Saturday, December 17, 2016

Reaching the Levers of Power: Money and the Media after the Election

Economics always felt a little to me like watching Mulholland Drive – the closer you look, the more things aren’t what they seem.

So inequality’s a tricky topic, because it is a matter of definition, while trying to avoid the superficiality of semantics.  If one person has $1 billion and another has $50,000 but both effectively live the same lives consumption-wise, there’s inequality of resources but not inequality of behavior.  And is the world harmed by the wealthier one if he or she invests it in projects that advance various fields?

I’m from an industry that’s at once a huge beneficiary of inequality and a particular victim of inequality.  Book of Mormon never would have happened if not for a few checks from some vastly wealthy individuals – there’s really no world where a government program could have funded a piece poking fun at a religion (and plenty of other taboo topics beyond that).  I’ve seen, time and time again, the more democratic a producing process becomes, the harder it is to do anything audacious.  Mormon would have been severely watered down and lost the very attributes that made it amazing.  We need people willing to throw large chunks of money around, able to afford the risk of losing, and deep-pocketed and unobtrusive enough to stay out of the kitchen when there’s already expert cooks in there.

On the flip side, inequality bars many others from realizing their potential in the arts.  Starting out as a writer, actor, musician, director, or in plenty of other artistic roles, is simply a career choice that feels too financially risky to even attempt in the first place.  And the chasm between the remuneration of Jennifer Lawrence and the pennies picked up by a moderately successful poet is extreme indeed (a reason Hollywood celebrities often appear hypocritical when bemoaning inequality).  Even for the investing side of the business, who’s to say there aren’t many others out there who would do a better job of enabling truly bold and worthwhile projects?

Many people don’t have trouble looking at a given one of said Hollywood mega-celebrities and saying, do they really deserve to earn 400 times what the average American nets in a single year?  For being charming and emotional on screen?

But I work for a television studio now, so I don’t think I’ll stick my toe in that one, not just yet.

There’s a complicated mix, some might say mess, of incentives and distortions, efficiencies and perversions, that underpin the artistic economy specifically and the broader economy generally.  And in an American society where different classes and groups are intermingling and communicating so little that tens of millions were scratching their heads on November 9, economic inequality is also a key component of a broader cultural imbalance.  How can the haves rectify the needs of the have nots if the former aren’t even listening to hear what the latter find meaningful and valuable?  Money is a starting point and something that can be better distributed, but where to start?

I’m not presumptuous enough to start to catalogue these ills, but I can start with a plea for the beneficiaries of the increasingly skewed distribution of wealth – I think some of the very best and most innovative art and entertainment are not being made now, because no one’s giving them the resources.

But in return, those who are given the privileged access to control the levers of resource distribution in a field as resource-intensive as major media need to do a far better job of giving respectful and genuine space for the voices that are not being heard, including those with whom they disagree politically and culturally.  Hollywood celebrities came out in force with denunciations this year, and even the minority conservatives in the major media outlets seemed broadly unified against Trump – ironically a man whose TV show sat atop this competitive industry.  At the same time, Trump saw stupendous grassroots support and donations – his supporters may not have had much money to give, but they gave it with a passion and a dedication that perhaps no other politician elicited from them in this generation.

Trump was not irrational in saying that the cameras never (well, rarely) pulled back to show the huge crowds of the faces behind these donations.  Before the “elites” can rectify economic inequality, they need to start with rectifying the communication inequality that is now eating away at the bonds that are supposed to bind the country together.  For if those bonds become completely broken, any effort to fix the other aspects of inequality will likely fail to redistribute the resources where they are truly needed.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Great Recalibration: College-Educated Voters and the 2016 Election

Many gallons of ink have been poured analyzing the white working class’s role in Trump’s victory, but far fewer on another phenomenon that’s only recently come to light (and seemed in doubt before the election): Trump wasn’t that far off from winning college graduates as well, independent of race.  The Times showed him losing 45 to 49 versus Clinton among college graduates, a far cry from the blowout that was supposed to happen among the more educated group.

This was a group that Peter Thiel singled out as well during his speech on Halloween:
“Our youngest citizens may not have huge medical bills, but their college tuition keeps on increasing faster than the rate of inflation, adding more every year to our $1.3 trillion dollar mountain of student debt.  America has become the only country where students take on loans they can never escape, not even by declaring bankruptcy.  Stuck in this broken system, Millennials are the first generation who expect their own lives to be worse than the lives of their parents.”

Thiel was crossing various lines that are not often crossed: a prominent figure from Silicon Valley contradicting the liberal plus libertarian ideological strains that are dominant there, and a gay man granting support to the standard-bearer of a party that LGBT people have consistently shied away from (though Trump managed to increase the tiny share to 14% this time around).

The indefatigably contrarian Thiel has made literally billions at the acme of the tech industry, a world that looked like it was starting to despise him for endorsing a candidate that threatened various of the ways that their business worked (especially that expansion of the H1-B visa class for skilled foreign workers that Mark Zuckerberg was pushing so hard for).

It is unsurprising that the voices that are most included in the national dialogue are those of the most secure and successful (few of whom would “expect their own lives to be worse than the lives of their parents”), and so Thiel viewed himself as speaking for the others who had paid a hefty sum for an education without reaping vast rewards in return, others whose anxieties could at best be shared with their friends.  But on election day, the voters who had remained fairly quiet in the discussion beforehand delivered a resounding cry that was heard the world over.

Making accurate assumptions about the psyches of these voters as a group is difficult, because so many of them won’t self-identify, and even the ones who do may not actually divulge the truly intimate details of what motivated them.  This is particularly true of the heavily scrutinized and protean alt-right, whose lifeblood seems to be in relatively anonymous circles online.  While the actions of various trolls have achieved great notoriety, the relatively low volume of online alt-right activity still leaves a massive question mark over the numerous millions of voters with undergraduate degrees – whether they secretly sympathized with alt-right viewpoints on immigration, affirmative action, and free speech, or whether they were driven by Thiel’s more respectably phrased appeals to a robust middle class and the value of communities that had been slowly dissolved by forces of trade and globalization.

Trump’s movement is often lumped together as “far-right” along with France’s National Front and other European nationalist parties, but it is interesting that Steve Bannon and many others from within the movement rather envisaged, as he put it, “an insurgent, center-right populist movement that is virulently anti-establishment.”  It is fair to say that many of these burgeoning political movements in the US and Europe are indeed more moderate on economic issues (cf. Thiel’s argument about infrastructure spending and making government function better rather than annihilating it) and more restrained with the military (as Trump recently reiterated his call on 60 Minutes to pull back from foreign adventures and spend more money on – drumroll please – infrastructure spending).  What is noteworthy with Trump that distinguishes him a little from some of the European movements is his more moderate stance around social issues as well.  How often have Republican candidates given contributions to Planned Parenthood?  His early donations to AIDS funds, strong relationships with gay folk in entertainment, and spirited appeals to the value of the LGBT community in the wake of the Orlando massacre and at the RNC convention put him well apart from so many other prominent Republicans, and especially from the more marginal religious populists of recent election cycles such as Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.  “Far-right” might apply to certain policies (perhaps why Trump modified proposals such as the temporary Muslim ban), but, when words matter, the term may also be an attempt to keep the nationalists at bay.

