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SPOTLIGHT ON OFF-BROADWAY

Written By Melvin Tunstall

Q: Do you think Off-Broadway is a commercial venture or should that be left to the Not-for-Profits?

No shade to the Not-for-Profits, but I think and fully support Off-Broadway as a commercial venture!

Growing up in the South, one of the things I remember most about my high school years was our annual trip to New York City to see Broadway shows and soak in the culture of a city that seemed ions away from the dirt roads and corn field-laden highways of my hometown.

One of those trips included a performance of Forever Plaid- Off-Broadway. To this day, I still remember those 4 men and those incredible harmonies singing songs that until then, I was completely unfamiliar with. And when one of those men showed up as an Assistant Stage Manager for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, you could have picked his jaw off the floor when I asked him- in 2016- “Were you in Forever Plaid back in 1992?” 

Off-Broadway’s Golden Era of shows like Forever Plaid, And the World Goes Round, Tony & Tina’s Wedding, and Nunsense had producers laughing all the way to the bank, as productions in the under 499 seat theaters began recouping their investments and clocking years long runs. 

Ken shared his experiences starting out as a producer of Off-Broadway hits after moving to NYC during the Off-Broadway heyday. 

“When I started creating and producing commercial theater, I started Off-Broadway. I wasn’t ready to raise $10mm for Broadway shows (which is what they were then . . . compared to the $15-20mm they are now). I wanted to be a Lead Producer and didn’t have the decision-making experience yet. And, well, the ideas I had come up with were Off-Broadway ideas (my first three shows were The Awesome 80s Prom, Altar Boyz and My First Time). No one told me that in the fifteen years since I arrived in NYC, the Off-Broadway model changed. And trying to run and recoup an Off-Broadway show was . . . ahem . . . challenging.  (And is even more so now.)”

It was this challenge that led to the formation of the Off Broadway Alliance. Guess who was at that very first meeting? You guessed it, theatermaker, Ken Davenport.

One of the ideas that was born in this era was the idea of “Bunk-bedding”- where two, three or more shows share a theater, simple sets, and similar lighting plots. It reduced running costs and the number of performances in a week that each show could perform. 

“Since there wasn’t demand for 8 shows for 99% of commercial Off-Broadway shows, bunk-bedding filled up fewer performances, increasing ticket scarcity. Almost the same # of tickets were sold for fewer shows as opposed to 8. And those fewer shows were filled, creating a much better experience for the audience.” 

This season, Broadway had its very own “bunk-bedding” with the hit Chicken & Biscuits, whose set is currently on top of the set for American Buffalo at the Circle in the Square Theater. It took a lot of cooperation between companies and designers, but the result is perfect. Anyone sitting in the “church” for Douglas Lyons’ hilarious family comedy has no idea that with a quick changeover, they would be in a completely different world and a completely different show. 

With grosses not being released individually, it is hard to know if the bunk-bedding will pay off financially for the investors, but inside sources say the Off-Broadway model hasn’t lost its touch.

As for whether Off-Broadway is once again the place for a commercial venture, time will tell. More new shows are looking to Off-Broadway for their runs so expect theater’s renaissance to extend a few streets down the path to the Off-Broadway theaters.

One of those shows with commercial dreams is Trevor, which I was lucky to attend on its Opening Night on Wednesday. Speaking with the show’s incredible Diana Ross, my former Beautiful castmate Yasmeen Sulieman (pictured below with the show’s star Holden William Hagelberger), I asked “how long is the run?”

“We’re open-ended!” she exclaimed with that sparkle of hope in her eyes for another successful run like Beautiful.

From a commercial standpoint, Trevor has the potential but commercial success is held in the hands of ticket buyers. 

Any show, on or off Broadway, knows this all too well. 

For more blogs like these, join our tribe of TheaterMakers at The TheaterMakers Studio and open up a treasure trove of ideas, resources, and so much more that will help get you to the next stage of production!


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