How to keep Broadway from going dark.
By WILLIAM GOLDSTEIN
Published: October 16, 2005
AS the new theater season opens, Broadway has a serious problem that threatens its very existence.
Sure, grosses have never been higher and audiences last season were the largest in the last 20 years, but the number of actors and musicians working on Broadway is way down. Today, there are 75 percent fewer actors and musicians employed than in the 1940's. Back then, 88 shows, on average, opened per season (double the number produced today), and musicals had 40 to 60 actors on stage and 26 to 50 musicians in the pit.
Production costs are out of control. A musical that cost $300,000 to produce 50 years ago costs close to $10 million today. And a play that was produced for $75,000 in 1944 would now cost about $2 million. Even after accounting for inflation, today's costs are as much as 4.5 times greater than they were half a century ago. While production costs are about 33 times higher than they were in the 1940's, ticket prices are only about 14.5 times higher. As a result, a show that 50 years ago might have paid off its backers after three months now needs to run for nearly two years to break even.
These costs are keeping producers from taking risks. In the 40's and 50's, a single person could produce a play; now it takes a half-dozen and corporate backing. Thus, nearly half as many plays are produced.
If this trend continues, it could spell the end of New York as the home of one of America's great cultural contributions, the Broadway show. Some are already suggesting that Las Vegas is becoming the new theater capital.
So, what's the answer?
Sadly, there's no easy solution, but here are some suggestions that could economically revitalize Broadway. For starters, the city could help. New York gives tax breaks to large employers to keep them in the city. Why not offer similar tax breaks to Broadway?
The city could set aside part of property tax revenue from theaters, and start a fund available to Broadway productions during their run. The fund could aid shows struggling to find an audience by kicking in when low box office revenues lead to the waiving of royalty payments (that percentage of weekly gross paid to the show's creators). The fund would lend at zero percent interest, up to 50 percent of a show's operating cost for up to four weeks. If the show recovers, the money would be returned to the fund.
And there's more we could do. The challenge, of course, is to lower costs, stimulate more productions, put more performers to work and still maintain a respectable wage. These goals could be achieved if all the people involved in putting on a show were willing to share in the risks and rewards.
Union leaders could begin a hire-more-actors-and-musicians campaign. Instead of trying to get higher salaries and benefits for the fewer and fewer actors and musicians working on Broadway, union leaders could make it their goal to get more people working. This could be achieved by having union leaders and producers agree on a sliding salary scale based on the number of performers employed.
The more actors or musicians hired, the lower the scale. At 40 actors or musicians, the lowest pay scale would be reached. When a show is in trouble and royalties are waived, actors and musicians would be required to work at half their salary for up to 60 days or until the show returns to profitability. The stagehands union could agree to a similar program.
On a hit show, producers would pay bonuses to all performers and stagehands above current scale. These bonuses could come from a predetermined percentage of the show's profits.
This strategy would keep more shows open and more people working. In comparison to the writers who spend years creating shows with no income until their show is produced, these are small sacrifices for actors and musicians to make for the greater good.
Theater owners occasionally reduce theater rentals when the show's creators and producers waive all royalties. This should become the norm.
And the news media could help, too. Reviews could be opened up to include commentary by people who are not professional critics. In literary reviews, authors and experts, not just professional critics, assess books. This healthy infusion of ideas would go a long way toward balancing the near stranglehold that professional critics wield over the theater.
Working together, politicians, union leaders, producers, actors, musicians, theater owners and the news media can revitalize Broadway, enabling producers to recreate the golden years of New York theater by putting on magical shows with large casts and orchestras and opening the door to new successes that will become tomorrow's classics.
William Goldstein, a member of the American Federation of Musicians, has composed scores for films and musicals.