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Week 10 Mega-Musical



The 1970’s and 1980’s saw a huge increase in production costs:
  • Rent 
  • Unionization 
  • Tax Burdens 
Expense of new technologies

 STAT: The number of new musicals per year has not changed since 1930’s

 STAT: Ratio of hits to flops has hardly changed. Approximately 70% of musicals opened from 1930-1990 closed without recouping original investment

 New shows favored latest in technology, makes the stakes higher and higher. Mega-musical is not a rock musical, but it is influenced by aural and visual aesthetics of rock musicals.  Emphasis on spectacle and use of popular music styles.

 From “The Mega-musical and Beyond”

            ·      Thematically sentimental and romantic

            ·      Plots “merge aspects of human suffering and redemption with matters of social consciousness.

            ·      Evoke strong emotional reaction

            ·      Set design, choreography, and special effects as important as the music

            ·      Produced by highly capitalized players who understand franchising and the global market.

A far different musical came from England with advance hoopla that Gilbert and Sullivan might have envied. Following the pattern they had initiated with Jesus Christ Superstar, composer

Andrew Lloyd Webber and librettist Tim Rice launched their stage biography of Argentina's Eva Peron as a recording. Working with director Hal Prince they refined it on stage in London, sharpening the book's focus, toning down the rock elements and adding a touch of disco to expand the score's commercial possibilities.

By the time it reached Broadway, Evita (1979 - 1,567) was a slick and stylish smash hit, with breakthrough performances by Patti Lupone as Evita and Mandy Patinkin as Che. A disco version of "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" became a hit single – one of the last showtunes to reach the pop charts in any form. Evita was a calculated triumph of stagecraft and technology, undeniably entertaining but in some ways as vapid as any of Ziegfeld's Follies. Webber and Rice depicted Eva as a whore with flair and ruthless ambition, but gave no clue as to what made her complex character tick. Meaningful or not, people liked it. Running three times longer than Sweeney Todd, it made a massive profit from productions all over the world. With this flashy victory of matter over mind, the British Mega-musical was born.

Cats: "The Wind Begins to Moan"

The Cats logo glowered over Broadway's Winter Garden Theater for two decades.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Trevor Nunn reshaped the theatrical landscape with Cats (1982 - 7,485), a musical based on T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. They emphasized aerobic dance, high-tech effects and heavy-duty marketing tactics. Cats premiered in London, then came to New York – where it forced 42nd Street out of the Winter Garden and over to the Majestic. Lloyd Webber was so certain of the show's success that he co-produced it with Cameron Macintosh, a move which made both men millionaires.

Interview with creative team of Cats

More a revue than a book musical, Cats depicted a gathering of felines in a garbage-strewn alley where one cat will be allowed to ascend (on an oversized hydraulic tire) "the heavy-side layer" – i.e., kitty heaven. The first and last fifteen minutes were so dazzling (thanks to heavy-duty lighting effects and prancing pussies) that few complained about the two tedious hours that yawned in-between. Cats cleaned up at the Tonys, with Best Book going to the long-dead Eliot, and Best Featured Actress going to Betty Buckley as the bedraggled feline Grizzabella.

The revolutionary thing about Cats was not the show on stage – it was the marketing. Before this, most musicals limited their souvenirs to photo programs, songbooks and T-shirts. Cats splashed its distinctive logo (two yellow-green feline eyes with dancing irises) on coffee mugs, music boxes, figurines, books on "the making of" the show, greeting cards, baseball caps, satin jackets, Christmas ornaments, stackable tins, stuffed toys, matchboxes, key chains and pins, to name just a few. The overwrought ballad "Memory" and those feline eyes were damn near everywhere.

Like a theatrical cancer, Cats spread to places that had not seen professional theatre in years. From Vienna to Oslo to Topeka, dancers in furry spandex and garish make-up proved that "Jellicles can and Jellicles do" rake in a fortune, and that auxiliary marketing can boost a show's profits by millions of dollars. Cats was also that increasing rarity, a musical one could take children to. The little tykes might die from vapidity poisoning, but they wouldn't be exposed to anything dangerous – like an idea. The show ran into the next century, becoming the longest running show in Broadway history – so who are we to scoff?

Mega-Musicals: Britain's Revenge

The original flyer announcing the arrival of Me an My Girl on Broadway in the summer of 1986.

From the mid-1980s on, British mega-musicals flew across the Atlantic season after season like an implacable invading force. Me and My Girl (1986 - 1,420) was a charming World War II London hit with a revised book and the songs of Noel Gay, kicked up to hit status by Robert Lindsay's ingratiating performance. But it was not like its fellow West End imports.

The "Brit hits" that followed were all brand new, and their charms were open to question. Relying on hydraulics and high-tech special effects, these shows came to be known as mega-musicals. Substance took a backseat to spectacle, and occasional hints of humor were buried in oceans of lush melody and soap opera-style sentiment. Although these high tech presentations came with a high price tag, the best mega-musicals ran for decades, selling tickets to millions of people who had long since fallen out of the habit of going to the                   theatre.

Few noticed that these British and French mega-musicals were direct pop-flavored descendants of a form thought long-dead -- operetta. It was no accident that these shows almost always replaced their pop-voiced original casts with singers who had operatic backgrounds. No one else could deliver the sweeping melodies and gushing emotions eight times a week.

In the 1980s, high-powered production values sold tickets. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express was a tremendous hit in London (1984 - 3000+), with hydraulic ramps that sent roller-skating actors careening through the Apollo Victoria Theatre. It fared less well on Broadway  (1987 - 761), where critics dismissed it as a children's show blown out of proportion. No one really cared who was in the cast – for the first time since the Hippodrome shows of the early 1900s, it was all about the spectacle. But Starlight Express did well on tour and became a staple in Las Vegas. 