Which brings us to immigration.  I am truly curious what proportion among those post-collegiate voters agreed with his general trend on immigration.  Returning to the Times data, only 32% of all voters who said immigration was the most important issue to them voted for Clinton.  Clearly Trump harnessed a passionate base of voters who saw in him a presidential candidate who seemed likely to follow through on a truly conservative immigration policy, and clearly the fear that Latinos would completely abandon him proved false, as he pulled a greater proportion of them than Romney or McCain.  Nationalist views are usually attributed to less educated voters, but there has been significant intellectual output on the conservative side of the issue, from Harvard professors Samuel P. Huntington and George Borjas, the latter of whom argues that immigration has played a major role in our national inequality and in the erosion of the middle class.  My professor Ed Lazear at Stanford provocatively argued that assimilation tended to stop working when the numbers of any specific first-generation group became too high.

I suspect that cultural conservatism is more prevalent among the college-educated than has been thought, but I would be curious indeed to see deeper research into attitudes here.  Many of the polls taken have had leading questions (“do you support a path to amnesty if the following conditions are satisfied…?”), and haven’t drilled down on education level while also probing into what may motivate their attitudes.

It will be vital to both parties to understand what is happening in this dimension, as few pundits in either seemed to understand it before the surprise victory.  Trump may have found a new balance of policies that will have lasting potency in terms of channeling the populist energy and discontent that fueled an unprecedented sea change in our political landscape – and one that seems likely to echo in Europe in the coming months.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Beyond the Chalkboard

How do you offer an education of indisputable practical value in a field as nebulous and inconsistent as the arts?

There are plenty of technical skills most ambitious people in the arts wouldn’t turn down, that would be helpful to know, to navigate the increasingly byzantine system of information funneling and social media promotion that has been set into motion by the appropriately titled world wide web.  It seems that no matter how high an echelon on the intellectual heavyweight ladder, very few are above Twitter, and the vast majority know how to get their voices disseminated to the right recipients.
There are tips and tricks to pick up online for this realm, but perhaps of greater significance for a successful career in an industry always having to argue for its own value to society are psychological fortitude, pragmatic self-reliance, and a core sense of self-worth (or at least a moderately inoffensive egotism).  The greatest visionaries are the ones who can impose a structure where there was nothing, or upend a preexisting structure and replace it with a superior one.  How can school, which is in practice a highly structured program of input and output, teach the very thing that stands opposite to it?

I remember the first time Broadway producing was explained to me – something, for sure, I had never fashioned as a future for myself in college or high school, but which fell upon me through social interactions in my first year in New York – I was dumbfounded by the wild west aspect of it, even compared to the rest of the notoriously disorderly entertainment sector.  Even sitting encased in the security and shelter of an apartment, there is an irrational sense of imminent terror sometimes just staring at a computer screen, having no meetings in a day, having no office, and feeling – real or imagined – the glaring eyes of elders wondering what you’re wasting your time with.  Why was there a pit of nagging insecurity and fear in my stomach as I was calling people to pitch them on Book of Mormon?

This, mind you, was for a show being developed by two of the most popular comedic minds of their generation (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and being produced by one of the greatest living producers in the world (Scott Rudin).  So, for the nameless young person sitting down to write a poem, or a play, or maybe even something beyond the strictures of our current genres, this must either be time stolen from the spare hours outside the demands of a day job (which increasingly means an all-consuming job tied to a smartphone) and outside the commitments of a meaningful social and romantic life – if there’s much of that time to be found in the week.  It’s easiest to just keep this feeling like an avocation, that, in a world of flukes, might just eventually mean something to a lot of people, or, second best, mean a lot to some people.   (Hey, I love Sony, and I love my friends, but I can’t pretend there weren’t sacrifices made even in writing this humble blog.)  For the ones who have achieved some modicum of success, or others who are just going for broke (most commonly the actor running around town to auditions, usually with a part-time service gig), the specter of failure and the suffocating pressure of converting emotions and ideas into dollars and cents can feel like just too frigging much to handle.

This is part of why so many accomplished artists bemoan producers and businesspeople who work behind the scenes – there is a deep-seated sense that many of the latter sully a noble craft by altering heartfelt art in the name of primal commerce.  There’s a particular disconnect when writers or others critiquing the political structures and corporate or financial levers of society are forced to submit those very personal and humane reflections to the very system they are trying to alter.

But I’ve also heard equally emotional denunciations of the scholastic sector, both higher and, uh, less than higher education, from accomplished writers who felt that the culture of extreme critique suffocated the actual endeavor itself to the point of nullifying it.  In this sense it’s an extension of the repressive money machine that boxes them in, another transactional phase (“a mantra of ‘pay for everything’ unifying every part of the life cycle in a consumerist society, from the hospital to the hole you’re buried in”).

Further, the very lack of structure outside companies, schools, or other large organizations, may be the very thing that facilitates art in the first place.  Look at how few great filmmakers, writers, visual artists, or musicians are professors at universities.  Some of them do adjunct work on the side, though if you ask them about it they may secretly tell you it’s to get good health insurance, or to supplement some money.  So much of the critical culture of academia is inimical to whatever circumstances create something of strong and open emotion.

Heck, look how many living greats dropped out of academic programs: whether Cormac McCarthy or Tom Stoppard as writers, Bob Dylan and John Lennon in music, Al Pacino and so many other actors.  Hardly people one would peg as “uneducated” or unsophisticated, and yet they did forego what for so many is a non-negotiable rite of passage.

There aren’t a ton of “job jobs” out there in the arts.  Some require internships or apprenticeships with no pay or so little pay that a cash-strapped debt-ridden college graduate (or double-debt-ridden higher degree graduate) may find prohibitive in his or her financial situation.  Even trying to get one of those unglamorous corporate-side jobs out of business school at Stanford, my career counselor explained to me that this industry refused to behave like any other, that these jobs were “hard to come by” and that most of the few students who did attain them “knew someone.”  One movie producer I found through this network explained to me that I needed to “go through the top of the organization rather than the bottom.”  Would you care to introduce me?

Well, I found my way somewhere good, but I’m humbled for sure next to the imagination and audacity of the real greats, whose work I’m trying to promote.  Making something out of nothing – seeing a vision that none of the billions of other souls on the planet are privy to, or expression that vision in a fashion none of them is capable of, with a resonance that prompts a meaningful mass of people to carve time of their busy day for something that is under any pragmatic calculation non-essential.  How can you train someone for that?

I do think it’s important for the benefactors and patrons behind the arts to place emphasis on and resources behind programs that give artists structure and a meaningful social milieu when they are done with school.  And I do think there are many ways that school can foster imagination and cultural expression, and emphasize their value.  But the central work of a visionary must still chart a lonelier road.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Trust Me, I'm a Broadway Producer

Trust isn’t the first word that comes to mind when the topic is Broadway producing.

And it wasn’t my first thought either when I was starting out.  It’s hard to know whom to trust in an industry notorious for inflated or mendacious promises, hard to establish trust with the elder agents of power in a heavily relationship-based sphere, and hard to trust even yourself when your early ventures are likely to be enormously risky endeavors.  Broadway takes it to another level, even within entertainment, as established so unforgettably in the smash The Producers, which reinforced in the public’s mind the image of theater producers as the upper-crust incarnation of used car salesmen, swindling little old ladies into investing in a production the former just knew would fail (until it didn’t).  What other industry would make a pageant out of its own dirty laundry?

