By Janet Martin
“Each creative team wants a hit, but no one knows how that happens,” Princeton professor Stacy Wolf said regarding current Broadway musicals.
In a way, this perfectly sums up the apparent dichotomy present in every production of Broadway: artistic creativity and a profitable success. Usually, these two things are seen as opposing forces—art exists for a select few above monetary gains while a profit comes from simple, mass entertainment.
Balancing Profit with Artistic Freedom
In the world of musical theater, however, the two manage to co-exist; rather than serve as contrasting forces, the idea of making a profit and making art manage to work side-by-side so closely that, according to Wolf, “even artists who work in the non-profit world worry about making money.”
Part of this opposites-attract relationship comes from the production value of most Broadway shows. Whereas the paint and canvas of a great work of art is relatively cheap, a full-blown theatrical production—one that incorporates lighting, sound, and even the most basic set—can cost as much as $10 million to produce, Jujamcyn Theaters president Rocco Landesman said in an interview with The New York Times.
This means that, in order to at least break even, a Broadway musical has to sell thousands of tickets and it needs to draw enough people in to fund the current project. For future projects, there needs to be a profit. I’m not sure that this dynamic is all that different in any form of art or performance these days, especially in the United States where there is almost no funding for artists. Even artists who work in the non-profit world still worry about money.
“Musicals have always tried to appeal to the largest possible audience because they’re commercial and they need to run for a long time to make money,” said Wolf. “I’m not sure that this dynamic is all that different in any form of art or performance these days, especially in the [United States] where there is almost no funding for artists.”
“The difference is that in the commercial art world—as opposed to the non-profit theatre world—you have to make money,” Wolf said. “These days, though, there is more cross-over between the not-for-profit and commercial theatre world. More and more shows begin in non-profits and then move to commercial theatres.” So you can’t blame Broadway for working toward profit because it is a necessary part of creating and maintaining the art.
The creative team Wolf mentions is part of the reason this works; a Broadway musical consists of actors, writers, directors, lighting, costumes, producers, theater owners, and all other types working on the same project. The exact focus is usually viewed as two different things for the different “types” of people. The artistic and creative types want to produce something innovative and artistically moving, while the corporate types want to make as much money as possible.
In films, the eccentric director is usually seen as clashing with his over-practical producer on terms of budget, suggesting that these two types tend to clash. No matter which role they play in the overall arch of the performance, however, every single person involved is essentially striving toward the same goal—to create a successful show. This could mean producing great art or making a lot of money. While the details may differ, the shared big picture allows every person involved to feel united.
“Composers and lyricists and directors and designers are always trying to make the most interesting and innovative art while knowing that the show has to make money,” Wolf said. “The producers are typically more worried about money and the artists are trying to do their best work and hope that it makes money, too.”
Adding to Broadway’s Value: Musical Theater Courses, Tourism and Tony Awards
Another reason Broadway can balance money and art is due to the fact that it only recently became a form to be studied at universities. According to Wolf, musical theater has only been studied, outside of making it, for the past 10 years or so.
“Artists who make musical theater certainly consider themselves serious artists and are constantly fighting the reputation of musical theatre as being something not serious artistically,” she said. “We think about high art as opera, ballet, and serious plays [by] Shakespeare, Ibsen, or August Wilson.”
Broadway has been able to enjoy the benefits of pure entertainment long enough to establish itself as an industry, not just an art, attracting audiences outside of the artistic community. “In the 1950s, Broadway audiences were New Yorkers and people from the tri-state area,” Wolf said. “Now the tourist audience dominates Broadway. [The] non-English speakers make up a sizable percentage of the audience.”
According to BroadwayLeague.com, around 63.4 percent of Broadway theatergoers were tourists in the 2011-2012 seasons; this means that seeing a show on Broadway is an attraction as well as a form of performing art. The heavy tourist presence allows for a mercantile mindset to take hold, for it is not a fault in terms of the artists to create something for which people are willing to pay.
And a Tony or two doesn’t hurt. “Anyone who attends a Broadway musical knows that it’s commercial and that either it will be small and relatively inexpensive—meaning, millions [versus] tens of millions—or will be big and spectacular,” Wolf said. “But when a show wins a Tony Award, for example, it gets a big bump and it’s often the chance to extend the run.”
Acknowledgment from your peers, a type of artistic success, leads to a boost in sales, industry success. The two different worlds coincide and feed off each other, rather than existing at opposite ends of the spectrum. Broadway musicals balance the world of the artist with the world of the merchant in a way that allows for a profitable market within a realm of self-expression.