The French team of Claude-Michel Schonberg & Alain Boubil first offered their Les Miserables as a double album, then as a Parisian stage spectacle, enlivening the core material from Victor Hugo’s epic novel with a sung-through score that sounded like a pop version of grand opera. British producer Cameron Mackintosh became involved, teaming with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Cats director Trevor Nunn to revamp it into an international sensation. Mackintosh brought Les Miserables to the West End (1985 - London), Broadway (1987 NY - 6,680), and most of the other cities in the civilized world. The English translation was no work of art, but the strong plot and hydraulic sets wowed most theatergoers. The logo, with little Cosette set against the French tri-color, became familiar on every imaginable sort of souvenir – including over-priced re-prints of Hugo's novel.

Unlike other mega-musicals, Les Miserables had tremendous dramatic merit. Audiences did not just marvel at the hydraulics -- they were moved by the engrossing story of thief-turned-saint Jean Valjean and the myriad of characters involved in his life. Dedicated fans and hoards of tourists kept Les Miz's turntable stages whirling well into the next century on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Sondheim vs. Webber: Round Two

The Broadway program cover to Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera.

The following season brought Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (1988 - 6,100+, still running), with the composer and Cameron Mackintosh co-producing. The lush score featured uninspired, babbling lyrics set to lush pop-operetta melodies. Hal Prince's lavish production made the show another triumph of form over function. Broadway audiences did not mind paying $45 a ticket when they could see the money on stage. Stellar performances by Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman helped.

Most theatergoers spent more than the price of a ticket so they could take a little Phantom home with them. Phantom music boxes, mugs, sweat shirts and masks poured forth in a marketing blitz. Just as Cats had forced 42nd Street to evacuate the Winter Garden six years before, Phantom of the Opera now pushed 42nd Street out of the Majestic Theatre and over to The St. James. Literally and figuratively, the American musical was being forced into a retreat. It was around this time that producer Cameron Macintosh said that Broadway was "just another stop on the American tour." The British were not only back on top – they were downright cocky about it.

The overwhelming popularity of Lloyd Webber's show was undeniable, and both its London and New York productions remained sold out well into the next century. Critics and scholars had no difficulty defining the difference between Lloyd Webber and Sondheim.

Lloyd Webber is unquestionably a skilled craftsman, manipulating theatre technique in precise, complex, extraordinary detail, but he has not shown much original creativity. He depends heavily on the tricks of composing, using the fundamental and simplistic ideas of each category . . . When Sondheim writes pastiche, he does so for dramatic effect. . . Andrew Lloyd Webber doesn't bother with dramatic justifications -- he quotes from a wide range of musical sources, often anachronistically. . . Sung-through shows lack the  integration that makes the American musical the great and original art form it is.
- Denny Martin Flinn, Musical! A Grand Tour (New York: Shirmer Books, 1997), pp. 474-475.

 "As If We Never Said Goodbye"

The British brought in more mega-musicals, but the once invincible trend was losing steam --

  • Andrew Lloyd Webber's shallow soap opera Aspects of Love (1990 - 377) lost over $8,000,000 despite a year-long Broadway run. A major change was in the air.
  • Cameron Mackintosh re-united most of his Les Miserables creative team to re-set Madame Butterfly in the middle of the Vietnam War. Miss Saigon (1991 - 4,097) opened in London and later conquered Broadway, after a ridiculous union fracas over casting British actor Jonathan Pryce as a Vietnamese character. One of the most successful mega-musicals, Miss Saigon toured the planet and sold mountains of souvenirs. In the US, suburbanites and tourists lapped up the lavish effects and tear-jerker love story. This was the last time Macintosh triumphed with his patented mega-musical approach.
  • Blood Brothers (1993 - 840) told the story of two brothers separated by adoption who wind up on a collision course. This one lasted thanks to stubbornness rather than popularity – it never recouped its original costs.
  • Thanks to a lack of competition, Webber's $11 million adaptation of Sunset Boulevard (1994 - 977) swept the 1995 Tonys, but it was a hollow victory. Although Broadway audiences worshipped when divas Glen Close, Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige took turns as Norma Desmond, the production had such a high running cost (heck, small towns used less electricity than this production!) that even a three year run could not turn a profit.

Other British mega-productions either died in London (Martin Guerre) or on the pre-Broadway road (Whistle Down the Wind), and expensive attempts to copy the British style (Poland's Metro, Holland's Cyrano and America's Shogun) failed on Broadway. The public had seen too many lavish spectacles that took themselves too seriously. The failure in London of Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down the Wind and Shoenberg and Boubil's Martin Guerre suggested that audiences on both sides of the Atlantic were tiring of the mega-musical and looking for something else.

The Corporate Musical: "Put Our Service to the Test"
The real winner in 1994 was a show that brought an unsettling change to Broadway. Beauty and the Beast (1994 - 5,464) was the first stage effort of Walt Disney Productions. It was no match for the animated film it was based on, but whatever the show lacked in finesse it more than made up for in box office appeal. People with no interest in the theatre were happy to pay top dollar to bring their children to Beast. True to form, the Broadway community pretended with all its might that nothing important was happening. Beast was pooh-poohed by the critics and denied the major Tonys, but a seasoned entertainment corporation with massive marketing clout was out to show the old pros a new way of doing things.

