A league of our own

Broadway producer Emanuel Azenberg used to teach a remarkable course in play production, and one of his recurring themes was that the theater industry undermines its long-term interests by not conducting business like an industry. Broadway’s leadership would never submerge its rival concerns into truly shared, common goals. Is Broadway’s business-as-usual approach about to change at last? Shifting audiences, economic fear, critical pummeling, diminished production opportunities and the Walt Disney Co.’s juggernaut arrival in New York City finally seem to be forcing a new approach, despite record-breaking grosses.

I am from the last generation of New York City kids who in their teens were thrilled by Broadway, came downtown on the subway, ran from show to show on weekend nights and matinees (often second-acting) and filling upper-balcony seats – which at $3 or $5 cost the same as firstrun films. You could go to the movies or you could go to Broadway, for the same price and often with the same spontaneity. With those seats marked today at $45 and up (apart from TKTS or late-in-the-run discounts), how can the city’s contemporary young population take our former places? And will the productions and physical experience of the theater speak to them as powerfully as they did for us at another time?

If Broadway’s major producers and theater owners embrace the status quo and gear themselves largely to tourist groups, the creative future for new work and audiences will be dim, apart from the megamusicals, and even they have nearly eliminated available theaters for new largescale productions. While generating massive profits that prime the pump of commercial theater investment, “Cats,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon” have established themselves collectively as a semi-permanent, megamusical theme park well in advance of Disney’s setting up shop in the renovated New Amsterdam Theater.

Given these issues, it’s not been a bad summer for Broadway’s trade group, the League of American Theaters & Producers. From the generally well-received appointment of marketing executive Jed Bernstein as the League’s new executive director, to legal exemptions granted limited partnerships by New York State and the elimination by New York City of commercial rent tax for new shows, the news has been good for producers. Leaving aside both the threats and opportunities inherent in the League’s current back-of-house labor negotiations, there seems to be movement on the Street.

The League’s new executive appointment was given a symbolic touch by the New York Times, which mistakenly switched captions below photos of Bernstein and Mark Rylance, the Anglo-American actor named the same day to head London’s reconstructed Globe Theater. A beaming, jaunty Rylance was dryly headlined “advertising executive to head theater owners league,” while the more sober Bernstein was identified as “a risk-taking actor to lead London’s resurrected Globe.” The Times’ error gives Bernstein a convenient mission statement for Broadway: Take risks, lead and resurrect.

Bernstein suggests that his experience with advertising and brand loyalty will translate into ways of increasing the theatergoing habit for new audiences. He claims to have seen 153 plays last season, so he certainly has the bug himself – and he must have attended a majority of 1994-95’s Off Broadway and resident theater productions to have hit that total, a good sign considering the reality that the American theater’s different production strata are wholly interconnected. Commercial Broadway cannot stand apart, and depends upon creative input from other – largely nonprofit – venues and markets.

A true theatergoing habit for new audiences may never again rest upon Broadway alone. Commercial production has plummeted. A year on Broadway generates far fewer new plays and musicals than the combined 12 months of major shows staged Off Broadway and at New York’s largest not-for-profit theaters, which generally employ the same artists as Broadway. (To go farther afield, a year on Broadway has fewer productions than a single season at England’s Royal Shakespeare Company.)

Will Disney’s theatrical presence signify a further erosion of a true New York sensibility on Broadway? A stage version of Disney’s “Mary Poppins” film (or Elton John’s “Aida” project) may merely feed a public shaped by film and video that already finds live performance small-scaled, alienating and foreign.

And in this era of corporate mergers, can it possibly be healthy for long-term Broadway prospects that 60% of the current North American legit box office is generated by Cameron Mackintosh, Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Disney Co.?

A few years ago, the Jujamcyn organization announced a series of highly publicized commissions of new plays for Broadway. The project seems to have been abandoned. The “Young Turk” producers’ group established by the Dodger Organization also disappeared quickly.

One hopes that Bernstein’s new efforts at the League will yield more, including urgent reform of the much-abused Tony Awards’ mission, TV presentation and voting procedures.

A unified, aggressive, focused plan must emerge not just for Broadway, but the comprehensive, integrated New York theater; a plan that accommodates production opportunities for plays as well as musicals and that re-establishes the entire theater as a significant, indigenous and healthy industry of New York City.

Robert Marx is executive producer of the New York Public Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

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