Lucrative though The Producers was for its own producers, the show was, and is, the bane of any current Broadway producer’s professional existence.  As a producer, compellingly explaining a uniquely structured investment class to the uninitiated is an art itself, and an uphill battle as well when an ignominious haze already hangs over the endeavor.  If I had $20 for every time someone referenced Bialystock and Bloom, or the general poor reputation of theater investing, I could probably capitalize a small-scale production.  But alas, that ain’t how it works.

Indeed, the scale inherent in mounting theatrical productions means producers, investors, theater owners, and plenty of other stakeholders are taking an elaborate risk with each new production.
Unlike Hollywood, there’s little in the way of “studios,” other than Disney, and so each new show is a separate Limited Liability Company, with a separate capital raise.  Raising over $10 million for a new musical is a fierce task, and it’s no surprise that institutional investors won’t go anywhere near this “high-beta” asset class.

I try to counter the fervor of most skeptics with the fact that on Broadway, lightning does strike in the same place.  In some cases, four times: Jeffrey Seller was in his early 30s when he first produced Rent on Broadway, and since then he has produced Avenue Q, In the Heights, and Hamilton.  David Stone was also in his early 30s when he first produced The Vagina Monologues, followed by Wicked and Spelling Bee.  Across the pond, Cameron Mackintosh has had Cats, Les Mis, Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon.  A significant majority of Broadway shows lose money for their investors, but there are commonalities among the ones that don’t, and common figures shepherding the bolder productions to their respective successes (people who appreciate those commonalities).  Go through the above list and try to step back in history to before each came out, and you may remark that many of these must have seemed like rancid ideas beforehand: a rock adaptation of La Bohème set in the East Village, a hip-hop show about the first Secretary of the Treasury, a musical about a group of singing cats…

When I first told people about Book of Mormon back in 2010, it sounded just as commercially unappealing, if not even more so.  A musical about a religion practiced by less than two percent of the US population, that was flamboyantly disrespectful of said religion, and that was written by frat boy heroes and eternal provocateurs Trey Parker and Matt Stone – recognizing that the minority of South Park fans who had ever seen a Broadway show probably had been coerced.  I was 24 years old, had never invested in or raised money for a Broadway show, wasn’t part of any organization that would lend me any credence or gravitas, and was quite ill at the time.  That’s where trust’s legally blind cousin came in – faith; how appropriate for a show that dared to name itself The Book of Mormon.

Because the ultimate trust is trusting those who don’t have an extensive track record to point to, and recognizing that the greatest visionaries and disruptors generally don’t come from the very establishment that is being upended.  Scott Rudin had an extensive history of film success, and a number of acclaimed plays to his name, but taking a large scale musical straight to Broadway, with little beforehand but a small private workshop, required a level of faith that ultimately meant the large majority I told about this show turned me down on the opportunity to invest – even some who had been at that tiny workshop.  After all, Rudin had plenty of commercial failures as well, just as Seller, Stone, and Mackintosh did.

There’s some irony in how so many of the attempts to assemble sure-fire hits can be massive failures – Spiderman took a platinum director (Julie Taymor of Lion King), massively successful music writers (Bono and The Edge), and one of the most popular superhero franchises of all time, and learned the hard way that creativity doesn’t work so well when it’s handed down to the artists like a homework assignment.

No, Hamilton, Book of Mormon and plenty of other smashes came out of the creators’ own organic interest in eclectic ideas: during drinks after a show, or picking up a book on a Mexican vacation.  Taking the momentum of these widely appealing shows to transform Broadway from niche culture to broadly appreciated live entertainment will require faith in the notion that great theater can come from anyone, and be about anything.  People crazy enough to take a massive risk on a young artist with nothing but a new idea, and burning with a proselyte’s zeal to bring it to as many as possible.  Then Broadway can – as it has increasingly started to do – be vital and visionary enough to enter into a national conversation that stretches far beyond a mile in Manhattan.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Cultural Currents in the Wake of Brexit

As the Brexit votes were finally tallied by the morning of June 24, I saw social media flooded with emotion, mostly exasperation, from young British friends and former classmates ("look what you've done you idiots" was the most direct). As I waded through articles and analysis of voting trends around age and other factors, I was most struck how one group especially important to me was nearly uniform in its view: 96% of the Creative Industries Federation had supported Remain.  That's the kind of landslide where you wonder if the other 4% read the question right.

While commentators opined that the decision to Leave seemed more rooted in voters’ embrace of “cultural conservatism” than genuine economic or pragmatic interests, it's noteworthy how overwhelmingly the figureheads and standard-bearers of this very culture rejected the notion of boundaries being placed upon their crafts and lives.  Prior to the vote, a commanding list of luminaries across the arts had penned a letter imploring Britons to Remain, for a “more imaginative and more creative” country, and emphasizing on the economic end that a full 56% of their overseas trade was with Europe.

Some appeals had been framed in direr language, such as J. K. Rowling's, who saw ominous tones in the image of Nigel Farage in front of “an almost exact duplicate of propaganda used by the Nazis.”  If culture was the end point over which citizens were waging their ideological argument, it was also a weapon of choice, whether through historically charged photographs or the cartoon of a boorish kiss between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, aimed to sear its way into any passerby’s conscience.  More glaring still was the image of a finger-jabbing skinhead across a seesaw from an Indian woman in a sari.  Indeed, most arts folk viewed the referendum as an alliance of the open-minded In crowd against the unsavory or irredeemably mottled characters managing the Out opposition.

In order for the creative cohort to operate at the vanguard of global culture, they needed the UK to be a conduit rather than a barrier for international dialogue.  It's logical that so few of these artists would bemoan the ascendancy of immigrants: the mentality is broadly one of newcomers expanding opportunity and organically enabling others, rather than, say, of foreigners depleting a limited number of available construction jobs.

Beyond the idealistic issues, Brexit’s near term impact on travel, trade, and collaboration will likely make it harder to earn a living in a field where it was already challenging enough.  For artists with fragile finances, perennially beset with the Sisyphean burden of monetizing each new project, Brexit’s direct effects on their international prospects, plus indirect effects through a negative macroeconomic shock, could prove a new contusion or an outright calamity.  These are voices that are less likely to be heard over those of wealthy celebrities, and ones that need to be heard.

Other views have been aired among the arts community, some more sanguine.  UK Culture Secretary John Whittingdale tried to valorize a Britain “freed from the shackles of EU law and efforts to subsume it into a European brand,” while Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes wished to seize deciding power back from EU bureaucrats and derided as “complete fantasy” the notion that German car manufacturers and French wine purveyors would suddenly neglect the UK (at least someone had his priorities in order).  Ringo Starr voted Brexit because he deemed the EU “in shambles,” while Paul McCartney admitted he was just plain “very confused.”

The most constructive themes among Leave seemed to be a focus on agency and an ideal of localism: that pulling decisions and communication back from a grand scale to already cohesive smaller communities could enable these societies to achieve their best, as political organisms, as agents of power, and above all as propagators of cultural treasures.  It is remarkable how island nations such as Britain and Ireland historically been particularly fertile ground for creative minds, as though mutual isolation managed to draw out the greatest crystallization of the eccentricities of the communities that evolved there.  This seems to be the line of thought for Roger Daltrey of The Who, a former working class Labour kid, who ended up one of the most flamboyantly contrarian and ardent proponents of Brexit.  Before the entry into the EU in the early 70s, “Britain was Swinging… You had Harold Pinter, The Beatles, John Osborne, Mary Quant, The Stones, Queen... and The Who.  We were just Kids but we were filling stadiums all round the World...  You got that because Britain was doing its own thing.”

