect to see our money back. We had put it out there to fill a large gap we saw in the theater community of San Diego. But after our one weekend stint, our money had come back three-fold. We thought maybe beginners luck, but the next three shows we were able to do together as a company were all funded the same exact way, and saw the same kinds of profits. And the most expensive ticket was only $10.

We were making affordable, worthwhile art without waste (of money or material) AND turning a profit. I understand how the transference of this idea to the Broadway scale seems nigh incredulous, but at this point in our history, I'm not so sure why that must be. It is true Washington Mutual (nor myself) was actually ever bankrupt (and I apologize for the dramatics), but the bank did fail. Major national banks don't just fail everyday, and two months ago, TWO national banks failed.

Right now is not about luxury, it is about need. So do we need the theater? Yes - there will never be a time we do not need the arts. Do we need to be getting children to see theater? Yes. Does theater need (and deserve) a wider audience base? Definitely. Do we need $40 million to make it happen? No. That's just wasteful and ridiculous. As I said before, there are other, BETTER ways of getting kids in the audience (if that is actually the intention, and not some money laundering experiment). And as for Spiderman - do we really think the average 30-year-old male is going to bolt to the theater for it? A hormone-driven, spandex-wearing teenage superhero singing and dancing?

End of the day, you know what I think? To get the average 30-year-old man in the theater, we don't need trashier shows that have some sort of materialistic appeal. We need better education.

Kaitlyn said...

I don't think any of us question the obvious need for commercial theatre, and I think we all recognize the increasingly apparent difference between theatre for art and theatre for profit. Would you believe that my highest paying design gig to date was for an original children's Christmas musical (think of those prerecorded melodies that come loaded onto cheap toy keyboards) that I didn't realize was suggestively racist until I saw a part of the production? Within two weeks I had designed, built and painted this set and then I suddenly had a check that would take care of five months worth of rent. Much different from my most recent paying gig, where I worked through concepts, workshops and production meetings for nine months before the final product (which I painted for free) went up in September and I'm still waiting for my teeny tiny design fee to arrive in the mail. So to answer Mack's question, hell no I don't consider myself a "bad person" for taking on those crappy shows. Don't you guys see that these are issues we all agree on?

What we don't seem to be agreeing on is if there is any danger in the rising Broadway budgets. Should we have Josh's Laissez-Faire attitude towards this big budget trend or should we be worried that Broadway is self-destructing, and all the benefits it lends us and our city are in jeapordy? (Cue Jeapordy! theme!) Think about it: for every Wicked, there is a Lestat. For every RENT there's a Taboo, Lennon, and High Fidelity. For every Spring Awakening, there's a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Good Vibrations, and All Shook Up. With the economic woes our nation is experiencing, will people continue to pay such high prices for these spectacles?

Here's the kicker: NO ONE KNOWS. All we can do is sit back and see what happens.

Now, TDF was great while I was living at home and not paying rent (wow I almost capatlized that word automatically). I ended up using my membership to buy tickets as gifts for my non-theatre friends to see mediocre shows I knew they'd enjoy such as The Wedding Singer or Altar Boyz, and the tickets were always for that very same night. You might say that beggars can't be choosers, but when you're still paying $30 or $40 for a discount ticket, I am going to beg and choose, thankyouverymuch.

The ny times article
Collin posted (and everyone else ignored) really sums up this theatrical moment we're living through as a sort of hesitance and rethinking (one that Taymor is blind to) due to the uncertain times ahead. This is an awareness, as I suggested in my original blog, is one that we need to be having. David Binder, producer of the Off Broadway show “Fuerzabruta,” took the optimistic standpoint by suggesting that “the bust could actually lead to a creative boom," because recent productions seem to be soley based on how well they will sell. This 'creative boom' is also something that I mentioned in my original piece.

As an newly admitted "sell-out," I still stand behind what I said in the first place: A $30 or $40 million budget is too much money, student rush tickets are a lot more sparse than they used to be, and I think Broadway needs to have a little bit more awareness, in general, of what they're doing.