"We are bringing a new way of thinking to the theatre," says producer (of Beauty and the Beast) Robert McTyre, "both creatively and business-wise. On the creative end, the show is a very collaborative effort. with many more people involved and contributing than usual. And, on the business side, we bring financial discipline."
- Mark Lassell, editor, Disney on Broadway (New York: Disney Editions, 2002), p. 28.

Beauty and the Beast was replicated in cities all over the world, with actors giving careful imitations of the original Broadway cast in a rainbow of languages. Kids who loved the animated movie were delighted, parents were relieved to find a clean show, and the billions started rolling in. Souvenirs became a bigger money maker than ever. If the British wrote the book on auxiliary marketing, Disney built the library.

Broadway at 42nd Street: The newest "Disney World."

The triumph was complete by the time Disney's The Lion King (1997 - 2,000+, still running) came to Broadway. It premiered in The New Amsterdam Theatre, one-time home of Ziegfeld's legendary Follies. The Disney Corporation purchased and restored this venerable theatre, opened a large retail shop next door, and planned an ultra-modern Disney hotel just up the block. So what if Lion King's score was forgettable and the whole production little more than a $12,000,000 puppet show? It was the biggest hit of the 1990s. No one cared who was in the cast – the show was its own star. While some still pretend that Rent was revolutionary, it was Lion King that had a revolutionary (albeit disquieting) impact on Broadway.

"I think one of the most interesting things about our approach to this musical (ie - The Lion King) is that none of the composers are Broadway theater people, so we are drawing upon our varied past experiences. We are not thinking in terms of 'this is how a musical is done.' We are thinking in terms of how we want to do it."
- co-composer Mark Mancina, as quoted in Disney on Broadway, p. 65.

People who had never been interested in the theatre lined up for The Lion King, and even a price hike to $80 a seat didn't prevent the show from selling out for a year in advance. The Tony Awards kow-towed to the new regime, giving The Lion King the Best Musical Tony (despite the fact that Best Score and Best Book went to Ragtime). The all-American Corporate musical was triumphant and hit-hungry Broadway was in no mood to argue. London soon had an identical production, and The Lion King became the most desired ticket on both Broadway and the West End until well into the next decade.

The Corporate Musical is built, produced and managed by multi-functional entertainment corporations like Disney or the now-defunct Canadian corporation Livent. These shows may begin as the idea of a composer or writer, but most of each project's development is corporate sponsored. Instead of the distinctive stamp of creative individuals, corporate musicals have the anonymous efficiency of a department store. It all looks quite impressive, flows with ease, provides pop ballads and may even make you smile on occasion (which is more than most British mega-musicals ever did). It can also be reproduced for foreign or touring productions with matching sets and casts – no need for high-priced stars. What's missing is the joyous vitality that a corporate consciousness cannot provide.

Interview with Harold Prince

The masquerade scene from The Phantom of the Opera, which comes to Louisville this week for a three-week stand. Below: Jason Mills as the Phantom and Sara Jean Ford as Christine. Both copyrighted photos by Joan Marcus and courtesy of the Louisville Broadway series.

This is a full transcript of an edited interview that ran in today's Herald (ha, I nearly wrote Harold) Leader:

There are numerous credits in Harold Prince’s 57-year Broadway career as a producer and director that would be impressive on their own.

Prince’s directing turns include the original productions of Cabaret, Sweeney Todd and last year’s Kurt Weill show LoveMusik. But he still has his hands in Phantom of the Opera, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that now holds distinctions such as being the longest running show on Broadway and grossing $3.3 billion worldwide, which Lloyd Webber’s company claims makes it the most financially successful entertainment enterprise of the 20th Century. Later this month, Phantom will celebrate its 20th anniversary  on Broadway.

The show’s United States tour, which just celebrated its 15th anniversary, sits down in Louisville this week for a three-week run. That gave us a chance to get on the phone with Prince, 79, to discuss this most successful endeavor.

Copious Notes: When you were approached with Phantom of the Opera, did you have any sense of how successful it would be?

Harold Prince (photo, right): No, I don’t think anyone ever dreams that something like this will happen to them. Why would you? I just thought, “I would like to do that.’ It’s a romantic musical and I haven’t seen a romantic musical in decades. So, I said yes, right away.

It was interesting. I was in London, at a restaurant, sitting at one table, and sitting at another was Andrew with Sarah Brightman, his then wife. I was sitting by myself, and he said, ‘Come have coffee with us.’ It was the Le Caprice Restaurant. And I went over, and he said, ‘I’ve been thinking of something and I want to run it by you: What do you think of a musical version of Phantom of the Opera?’ And I said, ‘Do it,’ and he said, ‘Will you?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Why were you so instant? That’s not like you,’ and I said, ‘because I’m desperate to see a romantic musical, and I think everyone else must be.’

You know, musical and romance should be rather usual currency. But they’re not. The last totally romantic musical I had seen was South Pacific in 1949.

So we did it, and we did it for the same reason: assuming that people would like to lose themselves in a romantic musical and lose themselves in an atmosphere that does not reflect what’s out on the street or their personal lives.

Q: Why had Broadway and the West End gotten so far away from romantic musicals?

A: I really don’t know. It’s so odd, it hadn’t occurred to me. I guess you could say My Fair Lady was a romantic musical in so far as at the end he says, ‘Liza, bring me my slippers.’ But that’s not conventional romance. I don’t really know. Musicals were usually peppy, they started out romantic but peppy. But let’s face it, South Pacific is a really intense love story, beginning to end, and this turns out to be one as well. Audiences seem to want that very much.

It will be 20 years old on the 26th of January, and no one has emulated it since then.

But you look at operettas and operas, like Puccini, and those were hugely romantic pieces, so it’s just an odd turn musicals took.