It’s certainly not my place as an American to pass judgment on a political choice wielded by a country where I have lived a mere year -- or whether to Make Britain Swinging Again.  So much is still uncertain as well about how Brexit will be implemented and what its lasting effects will be, and so the sceptred isle has the chance to chart a distinctive path here.  While British artists’ voice did not prevail in the vote, they can still play a vital role in shaping this new dialogue’s color and conclusion, with wit, fury, and imagination.  However, this must also be met with a recognition and affirmation in the broader population that the art is worthwhile, and that the tumultuous and arduous path to creating it requires practical support.  As an admirer of the outsized contributions that British artists have made across eras, I am optimistic that the new generation will be able, in spite of considerable disruption and turmoil, to build careers, visions, and values for a future that in turn values them, at home and abroad, and thereby conserve a British tradition of resilience and cultural vitality.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Fresh Funds on Stage

Fresh Funds on Stage:
Bringing Private Equity Prowess to Bear on the Unruly Broadway Industry

Broadway is notoriously feast-or-famine – an industry relying on megahits every three or four years to carry on a disturbing slew of unoriginal, large-scale failures.  The fact that only 20 to 30% of Broadway shows are turning a profit  is driving away a lot of money from potential investors, combined with a negative, predatory image cultivated by shows such as The Producers.  This reality has unfortunate effects for fundraising and particularly for more original or cutting-edge fare to find its way to a Broadway theatre and its attendant marketing apparatus.
Every few years in recent time, a megahit has arrived of such grand scale as to pay for many other failures.  Shows such as The Book of Mormon,  Wicked,  and Jersey Boys  are among more recent examples of the power of a single show to achieve outsized revenues.  One individual who invested $35,000 in Wicked back before its initial run has achieved an investment return of approximately $1,000,000 .  However, the image from the outside remains focused on the potential for outsize losses.  The same season as Book of Mormon included massive losses for nearly all the other new musicals, including Wonderland, Scottsboro Boys, The People in the Picture, Sister Act, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Catch Me If You Can, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Baby It’s You.   Such a cavalcade of failures intimidates individuals who might otherwise invest, especially when minimum investments usual hover around $25,000 (or $10,000 for an exceptionally risky show).   The producers hope to make money off the investors’ profits, but many are also more driven by the ego-based incentives created by production credits and the potential for Tony nominations.  Each year, many new investors are approached across the country, and some are convinced by the potential for a smash hit, but they become quickly disillusioned and bitter when their attempts most likely result in a complete loss of capital.
The feast-or-famine dynamic is also partly a function of the nature of Broadway consumption.  With an average ticket price of $118.10  (page 39) per ticket in the 2013-2014 season, nearly half (42.8%)  of theatergoers only saw a single show in a year, and another third (35.5%) saw 2-4 shows.  While the rest of the market is comprised of dedicated theatergoers, who may be willing to try out the broadest assortment of shows, this audience base is generally only enough to pay the weekly running cost of a show, thereby failing to return any capitalization to the investors.   New York City in particular is a highly socially competitive place as well, and so whatever the “hot” show of the season happens to be, there will be a bottleneck to see it, ignoring the other offerings (a phenomenon Glenn Lowry certainly noted in his discussion of exhibits such as Marina Abramovic’s).  The stakes for these audience members may not be as high as for the average investor, but they are considerable nonetheless: as movie producers have attested to the class, people want to avoid paying much for entertainment, so when they do spend hundreds of dollars on two to three hours of it, “pretty good” is generally not good enough to prevent buyers’ remorse.
Other recent seasons of new musicals are perhaps not as skewed as Book of Mormon’s season, but do reflect more instances of wealth disparity.  The 2012-2013 season had four dire failures and three moderate hits (the largest of which, Kinky Boots, has likely returned a multiple of its capitalization to investors, judging by its revenues and weekly running cost).   The 2013-2014 season had nine flops and three successes, the largest success being from Disney (which, contrary to the rest, uses corporate cash rather than external investments from individuals) .  What is striking about all these seasons, and Book of Mormon’s season especially, is the persistent attempt among producers to find safety in familiarity, and the repeated audience response that they do not wish to see entertainment that they could access much more cheaply (and without shoving their way through Times Square) in the comfort of their respective homes.  Nearly all of the other offerings in that season tried to capitalize upon well-known properties with built-in fan bases: Wonderland on Alice in Wonderland, Scottsboro/Jackson/Picture on famous chapters in history, Baby It’s You on the Shirelles, and Catch Me/Sister Act/Priscilla on highly recognizable film franchises.  Yet as a number of the speakers in this class have opined, creativity cannot be so easily commoditized, forced, or easily replicated by envious imitators (Netflix’s data efforts notwithstanding).  While Book of Mormon references the holy text, it is a fully original story, and it even antagonizes the built-in audience (Mormons) who might be attracted by the title.  The Broadway League’s demographic data show that previous familiarity with a creative property does lead to significant amount of ticket sales (17.6% of theatergoers reported “saw the movie” as a motivating factor in their ticket purchasing decision).   However, far beyond any other motivating factor is a personal recommendation from a friend, family member, or other trusted individual: 48.4% of theatergoers listed this as a motivating factor.   When spending hundreds of dollars, consumers rely on word-of-mouth from those they trust – it is not familiarity with the subject matter they crave, but rather familiarity with people who have already seen the show.  It is noteworthy that among the movie-to-musical adaptations that have succeeded in this decade, both Once  and Kinky Boots  are based on movies that did not achieve major mainstream commercial success.  Many of the biggest hits in recent history have been shows that pushed the boundaries of what could be done on a Broadway stage, thereby broadening the demographics of ticket-buyers beyond those who historically have bought the tickets (cf. Avenue Q with its profane puppets, Rent with its in-your-face adult rock fantasy, and – in the process of becoming a megahit – Hamilton using rap music to tell a historical tale ).
The best response to this large problem in the Broadway musical space is for a few top producers (or individuals with a track record of Broadway investing) to participate in the creation of pooled investment funds across many shows.  Each Broadway show is a separate LLC, and it is highly unrealistic to think that the industry would suddenly shift to a studio system; however, robust investment funds to support the LLCs can make a meaningful step to address the problematic dynamic at work now.  The model for this endeavor would be private equity “growth equity” funds, which lock investors in for a period of five to seven years and spread the accumulated investment capital across an array of companies within a given sector.  Broadway producers often come from strong creative backgrounds, but, as the class speakers have indicated about most other subsectors of the entertainment industry, formalized business knowledge such as may be gained from an MBA is much less common currency in show business, and so part of the reason for an absence of this investment structure is simple lack of familiarity.  By locking theater investors in for a similar length of time, producers would be liberated to focus on more audacious and original projects, no longer needing to justify each show separately.  This movement would shift the attention from ultra-high-risk investments in individual musicals to more moderate-risk investments focused more on the producers behind the shows and their respective track records.  Attracting more capital to the strongest producers would enable them to do both a greater number of projects and a stronger slate of provocative works.  Jeffrey Seller, for example, has a stunning record of hits, including Rent, Avenue Q, In the Heights, and the new smash Hamilton;  he also has produced a number of total commercial failures, including [title of show], High Fidelity, and most recently The Last Ship.  Recognizing the likely chance of a steep loss of many thousands of dollars, skittish investors shy away from all these projects.  A structured fund embracing the full range of shows here provides an enormous reduction of the investment beta, with a truly enviable net return across the different shows.  Similarly, David Stone, producer of Wicked, Spelling Bee, and Next to Normal,  would benefit from an increased project capacity and the option to embark upon riskier projects, knowing that across a variety of shows he would continue his superior track record.  Even for Mr. Stone, after Wicked established him as one of the most successful producers of his generation (a show which still, 12 years later, spews profits at an astounding rate) , faced a difficult task  approaching investors for Next to Normal, an intense and often abrasive rock musical depicting the ravages of bipolar depression and electro-shock therapy.   Next to Normal was released in April of 2009, and so the process of capitalizing a totally original, feel-bad musical with no obvious audience in the depths of the worst recession since the Depression, in the financial capital of the country, was a considerable task, to say the least.   The show went on to make an excellent profit, contrary to expectations, as word-of-mouth spread widely that the quality of the content was exceptionally high.  A structured investment fund would enable Stone and others to launch such projects more easily and more frequently.
Investors would benefit from a lower-beta investment and would be more likely to provide capital in the first place, free from the prohibitive psychology that drives them away after a single massive loss.  Rather than chasing the illusory safety of movie adaptations and the like, investors would have the option for legitimate (relative) safety in numbers.  By shifting the burden for each investment choice from the end investors to the producer, potentially many anxiety-inducing choices are reduced to an easier choice appraising an individual and his or her track record.
This is not to say Broadway would suddenly be transformed from a land of stale retreads to a garden of all new ideas simply by redistributing risk.  As Mark Harris detailed poignantly in his article “The Birdcage: How Hollywood’s Toxic (and Worsening) Addiction to Franchises Changed Movies Forever in 2014,”  studios pooling their money across different projects can still be immensely wedded to rehashing the same tired characters and plots lines.  There is certainly the risk that a fund’s even more focused attention to making money may squash some of the humbler, less commercial projects that are so artistically valuable.  However, beacons of success such as HBO and Pixar show how a single entity can shepherd a large number of genuinely original and cutting-edge projects to final form, and to a large, appreciative audience.  By wedding some of the culture of intelligent risk-taking that has succeeded so fantastically in Silicon Valley VC firms and growth equity outfits across the country, drawing an increased share of capital and likely more capital in total to the most talented and visionary producers, this framework can, in a meaningful way, broaden the musical theatre landscape.  This would comprise a culture shift within Broadway producing as well, and plenty of the course speakers have indicated how delicate a matter changing and controlling culture can be.  However, with a well-executed cultural and structural shift, they can inspire new audiences and new business people to engage with an art form that is currently restricted to a deplorably small demographic – ethnically, age-wise, gender-wise, in terms of education, and in too many other regards.   By pooling the risk and using the lessons learned from the private equity and venture capital world, producers can better harness the creativity of fresh artists and present these stories to a broader audience.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Broadening Broadway


