Casual viewers of the June 12 Tony Awards might be forgiven for wondering if the Broadway-centric telecast represents the bastion of commercial theater in America, then why is one of the night’s trophies going to that standard bearer of federal funding, the National Endowment for the Arts?
The NEA’s special award is just one marker of the fact that ever since the regional-theater movement swept the country in the 1960s, the not-for-profit realm has had an increasing impact on the work that gets seen on Broadway — and beyond.
The numbers tell the story. A whopping 27 of this year’s Tony nominations went to work produced on Broadway by Roundabout (“She Loves Me,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Noises Off”) or originally produced Off Broadway by the company (“The Humans”). Twenty-two went to productions that originated at the Public Theater (“Hamilton,” “Eclipsed”). And the NEA takes home the trophy for its ongoing fiscal support of theater, totaling $331 million over its 50-year life span (including funds for both the Public and the Roundabout).
It’s also worth noting that the unprecedented diversity of the 2015-16 Broadway season, and the industrywide conversation that it’s fueled, chimes with the diversity initiatives that have been part of the Public Theater’s mission statement since it was founded in 1954. And “Dear Evan Hansen,” the buzzy Off Broadway musical set for a Broadway transfer this fall, has a book written by Steven Levenson, who got his start in the Roundabout Underground series of programming from rising artists.
“Broadway wouldn’t look like it does right now without the nonprofit,” says Greg Reiner, the NEA’s director of theater and musical theater.
Over the years, as New York nonprofits grew and organizations like the Roundabout, Manhattan Theater Club and Lincoln Center Theater claimed Broadway stages for their own, commercial producers grumbled. (“There’s no profit like nonprofit,” Gerald Schoenfeld, the late head of the Shubert Organization, used to say.) “It’s still a little contentious,” notes Roundabout artistic director Todd Haimes.
But these days, the antagonism seems to have been superseded by the general consensus that the give-and-take between the two sectors is largely a good thing.
“The two parts of the ecosystem feed each other in different ways and can really fill in each other’s gaps in ways that benefit both,” says Jordan Roth, the head of Broadway’s Jujamcyn Theaters, which next season will produce a revival of the musical “Falsettos” in partnership with the nonprofit LCT.
Broadway and the nonprofit realm can intersect in a variety of ways. Sometimes a not-for-profit independently produces a work that a commercial producer then picks up for Broadway. Sometimes a producer will bring a project to a nonprofit to develop for a subsequent commercial run. And sometimes nonprofits produce directly on Broadway, as is the case with the Roundabout’s nominated productions of “Long Day’s Journey” (for which Ryan Murphy provided the rights to the play), “She Loves Me” and “Noises Off.”
Even many commercial producers agree that the nonprofit world, free of the commercial strictures that can curtail creative risk-taking, is often a better place to nurture new artists and new work. Oskar Eustis, the artistic director at the Public, likens the creative advantages to the ones enjoyed by HBO.
“Because of HBO’s business model, the goal is simply to elevate the brand,” he says. “That’s not a bad analogy for what we do in the nonprofit theater. Show to show, I don’t have to worry as much about how many tickets I’m going to sell. I have to worry about making shows that demonstrate to people that we’re a vital part of the culture.”
Similarly, if the Roundabout operated on ticket sales alone, its Underground program — showcasing unknown creators in a 60-seat black box at $20 a ticket — makes for an impossible equation. But it’s unquestionably been worth it: Underground kicked off in 2007 with “Speech & Debate,” the first play by Stephen Karam, who went on to become a Pulitzer finalist for “Sons of the Prophet” (also produced at Roundabout) and is now a Tony nominee for “The Humans.”
“The Underground is like 5% of our budget, but it’s kind of like 50% of our soul now,” Haimes says.
It’s the kind of only-at-a-nonprofit program that, these days, tends to yield the projects and artists that go on to commercial success — and sometimes make it to the Tonys.