Remember when the new play on Broadway was considered a dying breed?
Not anymore: Fourteen new plays opened on the Main Stem this season. As brave producers pull together productions that aim for commercial viability, Gotham nonprofits with Broadway venues also have stepped up to give new titles a Rialto showcase.
The current crop of commercial play producers are upfront about the fact that in most cases, a new play — heck, any play — won’t work without a star.
Robyn Goodman, producer of Robin Williams topliner “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” says she knew from the get-go that Rajiv Joseph’s challenging, Iraq-set play would need a big name to anchor it. When she was drumming up partners and investors for the project, she recalls, “Everybody would say, ‘Oh, it’s great writing. Call us when you get a star.’ I couldn’t get anyone involved until I had Robin Williams.”
Many new plays that reach Broadway begin their lives in the fiscally safer confines of an Off Broadway nonprofit, or they arrive pre-approved by auds from heralded runs at London theaters, as is the case with two Tony-nommed plays: Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem” and Nick Stafford’s “War Horse.”
According to Scott Rudin, producer of “Jerusalem” and the Tony-nommed “Motherfucker With the Hat,” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, marketing strategies can take advantage of new media’s focused targeting capabilities.
“It’s actually possible now to talk to both the traditional theater audience and a nontraditional audience,” says Rudin. “You can run a Chris Rock campaign, and you can run a Broadway play campaign,” he adds, referring to “Hat.”
Since most star thesps will only agree to limited-engagement productions, an open-ended commercial stint for a new play is becoming increasingly rare. Eric Simonson’s “Lombardi,” emboldened by the marketing muscle of the NFL, was the only play this season to hit the boards with the intention of sticking around for the long term; Lincoln Center Theater’s recent decision to run “War Horse” indefinitely came only after sales and New York reviews suggested an enduring appeal.
In fact, the contempo commercial play model, with short runs regularly rotating in and out of a single season, is starting to look familiar.
“Now the commercial theater is doing the same limited runs as nonprofit theaters,” says Lynne Meadow, a.d. of Manhattan Theater Club, which this year staged the Tony-nommed “Good People,” the new David Lindsay-Abaire play toplined by Frances McDormand.
No matter how long the run, a frugal production budget is always a must, as evidenced in the predominance of smaller-cast shows. Nonprofits, however, can use the cushion of a subscriber base and an annual operating budget to allow for more expansive productions.
Among the season’s offerings at Lincoln Center Theater, both “A Free Man of Color,” John Guare’s big-ensemble historical comedy, and the puppet-heavy “War Horse” are big enough to be considered major risks for commercial Broadway.
LCT’s Rialto venue, the Vivian Beaumont Theater, regularly hosts large-scale play productions, such as multi-part epics “The Coast of Utopia” and “Henry IV.” That’s attributable in part to the unusually large, deep thrust stage of the Beaumont itself.
“Shows of scale can often be seen very well in that space,” says LCT a.d. Andre Bishop. And when a limited run at the Beaumont expands into an open-ended one, as with “War Horse” and the 2008 revival of “South Pacific,” the additional earnings can be funneled back to support the theater’s activities.
” ‘South Pacific’ allowed us to do two very big productions, ‘Free Man’ and ‘War Horse,’ this year. It’s also helped up in launching LCT3,” Bishop says, referring to the company’s new programming initiative devoted to emerging legit creatives.
For both commercial and nonprofit producers of new plays, hurdles to success loom large. But for some producers, that’s part of the fun.
“It seemed like a fantastic challenge to see if we can make a show like ‘Motherfucker’ work on Broadway without a launch at an Off Broadway nonprofit or at the National in London,” says Rudin.
If the nonprofit Off Broadway scene is often so much easier, one might wonder why producers still aim for the Main Stem at all.
“I still think Broadway is the shot heard round the world,” Rudin responds.
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