Broadening Broadway
Do Not Throw Away Your Shot:
A Rare Opening for Broadway Producers to Broaden Their Audience
By James Kernochan (james.kernochan@gmail.com)

On November 2 of this year, Barack Obama attended for a second time a performance of the Broadway hip-hop musical Hamilton.  After the show, he went on stage to offer hearty praise to the creator and the cast, readily noting that it “also happens to be the only thing that Dick Cheney and I agree on,”  alluding to the former Vice President’s prior attendance and embrace of the landmark depiction of one of America’s most recognizable Founding Fathers.   He then launched into a buoyant political speech, as the event was also functioning as a Democratic fundraiser.  However, he looped back to the show, referencing it as a gleaming example of what can go right in politics: “My primary message tonight, and this performance undoubtedly described it better than I ever could, is that we can’t afford cynicism and we can’t afford to withdraw, we’ve got too much work to do for that.  Our system only works when we recognize that the government is not something separate – it’s us.”
 Somehow the energy, optimism, and funky hip-hop beats have struck a chord that is resounding far beyond Broadway’s normal enclaves.  As of early November, Hamilton had $57 million in advance sales in the bank, believed to be the all-time record.

Yet if, three years ago, it had been suggested that the breakthrough megahit of a generation would be a three-hour piece about Alexander Hamilton related mostly in rap, no one would have believed it.  However, what Hamilton is doing with dusty and remote textbook history runs parallel to what it is doing with a dusty and remote form of entertainment, the American musical.  By translating a dated style into a beat and vernacular that can relate to the very people least likely to attend a Broadway show, this piece is taking the medium to a new and exhilarating place.  At the same time, it is showing that those people who have an attachment to those textbooks or those old-fashioned musicals can get down with the new beat as well.  Moreover, its musical relevance is imbued with such thematic relevance that the President of the United States can uncontroversially declare it a parable and proxy for the tumult of our own time.

 Hamilton has pulled in popular music luminaries across the spectrum of genres, including Latina superstar Jennifer Lopez, the perennial Madonna, elder statesman Paul McCartney, hip-hop’s jack-in-the-box Busta Rhymes, supreme parodist Weird Al Yankovic, and immensely popular rap artist Common.   Vanity Fair even ran a full article from the fashion angle on the attendance of Jay-Z and Beyoncé at the show,  saying she should be more careful about wearing red to a show where the bad guys are Redcoats.

 The attendance of such a number of chart-topping music stars so early in the show’s run is pretty unprecedented, as Broadway has traditionally maintained its own fairly contained ghetto in the broader landscape of music consumption.

 Indeed, a mere six Broadway cast albums have reached the top 20 in the past 50 years.  Those are Hamilton (no. 12), If/Then (number 19 in 2014), Book of Mormon (no. 3 in 2011), Rent (no. 19), Dreamgirls (no. 11 in 1982), and Hair (no. 1 for 13 weeks in 1969).   What is most salient here is the lack of traditional musical show-tunes.  Hamilton is hip-hop and R&B, If/Then is Carly Simon-esque, Rent is 90s hippiedom, Dreamgirls is probably also well classified as early R&B, and Hair is slightly psychedelic pop.

A browse through the entire line-up of musicals now on Broadway shows just how attached to tradition show business is in 2015: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a spin on the Kind Hearts and Coronets franchise,  Aladdin is traditional Disney storytelling; Allegiance is, to quote Billboard, “mostly heart-on-sleeve, voice-to-the-rafters Broadway fare;”  Chicago is, to quote the show itself, “the old razzle dazzle;”  Matilda is fanciful but cut from the British musical cloth;  An American in Paris is Gershwin; Finding Neverland is truly old-fashioned.   The revivals are truly yesteryear’s excitements: Dames at Sea, Les Mis, The King and I, et al.

 There are a few moderate exceptions, notably the more successful shows.  Beautiful is Carole King (a generation ago pop),  Fun Home is quietly innovative, Sondheim-esque art fare, Jersey Boys is also yesterday’s pop via Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons,  Kinky Boots was “an unexpectedly colossal Broadway hit” with Cyndi Lauper music.

The resistance to musical novelty can get vicious.  Frank Wildhorn, while not the pinnacle of quality in any genre, was a focal point for some of the backlash.  He asked, rightfully, “’What’s so wrong about bringing pop music to Broadway?...  You can’t tell me that Rodgers and Hammerstein were not the pop writers of the day.  I thank god my music is popular.  What should I do, try to write unpopular music?”

