Nonprofits strike tricky balance amid success
No Broadway production is an island. At least, few of them were this year.
Twenty-five awards were doled out during the Tony ceremony June 10 — and 23 of them went to productions linked to nonprofit legit orgs.
Now more than ever, Broadway isn’t a self-contained bastion of commercialism. The Rialto these days is tied to a broad network of Off Broadway orgs, regional companies and development programs that are playing a growing role in supplying product.
For a nonprofit, an association with an award-winning main stem show can yield extra coin, a higher profile and greater access to prime talent. But deepening connections to the commercial world also can be a double-edged sword, bringing increased scrutiny and the pressure to churn out the next hit — and threatening to steer an org away from the mission on which it was founded.
Nonprofits have long funneled productions to Broadway. “A Chorus Line,” for instance, originated at the Public in 1975 before it jumped to the Shubert Theater, won nine Tonys and ran for 15 years. But recent seasons have seen more projects with less obvious commercial prospects making the move from a smaller stage to a Broadway berth.
After box office juggernauts “The Producers” and “Hairspray” took the top tuner Tony in 2001 and 2003, respectively, the next year marked the year of the underdog. The musical prize, expected to go to commercial champ “Wicked,” went instead to “Avenue Q,” a quirky coming-of-age musical with puppets that bowed at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theater in a co-production with another nonprofit, the New Group.
The following seasons spread the Tony love among commercial productions (“Monty Python’s Spamalot,” “Jersey Boys”) and shows with nonprofit roots (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “The Light in the Piazza”).
The big winner at the Tonys this year was “Spring Awakening,” the rock musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater that nabbed eight awards including tuner, score and book. Based on an eccentric 1891 German play about teens confronting sex, death and other shadowy mysteries of adulthood, “Spring” was first produced last season at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company, one of the producers of the Broadway incarnation.
“What we kept saying on Tony night is, ‘What does this mean for the Atlantic?’ ” says Andrew D. Hamingson, managing director of the company, which also can claim a share of credit for “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only,” the ventriloquist show that won a Tony for special event. The production played the Atlantic in 2004.
For one thing, a hit Broadway production can mean cash for a nonprofit — but maybe not as much as you think.
“It’s not a golden ticket,” warns Douglas Aibel, a.d. of the Vineyard. “But it does help provide stability at a time when arts funding is dwindling from the government, from foundations, from corporations.”
“Avenue Q” preemed at the Vineyard after being developed at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s annual Music Theater Conference in Waterford, Conn. The tuner has been running on Broadway since 2003.
According to Tim Sanford, a.d. of Playwrights Horizons, the Off Broadway theater where triple Tony winner “Grey Gardens” originated, a nonprofit org can receive between $1,000 to $3,000 a week from a Broadway production — a small sum compared with the additional $30,000 a week that an inhouse extension can bring. “The cut we get is relatively modest,” he says.
The 2007 Tony champion among straight plays was Tom Stoppard’s epic three-part saga about 19th century Russian intellectuals, “The Coast of Utopia,” which won seven trophies (breaking the record for wins for a single play). Produced by Gotham’s not-for-profit Lincoln Center Theater, the show had already closed by Tony night, but had nonetheless enjoyed a long, popular run extended by nine weeks due to demand.
Staged by LCT at its Broadway house the Vivian Beaumont, “Utopia” (which is not considered a transfer) brought in more earned income for the nonprofit than expected, which in turn helped defray hefty production costs. The “Utopia” budget came in at $7.7 million, according to LCT exec producer Bernard Gersten, but extra sales paid for about $900,000 of that.
But there’s more than money to be gained from an award-winning Broadway transfer: There’s exposure.
“Hopefully the success of ‘Spring Awakening’ will increase awareness of the Atlantic,” says a.d. Neil Pepe. “And hopefully some of the ‘Spring Awakening’ audience will come see what we’re doing downtown.”
No matter how the Tony telecast ratings dip, a primetime mention on a network still has currency.
“My happiest moment was when Christine Ebersole said ‘Playwrights Horizons’ on national television,” Sanford says of the “Gardens” star who won lead actress in a musical for her dual-role turn. “That kind of advocacy is invaluable.”
The Vineyard, for one, got a boost in prominence from “Avenue Q.” “It gave us significantly higher recognition and visibility among audiences and donors,” Aibel says. “It definitely opened doors for us.”
The Atlantic aims to up its profile with “Spring” auds with four pages in the show’s Playbill, and will expand its marketing efforts to “Spring” ticket- buyers. Playwrights Horizons has similar access to “Gardens” Rialto patrons.
The Broadway imprimatur also can be instrumental in helping theaters hang on to their existing subscribers, as well as attracting new ones. And the national prominence bestowed by Broadway and Tony recognition also can help a theater attract in-demand performers and creatives.
