Walk into the offices of Broadway’s Shubert Organization, and you’re stepping into New York’s past. Behind the discreetly marked door in Shubert Alley and past a stoic elevator operator who’ll take you to the upper floors of the Shubert Theatre, you’ll find yourself in a sumptuously appointed maze of offices that used to be the penthouse apartment of the company’s late co-founder, Lee Shubert.
Quirky, insidery, traditional with a hint of glamour, it’s among the New Yorkiest spots in the city. It also carries a feeling of quiet power — which is fitting, since
the Shuberts, along with fellow landlords the Nederlander Organization and Jujamcyn Theaters, hold the keys to the Broadway kingdom.
That power has only grown in recent years as Broadway’s cumulative sales have surged, tempting new producers to the market even as the biggest hits run
longer than ever. It all adds up to sky-high demand for a limited resource of 41 theaters that open up to new productions with increasing rarity.
“We’ve got backups and backups and backups of shows waiting for a theater,” says James L. Nederlander, president of the Nederlander Organization, which owns or operates nine of those 41 houses.
The Shuberts own 17 houses and Jujamcyn five. Five more are owned by nonprofits (with another, Second Stage’s Helen Hayes, on the way), and the newest theater owner on the block — Ambassador Theatre Group, a powerhouse in the U.K. — presides over two: the newly refurbished Hudson and the Lyric, soon to be off the market, probably for a long, long time, with “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”
It can be a competitive business to secure the next big smash — like “Hamilton” for the Nederlanders, “Hello, Dolly!” for the Shuberts or the upcoming “Frozen” for Jujamcyn. But leaders at all the companies, in gentlemanly Broadway fashion, describe their relationship as collegial, which is borne out by recent producing activities like the revival of “Cats,” produced by the Shuberts and the Nederlanders, and the upcoming “Angels in America,” produced by Jujamcyn with the Nederlanders.
It’s a harmony preserved in part by the scarcity of the resources. “For a single show, it’s rare that all three of us have a building available that’s the right size for the show and we all feel equally passionate about it,” says Jujamcyn president Jordan Roth.
Notes Shubert chair Philip J. Smith, who leads the company with president Robert E. Wankel: “If you start getting into a situation where you’re stealing from each other, it won’t work. Eventually someone’s going to come along and pinch you in the butt.”
Still, contests arise. Theater owners cite “Matilda” as the hottest property in recent years; it went to the Shuberts, but Jujamcyn ended up ahead with “Kinky Boots,” which won the Tony that season and is still playing.
As landlords, producers and in the case of the Shuberts, ticketers, the theater owners are among the top leaders in the industry, always considering ways to confront Street-wide problems like Times Square congestion, rising production costs and the declining commercial viability of new plays.
And none of them would mind adding a house or two to the theater district. Nederlander speaks for them all when he declares, “I would love a couple more!”