 The data show that a critic’s recommendation only played a role in 29% of ticket purchases (see Exhibit 2).  Ben Brantley, reigning critic at the Times, tried to champion the musical adaptation of Honeymoon in Vegas that made its way onto a Broadway stage in early 2015 (some would even say it only found the money to go to Broadway after his prior rave), deeming it “a real-live, old-fashioned, deeply satisfying Broadway musical in a way few new shows are anymore.”   Particularly in a poorly- or outright non-remunerative field such as dramatic criticism, people are motivated by a passion and fixation so deep-seated that they often cannot imagine doing anything else with their lives.  The same holds true for so many of the businesspeople and creative professionals who owe their incomes (or lack thereof) to a medium most of them discovered in smitten evenings on a grade school stage.

 Mr. Brantley did show industry-awareness in his review of Hamilton in the same season, speaking of “theater reactionaries” and their relation to the “progress-challenged continuum of the American musical,”  as though he stands apart from the persnickety mob.  Then, he zeroes in on the element that comprises a full five letters in the seven-letter word “musical,” namely the music: “… this confluence of what’s heard on the American stage and what’s heard on the airwaves and in the clubs hasn’t existed for six decades.”

 Indeed, stretching back to 1927 and the true arrival of radio throughout American households, a full five of the top songs played on the radio were directly from Broadway shows (including the enduring “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat), and another two written by Broadway composers.   Music dominated early radio, and Broadway dominated then-popular music, a happy syllogism for the deans of show business.  Interestingly, the songs were generally performed by radio-focused singers rather than by original cast members.  Rodgers and Hart and George Gershwin also both hosted radio programs (ibid.).  In the 1930s and 1940s, Broadway ceded some airspace to a burgeoning Hollywood, but the Great White Way’s cultural footprint still remained heavy through hits from original new shows and a considerable amount of covers in subsequent years, sometimes finding national popularity long after the show’s run on Broadway.  The turning point, alas, was 1954, when Elvis Presley debuted his first hit, “That’s All Right.”  In a tale all too familiar throughout the annals of the entertainment industry, the producers and power brokers clung to the old ways and forfeited a pivotal opportunity for broader societal relevance.

 A few songs have wormed their way onto the radio or at least into widespread popular consciousness over the years, though again often through secondary-artist or secondary-medium recognition.  The hippie liberation anthem “Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In” from Hair in 1967 was the number two single of the entire year according to Billboard,  although it was performed by The 5th Dimension rather than by the original cast.  In 1982, the rafter-shaking diva showcase “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” from Dreamgirls, reached number 22 on the Billboard singles charts, and even number 32 in the UK; though for many of the current generation, the recognizable version is that from the 2006 film of the show,  performed by American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson.   Other minor hits came from Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar.   An attempt was made with the show Rent to turn its most popular song, “Seasons of Love,” into a radio hit, in part by enlisting Stevie Wonder as a guest soloist, but these efforts were in vain.   The central theme here seems to be that a Broadway tune crossing over to mainstream success was an exceedingly rare event, and when it did happen, it tended to be by being co-opted by other entities that were more mass-media friendly.
Part what seems to happen with the crossover smash shows is the perfect positioning around a sociocultural or political moment.  Hair arrived at the height of the counterculture movement in the 1960s, ritualizing, interpreting, and commemorating a watershed moment in modern American history.  Rent was a kind of 90s update of the counterculture, but steeped in some more wrenching topics the haunted the alternative world, such as the AIDS epidemic.  Book of Mormon hit the scene just as the Romney campaign was launching into overdrive, and was memorialized for posterity in a Newsweek cover showing Romney as one of the dancing Mormon chorus boys from the show.   Hamilton, with its virtually all-minority cast playing America’s Founding Fathers, seems to have arrived at the ideal opening for a feisty and unflinching discussion of ethnic minorities’ lingering exclusion from the polity within which they live.  Indeed, one of the most famous lines from the show is “Immigrants, we get the job done,”  a rallying cry that for many is a perfect antidote to the anti-immigrant rhetoric that brought America’s attention to Donald Trump.   Some producers clearly believe that escapism or recycling of yesteryear’s cultural franchises is the best way to theater consumers’ pocketbooks, but these enormous hits demonstrate that theatergoers are not necessarily as shallow as has been supposed, and may value material that reframes or expands upon the zeitgeist even if it means sinking teeth into weightier topics.

 However, another vital theme as well seems to be the periodic cresting of a wave that then dissipates – the arrival of an energetic new type of music on stage that has the potential to change the entire industry, followed by a resumption of the status quo.  Hair was 1967, Dreamgirls 1982, Rent 1996,  Hamilton 2015.  So every fifteen to twenty years there is an awakening and the clouds part for a momentary glimpse of that wider entertainment universe.  While these shows did each have some lasting impact on what could be produced on Broadway, the follow-ons were mostly tangential, and no lasting shift was achieved in terms of the relation of Broadway to other art forms.  Is this time different?  Is Hamilton actually the vaunted game-changer?  Many say so, though some would scoff, such as infamous theater writer Michael Riedel at the New York Post: “If I read one more puff piece about how Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history lesson is a ‘game changer,’ I’m going to use my influence at the US treasury to have Aaron Burr replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill.”   The Hollywood Reporter (and plenty of others) appears to have noticed Hamilton all the way from the U.S.’s other less theater-centric entertainment capital, and critic David Rooney insists this time it’s true: “while ‘game changer’ is another term tossed around so liberally by the entertainment media that it’s become almost meaningless, in this case it fits.”

 So who’s right?  Well, fairly difficult to say while the game hasn’t even had time to change.  It would not be decorous to blame journalists too much for twisting hopes into facts, but it is also important to characterize this momentous piece with appropriate precision: an opportunity to change the game.  Whether the producing types will follow suit is a matter to be seen within the next few years.
 The clarion call of this show to that opportunity is something to be marveled at indeed.  Brantley elaborates further on its magnetic elaboration of contemporary musical styles:
"[B]y the late 1950s, songs from musicals had become a quaint breed apart from the songs that America danced to and sang in the shower…  Spotify-friendly tunes have tended to show up only in those cumbersome recycling centers known as jukebox musicals.  But, lo and behold, there are songs throughout Hamilton that could be performed more or less as they are by Drake or Beyoncé or Kanye."
Brantley stretches plenty too far in this ultimate assessment; none of those three artists would dream of rapping lines such as “Thomas Jefferson, always hesitant with the President / Reticent – there isn’t a plan he doesn’t jettison.”

However, with the Beyoncés and Jay-Zs showing up, Broadway has the acme of mass market musical craftsmanship paying attention to its charms and distinctive opportunities to tell a story in a memorable way.  As the recorded music market dwindles and dries, having shrunk from $60 billion (in today’s dollars) at its peak to approximately $15 billion today,  these musical minds might consider the enduring power and relevance of a medium that, in a fundamental sense, cannot be meaningfully pirated.  Which is not to say it is not pirated – Book of Mormon has certainly been accessible on pirating sites – but the quality of these is invariably quite poor; ushers are constantly monitoring the audience for use of cameras, so only a tiny lens could be surreptitiously placed to capture the action.  People will always seek an intelligent night out to share with friends and family, and Broadway looks, if anything, to benefit from the advancement of technology as people seek authentic experiences.