Q: When Mr. Lloyd Webber approached you, had he written anything yet?

A:
I think this was just an idea turning in his head. I think he had read the novel, and I in turn read the novel (by Gaston Leroux), and the novel was hugely influential to us, more influential than any other source. The Phantom in the Lon Chaney movie, which is wonderful, is so grotesque, that it’s never romantic. The book is very romantic, and has a lot of stuff we incorporated in the show: mythic, folkloric, metaphysical stuff from the Scandinavian countries, which we took out and used in the dressing room scene and referred to in other places.

Q: In making the Phantom a romantic character, how did you and Michael Crawford work on that?

A: It was all written before Michael came in, but it was very easy, and Michael turned out to be a wonderful actor and a great singer. Andrew gets credit for thinking of him. He called me from London and said, ‘Come on over, I think I know who can play this part.’ And I flew over, and went into his office, and there was Crawford. He sang and I learned that he was a child soloist in a choir, and he had a really rooted musical education as a singer. So, though he had been playing comedy and light comedy and dancing and all of that stuff, he hadn’t used what he started with early in life.

Q: Two years ago, Phantom surpassed Cats, which is also by Mr. Lloyd Webber, as the longest-running show on Broadway. You’ve worked with so many great composers, what is it that he gets and an audience gets from him that they obviously like so much?

A: He writes hugely soaring romantic music or tunes that work very well in theatrical terms on the stage and sometimes become popular. I also directed Evita, and that’s really the Cinderella story, because it’s really not the same kind of musical. It’s agitprop, spiky musical, but it did unbelievably well. He is a theatrical man. Put it that way. He really understands theater, loves theater, and on those two projects we had a wonderful time.

Q: What is your involvement in productions now, such as the tour that is coming to Louisville?

A: I keep an eye on all of them. The leading man in the production you’re going to be seeing is somebody that I’ve been nurturing. His name is Jason Mills. We have a process with this show where someone comes into the company and moves up. He’s moved up from the juvenile to the lead. When I heard he was going on in the show, I went to see him and thought, ‘Oh, my God, he’s a winner,’ and we bumped him up to the Phantom, and he’s still a winner. Christine (Sara Jean Ford) I know, and Rebecca Judd, who plays Madam Giry has played it before, often and well.

The reason the show seems to have these legs is a great deal of attention is paid to all the companies.  I pay attention, and there’s a resident director, in the case of this production, Peter von Meyerhausen, who is wonderful. You honor the rare occasion where you have a show of this success. You have to.
I used to be a producer, and I never could get my directors to come back to see shows and rehearse them. And I knew that if I ever became a successful director that I would pay a great deal of attention to the productions, and I have. Because I live in New York, I rehearse that one more than any other, perhaps four times a year. But I catch up with all these productions, and I’ve seen all of the leads in the shows and given them notes, recently.

You have to keep an eye on these things and be selfish about it. There was a time when productions went on the road, back in the 40s, and they were pale imitations of what was on Broadway.  We have discovered that the road is perhaps more important than Broadway to us. Broadway is our window on the world, but the touring companies are intrinsically what make a show very successful.

There’s an audience that has been appropriately trained to demand quality. They want the show to be the show that’s up in New York. Though the show tours and we have to get it in and out of theaters quickly, we go to great lengths to make sure it’s exactly the show that’s in New York. It just gets delivered differently. You can’t quite make the holes in the floor that are permanent in New York. But you find ways to circumvent that, and it works.

Q: Do have a consciousness that with the tours and the 20 years on Broadway that now a whole new generation is coming to Phantom?

A: I think that’s what’s keeping it so strong. The fact that we are 20 years old and 22 years old in London is because a whole new generation has come to it. Their parents are bringing them. I’m bringing my grandchildren. And it seems to have a real pull.

How long will it run? Your guess is as good as mine.

Broadway and the Bottom Line

By PETER PASSELL; Peter Passell writes about economics for The New York Times
Published: December 10, 1989

The core market of consumers is aging. . . . Costs are out of control. . . . Five out of six new products lose money. . . . The most talented workers increasingly look to competing industries for most of their livelihood. . . .

If Broadway were a case study at the Wharton School, the best students in the class would probably recommend liquidation.

But, of course, Broadway is not a case study. It is a century-old business that has always operated by its own peculiar economic rules. And while few serious analysts of the theater are sanguine about Broadway's long-term prospects, nothing has happened to suggest the lights will be going out anytime soon.

The realistic worry, many insiders say, is that current trends will continue - that an ever-smaller and more defensive Broadway will find it increasingly difficult to sell backers on anything but the safest productions with the broadest potential market.

''We must start with the assumption that the audience is dumb,'' says Elizabeth McCann, a producer of ''Orpheus Descending,'' ''Elephant Man'' and ''Amadeus.'' And while Ms. McCann's own record shows that Broadway investors do not always finish with that assumption, her successes have become exceptions to the rule.http://nytimes.perfectmarket.com/pm/images/pixel.gif

Innovation is generally left to Off Broadway, or to nonprofit theaters - or not produced at all. And with just 30 to 35 new shows reaching the stage each year (compared to 50 to 60 in the 1970's), the one-third of Broadway houses with poor locations, like the Lyceum or the Nederlander, or with undesirable second balconies, are rarely booked.

High operating costs, moreover, make it difficult for productions that open with indifferent reviews to hang on long enough to find an audience through advertising or word of mouth. While there are exceptions, like ''Lend Me a Tenor'' (which opened last March), the moderately successful production has been an endangered species since the 1960's. ''There used to be a lot of shows in the middle range,'' says Rocco Landesman, president of the Jujamcyn chain, which along with the much larger Shubert and Nederlander organizations operates most Broadway theaters. ''Now you are a big hit overnight or you close down.''

