Irene Sankoff and David Hein remember the moment when they knew that the story of Gander, Newfoundland, had to be a musical.
In 2011, the husband-and-wife writing/composing team was in Gander—site of a major international airport near the northeastern tip of the North American continent—to attend a public commemoration of the events of 10 years prior, when the town welcomed 6,579 airplane passengers who had been forced to land there after U.S. airspace was shut down in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
By the time the band struck up a celebratory marching tune, Sankoff and Hein’s next theatre project was essentially already in the works. The couple could not resist the opportunity to chronicle the area’s astonishing hospitality in the face of crisis, and a musical was the obvious format. In Newfoundland, Hein says, “Music is built into the DNA of the people and their stories.”
Sankoff and Hein have other vivid recollections from the early life of Come From Away, which opened on Broadway March 12 following earlier runs at California’s La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Repertory Theatre, and Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. They remember standing ovations in Seattle and a long queue of would-be ticket-buyers in La Jolla. At Ford’s, Democratic and Republican VIPs put partisan differences aside as they sat in the audience on opening night, then talked afterward about “how inspiring it was to hear a story about so much light coming out of such a dark event,” Sankoff recalls.
The Come From Away writers are hardly the first artists to arrive on the Great White Way with a quiverful of memories—and rewriting ideas—from previous runs at U.S. nonprofit theatres. For decades, Broadway has regularly embraced shows nurtured at not-for-profit companies, both in New York City and around the country.
This pipeline to New York’s commercial capital runs through some delicate territory. Nonprofit theatres, after all, get preferential tax status because their missions have to do with art and service, but with the by-now-routine glide path of certain properties, particularly musicals like Come From Away, to the Main Stem, commerce—and “enhancement money”—inevitably enters the equation. Nonprofit theatre leaders, of course, are wary of any perception that nurturing shows with Broadway ambitions means they are “selling out.” They’re producing work for their own audiences first, they insist, and if their commercial partners see a wider audience in the cards, that’s a win-win. Nonprofit leaders and commercial producers involved in three of this spring’s Broadway musicals—Come From Away; Amélie, A New Musical (which had early productions in California at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Los Angeles’s Center Theatre Group); and War Paint (Chicago’s Goodman Theatre)—shared with American Theatre the show business stories of their journeys to New York.
No interviewee would mention any specific budget figures. But leaders at several of the six nonprofit theatres that mounted early productions of the shows—all of which involved enhancement arrangements—emphasized that there is a method to determining whether, and how much, enhancement money a commercial producer should contribute to a given project. First, figure out what the theatre would typically spend on a comparable production; then decide how much additional money will be necessary to cover the show, given its Broadway scale, vision, and logistics; and finally ask the commercial producers to supply the difference. The ensuing amounts can vary widely, because each theatrical project is unique. The strategy allows the nonprofit to avoid superfluous risk.
“The job of a nonprofit is not to speculate,” says Susan Medak, managing director at Berkeley Rep. “We want no risk, and we only want upside if there is some,” adds Ford’s Theatre director Paul R. Tetreault.
The six theatres will receive credit on the title page of the Broadway playbills. (The specifics are discussed below; almost all the theatres say they expect a bio in the playbill too.) Title-page billing “is terribly important to us,” says Medak, noting that Berkeley Rep invests oceans of staff time and energy in such shows—an investment deserving of recognition. A playbill credit can also serve as the theatre’s “calling card,” potentially attracting future enticing projects, she adds.
Last fall, the matter of billing made headlines when a dispute arose over how the playbill for Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 would credit the nonprofit Ars Nova, which had commissioned and initially mounted the show. Ars Nova argued that the words “The Ars Nova production of” should appear before the title; the commercial producers believed that an alternative arrangement, which listed just the nonprofit’s name above the title, would suffice. The dispute was settled when the commercial producers agreed to revise the credit. Spokespeople for both parties declined to comment for this article.