Beyond the physical immediacy, writing a full show is an opportunity for a musical artist to tell a long-form story such as used to be more possible with the focus on album sales.  iTunes’ unbundling of tracks from the full album format not only undermined the music industry’s ability to extend its revenues, it undermined artists’ ability to make a cohesive work that for many of them was the ultimate expression of their talent.   The fact that artists have continued to produce their work in album format in spite of the commercial decline of the album shows the emotional and aesthetic attachment to having a broader canvas.

The opportunity to tell that full story live is a further step that these musical artists have rarely if ever had.  Exhibit 6 shows the robust billion-dollar markets on both sides of this equation, a reminder of just how much money is at play in live concerts and in Broadway performances, and a hint as to where some of the potential overlap may reside.  Top grossing live artists such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Bruno Mars have theatrical costumes, lavish props, and exuberant stage presentation that seem well situated for a Broadway show.  Justin Timberlake as well is a star personality who has shown ample ability to cross over to screen presence and some acting chops.

One less conspicuous common denominator in the top ten concerts: singers who cull a huge share of their material from fairly anonymous writers.  While it may not come as an enormous surprise that Katy Perry does not write all her material, it may surprise some to know that even Paul McCartney is co-writing his latest songs, such as with Paul Epworth on his recent album New.   The pyramid of creative minds lurking beneath these internationally known performers is extensive and wide-ranging, and include quite a few names that enterprising Broadway producers would do well to add to their Rolodexes.

No discussion of who’s actually responsible for all the world’s hip-shaking can progress far without mention of and appreciation for Max Martin.  Martin is responsible for a staggering twenty-one Billboard Hot 100 number one hits,  and a record-breaking fifty-four songs that have been in the top ten.   He launched onto the scene in 1999 with Britney Spears’ smash debut “…Baby One More Time,” a song that pushed the edges of pop intensity and trudged boldly to the edges of thematic obscenity with its infamous chorus of “hit me baby one more time.”  While his most recognizable songs are unabashedly pop (well, by definition, they’re popular), within this realm he established a certain razor edge and an insidious sense of catchiness that has made his songs easily to denigrate in conversation but impossible to keep out of your head in private.  Face it, even if it’s a secret and a guilty pleasure, you had a couple of them on iTunes, and maybe even still do.  More recently, he has been behind artists that represent a more widely acknowledged appeal than the “teenybopper” fare that most characterized his early years, most prominently Taylor Swift.  Half of the songs on her most recent album, 1989, were co-written by Martin,  and the album, even beyond its massive commercial success, was recognized by the critics at Rolling Stone  and numerous other publications as one of the very best albums of 2014  -- a feat that was certainly not achieved by Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, or the like.  2015 saw Martin extended his critical recognition even deeper, when Rolling Stone’s five best albums of the year featured two with Martin contributions, Adele’s 25 and The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness  -- and the true cherry on top, best song of the year for The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.”

Furthermore, even if Backstreet and lesser boy bands were the totality of Martin’s artistic range, from a business perspective, there is no dismissing the largely secondary purchasing power of the teenage girls that formed their core audience.  Wicked has earned $975 million from its perch at the Gershwin Theater in Manhattan,  plus at least another $2 billion from touring and foreign productions.
 Martin comes from a proud and largely blond tradition: Swedish studio wizard hit-makers.  While Abba is instantly recognizable as a gem of Scandinavia, far fewer are aware of Denniz Pop and his role behind the ineluctable early-90s smashes of Ace of Base (most famously, “The Sign”).   The seminal Mr. Pop envisioned “a factory of Swedish writers and producers who would create hits for British and American artists,” a sort of transmogrification that seemed risible at the time but now is a foregone conclusion.  As arts education gets slashed in the United States,  Americans might perhaps reflect upon the potential fruits of fostering the imagination of their youth: a full thirty percent of Swedish children attend publicly funded after-school music programs.   Ironically, these Swedish programs were created in 1940s in an effort to counter the pernicious effects of increasingly secular music coming from the United States.  Over half a century later, Max Martin pointed to these programs as the formative and decisive influence in his desire and ability to beat the Americans at their own game.

 Other luminaries of the Martin-Pop set include Mikkel Eriksen, Tor Hermansen, Lukasz Gottwald, and Esther Dean, who go by such showbiz pseudonyms as Stargate and Dr. Luke.   The use of pseudonyms is almost a winking joke at the reality of their relationship to their artistry: virtually no one knows them either way, but at least they are living a part of the romanticized dream.  The performers of the song often still receive a named credit regardless of whether their actual contribution was miniscule.

 The other key element from the business perspective here is the movement away from flesh and blood musicians.  As Nathaniel Rich at The Atlantic observed, “Session musicians have gone extinct, and studio mixing boards remain only as retro, semi-ironic furniture.”   An analysis of costs in a fairly recent season of Broadway shows paints a stark portrait of the differential between musicals and straight plays: $9.7 million to capitalize a musical versus $2.4 million for a play, and weekly running costs of $590,000 for a musical and $280,000 for a play.   Part of that differential arises from larger casts, more lavish sets, and sometimes elaborate stage effects, but a significant part as well stems from the money paid to musicians, conductors, and sound professionals.  Removing the musicians from this equation would make for a major reduction in the ballooning and prohibitively high costs of mounting and running Broadway musicals.

 Sometimes all it takes is a single work to inflame the artists of the future and draw their attention to the possibilities of a medium.  Lin-Manuel Miranda claims that seeing Rent on his seventeenth birthday “gave me permission to write musicals,” and assuredly Hamilton is doing the same for now-unknown kids.  However, Broadway producers would do well to invite Max Martin, Shellback, and others to the new show rather than sit back and assume the future is making itself.  Hopefully now in the age of instantaneous sharing of and access to nearly all music, someone can also direct the great songmakers’ attention to a new album that also was ranked among Rolling Stone’s top albums of the year, that of Hamilton.

 It is certainly important to acknowledge that some attempts at musical envelope-pushing on Broadway have had that envelope unceremoniously pushed right back at them.  None in recent memory belly-flopped more violently and catastrophically than Holler If Ya Hear Me, the Tupac Shakur musical.  The producers were hopeful that Shakur’s stature as one of the best-selling rap artists of all time  would attract those dedicated fans to a concert with a story.  Holler was one of the poorest performing musicals in recent history, filling, on average, only 20% of the box office potential in its uncommonly brief seven weeks of release.   To put those numbers in perspective, that’s an average of $173,000 when the weekly running cost alone probably runs around the aforementioned figure of $590,000.  Holler lost every penny of its capitalization and could barely even pay a third of its weekly keep.  However, there were diverse problems at play in the demise of this effort.  Again, the attempt to turn a pre-existing artistic franchise into a follow-on property without any organic inspiration behind it.  A story was structured around the songs, thinly, laboriously, and awkwardly, turning a gang war into an opportunity to jump on top of a car and spank the air to while spitting out the lyrics to “California Love.”  This strained story was put into dialogue by Todd Kreidler (the gentleman pictured in Exhibit 4), a white man from western Pennsylvania,  who unsurprisingly lacked authenticity or urgency in his outsider’s depiction of a world utterly foreign to him.