Nor is it clear that one historically reliable strategy for selling serious drama on Broadway will always work. James Walsh, a producer of ''The Heidi Chronicles,'' points out that raising capital for a play often turns on the availability of a brand-name actor - a Vanessa Redgrave for an ''Orpheus Descending'' or a Dustin Hoffman for a ''Merchant of Venice.'' And as the number of performances needed to cover the overhead increases, it is growing harder to find stars willing to commit themselves to a suffienctly long run.

Even glitzy musicals are vulnerable. Since the mid-1970's theater owners have been forced to make risky and often economically unjustifiable investments in expensive shows in order to keep their marquees lit. ''We give the producers money to give back to us,'' laments Mr. Landesman. How long the three theater chains will passively acquiesce to what amounts to deep discounts on rental rates is impossible to say.

Hardly anyone in the business believes that Broadway can ever regain the turf it has conceded in recent decades. But there may be ways to increase revenues from the spectacles that already draw capacity crowds at seven or eight times the price of a movie ticket. And it may also be possible to use discounts more creatively to help sagging productions, filling seats that would otherwise go empty.

Cost containment may also be possible where it does not threaten the privileges of those who have secure places on what remains of the Broadway gravy train. According to Mr. Landesman and others, unions, theater owners and producers are now quietly haggling over plans to create an Off Broadway enclave on Broadway, lowering costs sufficiently to attract a half-dozen plays each year that could not possibly afford to pay the full Broadway tab. And while much remains to be settled about what might be called ''Broadway B,'' key meetings among the various interests involved are now being held. An agreement could be reached as early as this next week. Matters of Cost And Sacrifice

Even if efficiency were the watchword and self-sacrifice the standard, Broadway would still be caught in a cost vise, argues William Baumol, a Princeton University economist who has long studied the markets for performing arts. Theater is a service business in which most of the cost of the product is labor. As wages rise with general living standards, most other businesses can blunt the inflationary impact by substituting machines or technology for people. But in theater, the opportunities for saving labor are limited: It takes just as long to design the stage barge for Cleopatra or bewail the death of Anthony as it did in Shakespeare's day.

And unlike many other service industries, notes Professor Baumol, live theater has direct competition from a business with enormous economies of scale. Hollywood, like Broadway, has suffered from exploding production costs. But once a movie is in the can, it is easy to dilute the multimillion-dollar overhead of a film with tens of thousands of showings.

As important, the competition for live theater is highly mobile: When America moved to the suburbs, the movies went along. But Broadway must stay on Broadway, where parking and restaurants are expensive and personal safety is an issue.

In any case, those who work on Broadway are not generally inclined toward efficiency or self-sacrifice. Unions representing every Broadway craft achieved their great successes at the bargaining table long ago. By 1954, for example, senior stagehands were guaranteed a weekly minimum of $136, compared to $59 for the average American who worked 35 hours. And they have since managed to hold their own through decades of inflation and rising real wages in the rest of the economy.

This year their minimum is $857 a week, compared to the $330 national average wage. Exceptionally generous fringes add another 36 percent to the overall cost. Other unions, ranging from those who represent the workers who assemble scenery to those who run the box offices, have done comparably well. Work Rules from The Middle Ages

What seems to gall producers more than wage levels is their inability to reduce featherbedding or, in some cases, to make use of labor-saving technology. Broadway's work rules are as complicated and precedent-bound as those of medieval guilds, with numbers of workers from each craft specified for each theater and every circumstance. Where new technology is introduced, it rarely is permitted to displace labor or reduce overtime.

Electronic synthesizers, for example, have been a focus of contention between the League of Theater Owners and Producers, the management trade association, and the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802. These machines can duplicate the sound of most conventional instruments with uncanny accuracy: By some accounts, a few musicians playing synthesizers could now do the work of an entire orchestra. But the only concession obtained from Local 802 in the last round of negotations was the right to use synthesizers. And as a practical matter, that amounts to no concession at all since the minimum number of musicians paid for each performance has not been pared. The waste in featherbedding varies with the size of the theater, the scale of the production and the ingenuity of the producer. James Walsh puts the average at 25 to 35 percent of total operating costs. But even the 15 percent figure suggested by Rocco Landesman is a lot of money for a musical that costs $250,000 or more a week to perform - enough, in some cases, to spell the difference between a healthy profit and a show-stopping loss.

Why, then, in an era in which organized labor seems to be losing on every front, have producers and theater owners been unable to gain significant concessions? Abigail Evans, an assistant general manager in the Emmanuel Azenberg organization who wrote a distinguished thesis on the economics of Broadway at the Yale School of Drama, believes the bargainers are poorly matched.

Most theater unions have clearly defined interests in maintaining the status quo. And in the case of the stagehands' union, they have powerful bargaining leverage: Members could easily withstand a long strike because the majority are employed in television. Most producers, by contrast, are one-at-a-time dealmakers who have neither the capital nor the long-term attachment to Broadway to risk the loss of a show in a strike.

Theater owners do have a long-term stake keeping Broadway competitive. But they are no stronger than the edgiest producer with a $5 million show about to open. In any case, the unity of the three theater chains is undermined by personal feuds, as well as by diverging priorities among the hundreds of contract provisions that must be negotiated. A Leading Role For the Shuberts

A further impediment to tough bargaining - one not covered in Ms. Evans's thesis and rarely discussed openly in Broadway circles - is the awkward role of the Shubert Organization.