But success breeds its own set of challenges.
Pepe and Hamingson say that the Atlantic is engaged in the delicate matter of linking “Spring Awakening” to the theater in the brochure for its 2007-08 season. Despite the marketing leverage and prestige of a Tony-winning hit, there’s a balance required to avoid being labeled as solely a stepping stone to Broadway or placing undue expectations on subsequent productions.
“It’s potentially a two-edged sword, when you try to identify yourself with a Broadway show, because that’s only a fraction of what you do,” Sanford says.
“It’s a fine line,” echoes Edward Stern, a.d. of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, the regional that originally produced “Company,” which won the tuner revival Tony. (The Cincy theater, which staged “Company” last year before it was picked up for Broadway, also received the 2004 Tony for regional theater.)
“We don’t want to make Broadway into Mecca,” Stern says. “If I start thinking in terms of New York, I would be doing a great disservice to my region.”
The obvious concern in the wake of a big hit is the pressure to come up with another one.
The nonprofits say they don’t feel it internally, although sometimes they have to acknowledge the heightened expectations from auds and the industry. While “Frost/Nixon,” which earned Frank Langella a lead actor Tony, marked the first production to secure a Broadway berth from director Michael Grandage’s tenure as a.d. of London’s Donmar Warehouse, it undoubtedly creates expectations for more to follow.
LCT a.d. Andre Bishop recalls a memorable conversation with a colleague in the wake of “Utopia.” “He said, ‘You have raised the bar for yourselves in the Vivian Beaumont,’ ” Bishop remembers. “He meant it very kindly, but I of course became obsessively worried.”
Following the glare of Tony attention, it seems inevitable that future productions from a winning org — such as the Atlantic’s “10 Million Miles,” the Patty Griffin musical that opened last week and reunites several members of the “Spring” creative team; or “Saved,” next season’s Playwrights Horizons tuner — are subjected to heightened scrutiny.
“There’s really nothing we can do if people want to put that ‘Spring Awakening’ spotlight on ’10 Million Miles,’ ” Hamingson says.
One factor that can draw attention is enhancement money — coin ponied up for a not-for-profit production by commercial producers.
Thanks to a number of economic factors, including the rising costs of production development, enhancement money is more common than ever, and is another mark of the strengthening ties between not-for-profit and for-profit legit.
For instance, “10 Million Miles,” is produced at the Atlantic in association with Tom Hulce and Ira Pittelman, the two commercial producers who were attached to the Off Broadway incarnation of “Spring” and who shepherded the show to the Rialto, bringing in a platoon of other backers (see story, page 46).
The benefits of an enhancement arrangement are clear for both sides. The nonprofit gets an extra chunk of money for production, while the producer gets the rights to pick up a successful production for a commercial run once the show has been developed in a not-for-profit — which is to say, less risky — environment.
“In the case of musical theater, it’s often something you have to do because of the costs of mounting a show,” Aibel says.
Commercial producers also are more inclined to sniff around nonprofit development programs such as the Sundance Institute Theater Laboratory, the legit version of Sundance’s indie film branch.
Both “Spring” and “Gardens” are alums of the theater lab, as is 2004 Tony winner “I Am My Own Wife.”
“I think with the Tonys and the commercial success of this recent work, more commercial producing entities will be watching us,” says Philip Himberg, director of Sundance’s theater program. “But since we keep the gates to Sundance closed to producers, they will have to keep their distance until the work we do is done.”
For all the benefits of a Broadway success, however, nonprofit orgs say they aim to manage expectations, keeping their heads down and continuing to produce the kind of fare that attracted attention in the first place.
“The Tonys for ‘Spring Awakening’ and ‘Grey Gardens’ underline the importance of artist-driven work,” Sanford says of the two idiosyncratic, creatively risky shows, which deal, respectively, with teen turmoil and two fallen Kennedy-clan fringe figures. “No producer would ever sit down and say, ‘I’ve got an idea …’ for projects like that. Only an artist would. And that happens in the nonprofit world.”
“None of our highly visible projects would have been recognized or touched by commercial producers when they were just ideas or early-on scripts,” adds Himberg.
The Atlantic, meanwhile, hopes to parlay the success of “Spring” into a long-term survival plan.
“We’ve always been pretty hand-to-mouth and fingers-crossed,” Hamingson says of the company, founded in 1985.
The Atlantic is tentatively planning capital improvements to its mainstage, and hoping to up its subscriber base from roughly 3,000 to closer to 4,000.
“For the not-for-profits in New York, it’s this ongoing challenge of how you survive long term,” Pepe says. “Hopefully the success of ‘Spring Awakening’ can help ensure our artistic future.”