 Another potential pratfall was observed about a year ago from the same producer who was chiefly responsible for both Rent and Hamilton, the enterprising and visionary Jeffrey Sellers.  The Last Ship was a noble effort from none other than Sting, but its focus was the tragic and miserable demise of a shipbuilding town like the one in which Sting had grown up in Northern England.  Finger-pointing has certainly taken place since the show’s end, focusing on the marketing and problems with the book.   From discussions with those who have seen the full piece, it seems likely that the fatalist and gray-soaked panorama of a world altogether foreign to most potential audiences around New York City was just one big downer.  Among the mega-hits of the past two decades – Rent, Avenue Q, Book of Mormon, The Producers, Hamilton, Jersey Boys, and Wicked – some have dark elements, troubled characters, and heavy themes from society, but they are spun into electric light, and the audience is roused and invigorated.  Linda Winer described The Last Ship in Newsday as a great score “buried in a monotonous, improbable story and surrounded by dark rusted metal with grim industrial scaffolds.”

 The role of a great producer should be to find and foster the artists of the future, and such a person would be able to identify that Miranda is ahead of his time.  Jeffrey Seller even found Miranda years before when he was working on In the Heights,  Miranda’s first Broadway musical, which depicted the Latino community among whom he grew up in Washington Heights.  Heights was a more traditional musical than Hamilton and nowhere near as revolutionary, although it used ethnic musical styles that had hitherto not been appreciated on Broadway.  In a way, Seller had identified a man ahead of his time ahead of when he was really ahead of his time, bearing fruit some years later when Hamilton was birthed from the same cortex.  Seller was also able, in the case of each of his blockbusters, to perceive an audience far grander than the one that already existed.  Seller does not tell Julie Taymor and Bono that they should make a ludicrously expensive iteration of the Spiderman franchise, with input sourced from Twitter users and focus groups.   That sort of perspicacity is what makes Seller the most successful producer in the United States, and why he has the President of the United States telling him that he has enabled a major contribution to the national dialogue.

 However, dialogue is just the thing that producers could enable more of.  Bringing Max Martin and Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk and Coldplay to Broadway shows, and making them realize this is the place to start a real revolution.  Flying to Stockholm and sharing a smorgasbord with future pop prodigies.  Getting to know top-notch producers from the music, film, and publishing worlds, those who shepherd talent that might not be aware of the Broadway opportunity.  Creating private and supportive spaces for artists to test out stories and to feel out collaborations with dialogue writers, choreographers, directors, and actors.  Stepping back when an artist does something provocative and potentially uncommercial, to see the larger vision and whether each element is consistent.  Not intervening when Trey Parker wants to have a little ditty about dysentery, or when Miranda says he’s going to have black people play George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

 The incubation space envisioned here is a pivotal concept, fairly recognizable to Silicon Valley people.  Broadway shows need audience reactions to build a true symbiotic relationship, but putting shows out on major regional stages puts an uncomfortable pressure and also starts a project with an audience that is often mismatched.  Particularly in dealing with artists with extensive reputations to uphold, an atmosphere with zero pressure, ample supportiveness, and meaningful creative dialogue affords the best scenario to birth the art of the future.  Book of Mormon was developed at private workshops with no out-of-town or off-Broadway tryout,  a tactic that enabled them to keep the audacious and potentially off-putting content close to the vest.  However, having a laughing audience to foster a few performances still helped Parker and Stone to accentuate the show’s strengths and excise its excesses.   Holding these sessions in more remote locations can also be salutary in avoiding the glare of a deeply gossipy city.  Hamilton went up to Poughkeepsie, New York to test some of the material out as part of a Vassar program.   Finding the money for the incubation space can be tricky, as people giving the money often look for something physical to show off, and the relative privacy and lack of visibility of this setting are integral to its success.  However, non-profit regional theaters around the country are sustained largely by donations, and when the model is shown to facilitate works that go on to greatness, this scheme may hopefully catch some fire.

 The element most crucial in the success of the incubators is finding and shepherding the talent there, and the most important part of this is the music.  After all, a musical without music would be a contradiction in terms.  Of the fifteen highest-grossing Broadway shows of all time, not a single one is a play.   The cumulative gross for August: Osage County, one of the biggest play hits of the current millennium, is $32.8 million,  pennies compared to Wicked nearly billion-dollar take since 2003.  Making musicals sing is here a matter of making Broadway appreciate that music has changed since 1943.  And part of making that stylistic change is recognizing that the country has also radically changed since 1943, in composition and in values.  In 1960, America was 85% white, 10% black, and 5% Hispanic or Asian; in 2010, approximately 64% white, 12% black, 16% Hispanic, 8% Asian/other; in 2060, it is predicted to be 43% white, 13% black, 31% Hispanic, 8% Asian, 5% other.
 Broadway isn’t prepared for the shifting tide – even worse, it’s woefully behind even the present times.  Exhibit 5 shows the statistics for Broadway as compared to the population at large.  New York City’s population is far more diverse than the country at large, and so there is an exacerbated disconnect between the people living directly around Broadway and the people being entertained in Broadway theaters.  While Holler If Ya Hear Me was not a fruitful attempt to woo the underappreciated audiences, Hamilton just might finally let black and Hispanic audiences know that their voices are appreciated both on stage and in the seats.  The very limited criticism of Hamilton that appeared in any mainstream press outlet was from New Yorker critic Hilton Als, averring that Miranda watered down the ethnic edge of the show because he was “fearful of being kept out of the white boys’ club of American musical.”   The title of his review, “Boys in the Band,” is a reference to the seminal Stonewall-era gay play and then 1970 Friedkin film,  and the gay-baiting continues apace: “Part of what makes people feel so jumpy and excited during ‘Hamilton’ is its unbridled masculinity… Miranda’s men aren’t doing the usual ‘gay’ work of the musical, which is to say singing about their feelings.”   While much of Broadway’s original luster and lucidity came from the artistic vibrancy of the persecuted minority that underpinned so much of the industry, the gay white men still ruling the roost have succumbed to a cultural myopia, to the exclusion of other ethnicities and sexual orientations.  Why shouldn’t there be more “unbridled masculinity,” and more confrontational rap?  Miranda probably struck the right balance between rap integrity and reaching his white audience, and Als is ostentatiously peering judgmentally from above, but the point stands.  Broadway is still a place where Miranda might feel he needs to play to a softer white audience without too much of an edge.  However, he also can dish history in a range of styles – not just rap – and the King George character is captured in gleaming Britpop, acted with such flair by Jonathan Groff that a backstage Beyoncé told him she plans to plagiarize it.   This is the sort of backstage interaction like Robert Lopez meeting Trey Parker and Matt Stone after Avenue Q – creative luminaries from outside Broadway, from outside Broadway’s ethnic uniformity, finding a common language and common loves, naturally and unscripted, with real live Broadway folk.  Beyoncé needs to invite her friends, and Jeffrey Seller needs to be milking the mass media attention and presidential visits for all they are worth – and they could be worth an enormous amount if he plays the cards right.  Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Obama all have immense currency and attention within the African-American community, and their spreading their admiration for the show could open up a true moment for more diverse audiences and more diverse endeavors on the Great White Way.  The momentum from Book of Mormon in this instance is also considerable – a mere four years ago, that musical drew unprecedented audiences from frat boys, snarky adolescents, and a whole host of other individuals who probably never would have been caught dead in a Broadway theater.

 The industry can progress towards something more impactful and more relevant, and frankly more fun.  Take the lessons drawn here from recent failures and successes.  Take a hint from Hamilton himself:
 Hey yo, I’m just like my country
 I’m young scrappy and hungry
 And I’m not throwing away my shot!