As the owner of roughly half the theaters on Broadway (16 1/2 to be exact, the half being the Music Box, which is co-owned with the estate of Irving Berlin) and largest single investor in new productions, the Shubert chain is the 700-pound gorilla of Broadway: Independent producers and other theater owners could accomplish little without its active cooperation. But unlike other Broadway management interests, the Shubert Organization is a charitable trust without profit-driven stockholders to satisfy, or debts to service.

That gives Shubert President Bernard Jacobs and Chairman Gerald Schoenfeld enviable freedom to take the long view. But it also reduces the pressure to maximize earnings at the expense of hard feelings with labor or civic leaders. No One Will Settle for Less

Yet another complication in demanding sacrifice from labor is that others who share in the largesse of Broadway are reluctant to throw stones.

According to Professor Baumol, workers toiling at contractual minimums are absorbing a shrinking proportion of Broadway revenue. Star writers, composers, directors, choreographers, set designers and actors command high fees and royalties. New York City collects hefty taxes on theater tickets and Broadway real estate; Con Edison commands high tariffs for utilities; the media charge top dollar for advertising.

Elaborate sets, deemed necessary to lure patrons from the likes of ''Batman'' or ''Black Rain,'' are incredibly expensive: The contraption in ''Starlight Express,'' with its 1,000 feet of fluorescent tubing and 22 miles of fiber optic conductor, reportedly cost $2.5 million. And when brand-name talent spends freely in the name of art, only philistines protest.

In ''Jerome Robbins's Broadway,'' for example, the director-choreographer reportedly insisted on an enormous cast, an oversize orchestra and complex staging that required extra months of rehearsals. The finished product has drawn critical praise and kept the theater nearly full since it opened last February. But it left the investors - among them the Shubert Organization and Suntory International, the Japanese whisky maker - to face an Everest-like climb to solvency.

Pre-opening production costs for ''Jerome Robbins's Broadway,'' originally budgeted at $5 million, totaled a record $8.8 million. With 1,415 seats and a top ticket price of $60, the show can generate over half a million dollars in weekly revenues - enough, one might guess, for the hit to recoup even that enormous investment relatively quickly.

But along with record production costs, ''Jerome Robbins's Broadway'' labors under record operating costs and royalties exceeding $400,000 a week. In the unlikely circumstance that the musical fills every seat, it will take 17 months to break even and almost three years for the investors to double their money. There Will Always Be Investors

Still, there are good reasons to believe that Broadway will continue to find the capital for such extravaganzas. Many, perhaps most, investors never see more than a few pennies return on their outlay. But hit musicals, even very expensively staged musicals, can make a lot of money if operating costs do not stray into the ionosphere. The American production of ''Cats,'' for example, has already earned more than $10 for every dollar sunk in the enterprise. And by staging heavily capitalized shows first in London (for about one-third the production cost), as ''Cats'' was, productions are in effect, test-marketed, greatly reducing the risk of a flop on Broadway.

Remember, too, that big Broadway theaters have no alternative uses. As long as they are frozen by landmark status, it makes sense for their owners to put money into shows that may never turn a profit - but will pay six-figure weekly rents.

Richard Tickton, a prominent show business lawyer in New York, believes there is another largely unexploited source of cash for Broadway that is insensitive to prospective returns. Corporations, notably Japanese corporations, he argues, value the glamour of an association with Broadway, especially when it can be rationalized as a way of advertising consumer products or as an inside track to subsidiary rights - movies, music, road companies. As one example, Suntory invests in shows produced by Shuberts. Could Ticket Prices Be Too Low

It may also be possible to extract more revenue from successful productions by raising ticket prices. At $55 to $60, top prices to musicals already seem outrageously high. But as Professor Baumol notes, the best seats in the house have always been an expensive luxury. Adjusted for the general increase in prices, the average top ticket price in 1929 was actually 9 percent higher than in 1988.

Two phenomena probably explain why prices now seem out of hand:

* Adjusted for inflation, ticket prices averaged a whopping 35 percent more last season than in 1978-79. But the 1980's was the first decade since the 1920's in which Broadway prices have done much better than hold their own. Ticket prices in 1959, for example, were higher than they were in 1979.

* Box-office prices for the cheapest seats have shot up in recent years as producers abandoned the policy of selling the least desirable balcony seats for a tiny fraction of the price of the orchestra. But that does not mean many undesirable seats to Broadway shows are actually sold at $30 or more. Roughly 20 percent of all seats, including most balcony seats, are dumped at half-price on the day of performance at the TKTS booth on Duffy Square.

Whatever the reason, current prices are obviously no deterrent for the hundreds of thousands of patrons who wait months for orchestra seats to hit shows, even when good balcony seats are available a few days in advance for two-thirds as much. Nor does price seem to matter to the uncounted thousands who pay double or triple the box-office price to brokers.

One plausible marketing strategy that has been discussed for years by producers would be to set aside choice blocks, perhaps the 100 or so ''house seats'' usually reserved for those who have a financial interest in productions, at, say, double the regular price. That would increase income for a hit by $40,000 a week, sharply reducing the time for recoupment. And it would melt box-office ''ice,'' the kickbacks sometimes paid to employees who funnel scarce tickets to brokers. The only risk, producers say, is that it would make it more difficult to sell ordinary seats to the new breed of theatergoer fixated on having the very best for the big night out.

Once a show begins to decline, its profitable life may be stretched by months or years by offering discounts on seats that would otherwise go empty. That explains both the ubiquitous ''two-fer'' coupons and the success of the TKTS booth. But such price discrimination, argues the producer Elizabeth McCann, is an underused means of building audiences. She would like the flexibility to sell same-day tickets through TKTS at more than half-price. And she would like the booth to sell half-price tickets to straight plays for the following day. That might generate impulse sales to bargain-hunting tourists who line up to buy tickets for same-day performances of musicals.

