Commercial theatre in New York is a financial long shot at the best of times. Only twenty to twenty-five percent of Broadway shows turn a profit. Those odds get a lot longer for straight plays (as opposed to musicals) and they are longest of all for new straight plays.
You don’t need access to producers’ financial statements to know this; just look at how few new straight plays are inside Broadway houses. Right now there is only one, Seminar, written by Theresa Rebeck and starring Alan Rickman. Without a star in the lead Rebeck’s play probably wouldn’t have opened on Broadway either.
In a recent column the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic Terry Teachout asks why Tribes, a new play that has received rave reviews (including from him), opened not on Broadway but downtown at Barrow Street Theatre. It so happens that Tribes was one of nine plays I saw over six days on a recent trip to New York. The only play I saw that was better was Death of a Salesman, not bad company. So Teachout is asking a good question. Twenty years ago more than a dozen new straight plays were opening on Broadway. What has happened? (Tribes was written by Nina Raines, a young British author, and is directed by the widely respected David Cromer.)
Teachout compares a producer’s historical costs to today. Death of a Salesman, now on Broadway and enjoying sold-out houses, provides a good case study because the current production uses essentially the same elaborate set as the original 1949 production. With 13 actors and its big set, Salesman is expensive. In 1949 it cost $100,000 to mount, the equivalent of $976,000 today. I don’t know what the capitalization was for the current Salesman but I guarantee you one million bucks doesn’t come close.
Physical production costs, and especially union labor, are often cited as the principal cause of producers’ costs greatly outpacing inflation. But Teachout identifies marketing as perhaps the most inflationary expense. He reports that Broadway producers now spend up to $750,000 to advertise the opening of a straight play. If the producers of the 1949 Salesman had spent that much of their budget on advertising, less than $250,000 (in 2012 dollars) would have been left for everything else. You can imagine how far $250,000 will get you for everything else required to open a play.
Having been a show producer for over twenty years, I can easily immerse myself in crunching the numbers. Teachout’s column gave me one of those “Duh!” moments. He reminded me that over my own producer career marketing costs rose faster than any other budget category. It wasn’t that advertising media costs greatly outpaced inflation; it was that between 1990 and 2010 marketing got incredibly more complicated. In 1990 I would hire a media buyer, give her a budget and she (it was usually a she) would purchase schedules in newspaper, radio and TV. Today that simple approach looks like caveman promotion. Consumer behavior and marketing channels are incredibly more complicated and fragmented today than 20 years ago. The rise in marketing costs has been commensurate with marketing complexity.
Teachout despairs of any solution to high advertising costs and the scarcity of new straight plays on Broadway. Because most entertainment journalism ignores off-Broadway and regional productions and is fixated on “Broadway” (to the degree it pays any attention at all to theatre) Teachout predicts that “live theater, important and vital though it is, will remain on the margins of the larger American culture, vaguely respected but increasingly ignored.”