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.

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