Professor Baumol is after different game: area residents who would go to Broadway performances 10 or 15 times a year if tickets were cheaper or discount seats easier to obtain. He suggests ''two-part'' pricing, routinely used by other businesses with very high fixed costs.

Broadway might, for example, sell a one-year ''Broadway addicts' pass'' for $100 that would entitle the owner to buy any available balcony seat in advance for any play at, say, half-price. That might encourage a Broadway habit for New Yorkers who have lost it, as well as those too young to have ever had it. And it would turn balcony seats that often go empty into a significant revenue source.

Alan Eisenberg, the head of the Actors Equity Association, the actors' union, believes that Broadway has done a poor job of marketing and is eager to experiment with such revenue-enhancing schemes. But Bernard Jacobs's cautious reaction is probably more typical. He fears that the theater-going public would react with hostility to further increases in top box-office prices. And he worries that any tampering with the TKTS system would drain away patrons who now pay full freight.

There are limits, in any case, to what could be achieved with more sophisticated pricing schemes. It would make it more likely for Neil Simon to succeed on Broadway in spite of the fact that his current play, ''Rumors,'' cost four times as much to stage as his 1976 production of ''California Suite.'' But no such gimmick could bring back the sort of theater that the producer Tom Viertel has in mind. Mr. Viertel, whose Off Broadway credits include ''Driving Miss Daisy'' and ''The Cocktail Hour,'' dreams of a way to bring serious plays with limited potential audiences back to Broadway -plays that cannot expect to fill more than half of a 1,000-seat theater on week nights, or run longer than six months. A leveling of every bastion of economic privilege on Broadway, one that opened every theater craft to competition, would make that practical. But such radical change is not likely in today's get-along, go-along Broadway climate. New Hope For a Renaissance

What may be possible, however, is the creation of what might be called a ''Broadway B'' track, with costs and ticket prices roughly equivalent to Off Broadway. The idea now being discussed is to set aside three Broadway theaters that are rarely booked - one from each of the chains - for lower-budget drama. Likely theaters would include the Walter Kerr (formerly the Ritz) on West 48th Street, the Nederlander on West 41st Street and the Lyceum on West 45th Street. While details have yet to be worked out, Mr. Landesman has sketched the broad outlines of a deal, and other parties to the negotiations confirm their accuracy.

Across-the-board wage, royalty and theater rental cuts of 25 percent or more, plus major concessions on work rules, would sharply cut both production and operating costs. In return, producers would be obliged to hold the top ticket price to $24.

This is not the first time Broadway has tried to cope with the problem. In fact, an ''endangered theater'' agreement has been on the union contract books for a decade. But according to Mr. Landesman and Mr. Jacobs, the cost concessions were too small to make much difference and a rule limiting ticket sales to 499 for each performance amounted to a deal-killer.

There would not be much point to a Broadway B if it simply sucked commercially viable shows from Off Broadway theaters. In fact, says Mr. Viertel, the squeeze on Manhattan real estate has created a shortage of medium-sized Off Broadway theaters and this is already cutting into the total number of plays being produced. And many theater analysts believe that relatively cheap tickets could lead to a renaissance of exciting, riskier theater. ''The audience is there,'' concludes Arthur Sherman, who directed a revival of ''The Caine Mutiny'' in 1985. ''We just priced them out of Broadway.''

Broadway B, moreover, might have salutary effects beyond the direct benefits of filling three empty theaters with interesting plays. It would bring younger, culturally sophisticated New Yorkers back to Broadway, perhaps breaking down prejudices against the more traditional entertainment their parents loved. Such cross-pollination could work the other way, too, making it psychologically safer for tradition-bound audiences to try more innovative work.

The old Broadway is not dying. But it does require ever more expensive makeup to maintain the glamour, and there is no guarantee that an audience will always be there to pay the bill. Nor is it written in stone that every Broadway house will remain under landmark status, a city policy that effectively forces owners to accept a less-than-competitive return on their real estate. If and when the financial crisis does come, a low-cost enclave on Broadway could serve as a model for Broadway's salvation.

SPRING THEATER; Picking Up A Broadway Tab

By JESSE McKINLEY in the New York Times

Published: February 27, 2005

IT'S just like your regular old grocery bill. That is, of course, if your grocery bill included items like hair care, makeup and Teamsters. These are the expenses, large and small, paid by producers on Broadway, where running a big, splashy musical like ''Wicked'' can cost up to $600,000 a week. The precise breakdown of spending is usually shrouded in secrecy, especially for a show that's still running. ''Caroline, or Change,'' the civil rights-themed musical by Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner, closed Aug. 29, and its weekly budget was significantly lower than most musicals. But a look at its itemized expenses shows some of the ways costs can start to pile up. Between cleaning costumes and paying accountants, housing the star and keeping the lights on, ''Caroline'' needed more than $350,000 to run every week.

Where did the money go? The production's preliminary operating budget, provided by one of its producers, shows a raft of weekly expenses, from the backstage tutor for the cast's children to the stagehands -- more than a dozen -- required to man the light and sound equipment and maneuver the props and sets.

