NEW YORK — On July 15, the Shakespeare Festival is taking the unusual step of honoring its lawyer, John Breglio, at a benefit performance of “Henry V” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
Breglio’s work for the not-for-profit goes back more than 30 years, to his earliest days with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.
The firm already had an illustrious history with the fest, having successfully defended Joseph Papp against the designs of Robert Moses in the late 1950s. Moses wanted the theater thrown out of Central Park, but Papp prevailed in court, marking one of Moses’ rare defeats. (The plan of Gotham’s master builder to put a superhighway right through SoHo also failed, fortunately.)
“Papp was considered a nuisance and an upstart,” Breglio says. “Today, free Shakespeare in the Park is a treasure we take for granted, but it is an expensive proposition.”
Hence the July 15 benefit.
There had been much grousing last summer when the festival cut back from two productions in the park to just one.
“It is $1 million a production, and it won’t stop at $1 million,” says Breglio, looking to the future. “And we don’t have any earned income. We need to endow it.”
The Shakespeare Festival’s output at the Public Theater also has been reduced, if not halved, from a decade ago.
“The proliferation of not-for-profit theaters has had a great impact on everyone, including the Public,” Breglio says. “You have so many theaters searching essentially for the same number of plays.” Art Alliance N.Y. listed approximately 70 nonprofits in 1972, and about 150 in 1990. The number today is an astounding 425.
It has been said that no play or musical gets staged in Gotham without some aspect of its production crossing Breglio’s desk.
In addition to the Public and his many commercial clients, he is counsel for Manhattan Theater Club, Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage and the Classic Stage Co., among other nonprofits.
One of the theater’s best temperature-takers, Breglio blames fallout from 9/11 and the economic recession for current woes regarding the lack of legit advances and theatergoing tourists.
“But I’ve finished predicting when it will all come back,” he says.
“Off Broadway is suffering doublefold. When there are tons of tickets available at TKTS for a Broadway show, theatergoers pass on seeing ‘Zanna, Don’t!’ ”
Plays can still make it Off Broadway, he believes, “with some very clever budgeting.”
“But you can’t really intelligently structure, from an economic point of view, an Off Broadway musical.” And so little “Avenue Q” goes from a not-for-profit, the Vineyard, to its big gamble on Broadway.
Even there, producers are looking for what Breglio calls “mass-market entertainment, shows that reach out to the broadest public.”
Regarding the appeal of the live event in and of itself, “I worry about it,” says legit’s uber-lawyer. “Earned income is not going to do it. Which is why we need not-for-profit to generate those works.”