In his recent Wall Street Journal article on the failure of Broadway to mount new straight plays, I was very pleased to see Terry Teachout take a serious look at the important issue of inflation in the theater market. The rate at which the cost of producing theater has risen on Broadway (and off) is astounding, and is well shown by Mr. Teachout’s statistics. He places much of the blame on high marketing costs, and the expense of star power. It turns out that Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman were paid $100,000 a week to appear in “A Steady Rain”, an enormous jump from the $1,600 a week that is the AEA Broadway minimum. This really begs the question of how Equity dares to call itself a union when a member can make 1.6% of the salary of another member doing the same job. I imagine that their answer is that it is not the same job, but it’s not because Hugh Jackman is 98.4% better as an actor than the average Broadway performer, its because he is a draw.
The key thing to understand is that people were not paying to see “A Steady Rain”, though I’m sure it is an estimable play, people were paying to be in a room with Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman. This became quite clear to me last year, when Jackman just cut out the middle man altogether. I remember walking down 42nd street, and seeing a huge poster of him with the show title “Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway”. I thought to myself, but what is he going to do? I sort of imagined him strutting from stage left to stage right, doing little dance moves and giving an occasional thumbs up to the audience. And I imagined an audience that was enjoying themselves while watching. Now I have no problem with this, I don’t go around judging whether having fun is any more or less important than seeing “good art”. But it does make me wonder if we should really be paying much attention to straight plays on Broadway, if they really have cultural significance, or simply serve as a diorama in which to place pretty people.
Towards the end of his article, Teachout wistfully addresses the smaller theaters, the off broadways and regionals, sort of wishing that the brave work they put on would be taken more seriously by our society, so that their success was not dependent upon a Broadway transfer. It is a strange paragraph in which he exempts his own paper and the New York Times, from a broad description of a boorish media that refuses to promote true culture. Teachout basically seems to be saying “oh well, what can you do?” Of course that is the imprtant question. But its not; how do we get Broadway to produce more new plays, but how do we get society to care about the vast universe of theater that is not on the great white way.
Complaining about the lack of important new plays on Broadway is like complaining that there isn’t more fine modern dance at strip clubs, a talented dancer at a strip club may be a plus, but it is hardly the point. There are a whole host of reasons that people attend Broadway plays beyond the importance or value of the play. But this is not to say that commercial theater is not capable of being the engine of new play development in our country. For that to happen, we must broaden our idea of what commercial theater is. Today we use the term pretty interchangably with Broadway, because the vast majority of non Broadway theater is in fact non commercial. This system in which the NFP houses are meant to develop shows that go to Broadway makes no sense. It treats all theater shows as if they are the same basic shape and size. As if plays are like cut diamonds that can be dropped into any setting, and the clearest, brightest stones find their way into the Tiffany platinum ring of Broadway. As Teachout points out, that is the only way that our society ever really considers a play to be ultimately successful.
Its time to start thinking about theater the way we think of restaurants. Some of our favorite restaurants are fine dining spots, but some are also take out joints, and many exist in the area in between. For a good BBQ joint, or casual Italian place to be successful it is enough that they satisfy their clientele, nobody anxiously awaits the moment when they will turn into a white tablecloth dining room of the elite. Theater which is created with lower overhead in more casual environments and which involve drink and food sales offer a real commercial alternative to both Broadway and the Not for Profit houses.
Mr. Teachout is correct to place much of the blame for soaring theater prodcution costs on marketing, but there is a deeper reason why that is happening. Broadway and major off Broadway producers are playing a zero sum game. There is a limited pool of people for whom a Broadway show is an entertainment option, and all the shows are fighting for those same people. So if Spiderman spends 1m on marketing, I better spend 1.1m and so on. New forms of theater attract new kinds of audience. So instead of the tens of thousands of theater artists in our country trying to fit through the keyhole of Broadway someday, we should focus on theater with new atmoshphere, theater that is fun and theater that is cheap.