While some costs could vary depending on, say, how many advertisements are bought in a given week, many of the expenses listed on the ''Caroline'' receipt are the same for every Broadway show, including most of the salaries for actors, musicians and stage managers. All of which demonstrates how Broadway productions can sell thousands of tickets a week and still lose money. About 8 in 10 shows on Broadway flop, and ''Caroline'' was no exception, closing after four months and at a loss of $5 million. JESSE McKINLEY

RENT: On Broadway rent can be a fixed number, a percentage of the gross weekly sales, or a combination of the two. Because Jujamcyn Theaters owns the Eugene O'Neill, where ''Caroline'' played, and had a stake in it, the production was given a good deal. But it still paid rent based on percentage, a figure that hovered between $15,000 to $20,000 on good weeks. Theater owners also generally charge a fixed overhead fee, regardless of sales.

ADVERTISING: It's one of the biggest expenditures on any Broadway show and often the most contentious. Producers gripe that newspapers and other media outlets are greedy when it comes to ad rates, especially The New York Times, which can charge more than $100,000 for a full-page ad on Sundays. The Times says that its rates are fair. Regardless, ''Caroline'' earmarked nearly a fifth of its weekly budget to try to lure potential ticket buyers.

THE STAR: Tonya Pinkins, who received a Tony Award nomination for her work in ''Caroline,'' was considered vital to the production, but initially wanted more money than producers were willing to pay. A compromise was reached: in addition to her weekly salary, she received a stipend for housing, a per diem and a weekly sum for child care, an important part of the deal because Ms. Pinkins had recently endured a bitter custody battle.

THE CAST: Without actors, it's tough to do a show. On ''Caroline,'' most of the 17-member cast worked for a little more than union minimum ($1,354 at the time, with additional benefits). Actors agreed to those fees because the production, which had fair to good reviews during its initial run at the Public Theater, was not considered a box office slam-dunk on Broadway. The major exception was Ms. Pinkins, who earned $2,500 a week, plus perks (see ''The Star'').

HAIR: Set in the 1960's, ''Caroline'' was a wig-heavy show. (No one onstage sported their own hair.) To help outfit the actors, two stylists were used, both of whom showed up hours before curtain to help rebob the bobs, clean the curls and buoy those bouffants.

TUTORING: You would think doing a Broadway show would be a decent way of avoiding homework, but no. With two school-age actors (Harrison Chad and Leon G. Thomas III) and their understudies, the producers turned to On Location Education, a private tutoring service, to help the kids bone up on algebra and the like during rehearsals and on matinee days.

STAGEHANDS: Another common peeve of producers is labor costs on Broadway. Stagehands, with their powerful union -- Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees -- don't come cheap. On ''Caroline,'' the producers budgeted nearly $40,000 a week for stagehands, who handled everything from the sound board to the show's minimal automation to the props.

UTILITIES: Every drop of water in the bathroom, every amp of electricity in the footlights and every scrap of paper used in the box-office printer must be paid for by producers. These costs, of course, are passed on to ticket buyers. Orchestra seats for ''Caroline'' went for $101, but toward the end of its run the show usually fell short of breaking even.

THEATER/THE TONY AWARDS; And the Stub Is All Yours

By JESSE McKINLEY in the New York Times
Published: May 19, 2002

It is an age-old question for Broadway ticket buyers: Where, oh where, does all that money go? It's not pure profit. From stars' salaries to chorus members' high heels, Broadway shows have quite an overhead. The running cost of an average Broadway musical ranges from $300,000 to $500,000 a week.

''Mamma Mia!,'' the hit show at the 1,500-seat Winter Garden, created around two dozen Abba songs, is no exception. Here's a look at what a $100 orchestra seat pays for.

$1.25 THEATER FACILITY FEE

The fee, charged by the Shubert Organization (the owner of the Winter Garden), goes toward the maintenance and upkeep of the 91-year-old theater, which, some might argue, is like a restaurant charging extra because it has to repaint the walls. The Shuberts aren't alone; their rivals, Jujamcyn, also tack on a fee. The other major Broadway theater owner, the Nederlander Organization, does not.

$11.20 ADVERTISING/ MARKETING

$5.30 SALARIES (CAST)

''Mamma Mia!'' has a cast of 35. The actors, all members of the Actors' Equity union, earn at least the Equity Broadway contract base pay -- $1,252 a week. Actors in major roles earn more, and stars like Nathan Lane can make more than $50,000 a week.

$6.90 SALARIES (CREW)

Unionized stagehands are one of the bigger expenses of any show. Base pay for a crew chief is $1,375, before benefits. ''Mamma Mia!'' has a backstage crew of 35.

$2.00 SALARIES (MUSICIANS)

The nine orchestra members, who belong to Local 802, receive a base pay of $1,280 a week.

$1.40 SALARIES (OTHER)

Press agents, who are also unionized, receive a base pay of $1,714 a week. Other expenses: payments to ushers, box-office personnel and security.

$4.10 BOX-OFFICE COMMISSIONS

Paid to group sales and theater party ticket brokers.

$4.50 THEATER UTILITIES AND MISCELLANEOUS EXPENSES

$1.00 INSURANCE/ ACCOUNTING

All Broadway productions carry insurance -- for canceled shows (as happened on Sept. 11), as well as basic liability -- which averages about $2,500 a week.

$6.70 THEATER RENT

A Broadway house costs about $15,000 per week, plus 5 to 6 percent of the show's gross sales.

$4.10 RENTALS

Most shows rent their lighting and sound equipment.

$9.90 UNION BENEFITS/ PAYROLL TAXES

$1.20 UPKEEP OF COSTUMES

$15.70 ROYALTIES

Every member of the creative team receives royalties. (As if the satisfaction of a job well done weren't enough.)

$24.75 RETURN OF CAPITAL TO PRODUCERS

What it's all about on Broadway: making money. About a quarter of the $100 goes back to the people who made the show possible. No, not the actors, or the director, or the writers: the investors. 

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