Financially, nonprofits all have some “participation” (i.e., a share) in the box-office revenue from their Broadway productions. Generalizing about industry standards, several interviewees agreed that when a nonprofit mounts an early staging of a Broadway show, its participation rate in that Broadway production tends to be somewhere between .5 percent and (at the outside) 2 percent of box-office revenue. If several nonprofits have staged early productions, that amount will be split between them. Depending on what has been negotiated in each individual agreement, a participation rate may increase when the Broadway production recoups. Participation income in general “is modest, and we don’t count on it,” says CTG producing director Douglas C. Baker. “It is so not the primary reason we do these shows.”
Rather, the reason to do potentially Broadway-bound shows, Baker and the other nonprofit leaders agree, is to produce worthy art that aligns with an existing artistic mission and that will satisfy local audiences. “At the end of the day, our subscribers and our single-ticket buyers contribute far more to our bottom line than any enhancement producer, or combination of enhancement producers,” points out Michael S. Rosenberg, managing director at La Jolla, which has birthed many Broadway-bound productions.
Pre-Broadway projects can be worthwhile because “often the commercial partners have been able to attract artists who we could not otherwise get,” says Medak. Moreover, she observes, the shows themselves can present challenges that are “fantastically interesting.” Working on a project like Amélie or Green Day’s American Idiot, which had its world premiere at Berkeley Rep in 2009, “makes our staff better,” Medak says. “I really do think of these shows as continuing education for our staff.”
Come From Away
Sankoff and Hein based Come From Away on interviews they began conducting during that memorable 2011 trip to Gander, where they learned about the role of the town (pop. 11,054) as a refueling station and emergency stop for transatlantic aircraft, and wove that information into the show’s book. Early versions appeared at the Canadian Music Theatre Project; Goodspeed Musicals’ Festival of New Artists (since renamed Festival of New Musicals), in East Haddam, Conn.; and National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s (NAMT) annual new-musical fest in NYC.
When the musical hit NAMT in 2013, Junkyard Dog Productions founding partner Sue Frost was among those who saw and admired it. A theatrical veteran whose career had included 20 years at Goodspeed, Frost says she and her Junkyard colleagues “were not immediately convinced that [Come From Away] was a slam dunk for Broadway,” given that “it’s an ensemble piece, so there will never be stars in it—and everybody’s going to say it’s ‘the 9/11 musical.’” Still, she and her partners believed the show “had the ability to reach a very broad audience,” so Junkyard optioned the property.
La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley had also seen, and been smitten by Come From Away at NAMT. Since Junkyard had a relationship with Ashley—he had directed the Junkyard-produced Memphis on Broadway—the director was soon on board to stage Come From Away, and La Jolla Playhouse seemed an obvious destination.
Another West Coast berth also offered fertile ground: Two of the partners at Junkyard, Kenny Alhadeff and Marleen Magnoni Alhadeff, are Seattle-based. So a natural first step for the newly assembled creative team was to mount a development session involving Junkyard and two Seattle institutions, Seattle Repertory Theatre and the 5th Avenue Theatre. That step helped “make sure everybody was on the same page about where the show was going,” Frost says.
Later, a coproduction involving La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle Rep fell into place. Come From Away’s world premiere at La Jolla in summer 2015 was followed by a run at Seattle Rep at the end of the year. Positive responses in both communities, and a good vibe in Seattle Rep’s 800-plus-seat Bagley Wright Theatre, convinced Frost that the show was “absolutely capable of working on Broadway, if we’re careful,” she remembers.
But the team didn’t want to leap straight to the Big Apple. “We felt it was important to have the show seen by an audience in a city directly affected by 9/11 before we hit New York,” Frost says. As it happens, Patrick Pearson, director of artistic programming at Ford’s, had also been wowed by Come From Away at NAMT. Based on his rave, Tetreault at Ford’s had made inquiries, noted the involvement of Junkyard, and expressed interest. After the Seattle/La Jolla coproduction was in place, Ford’s and Junkyard laid plans for Come From Away to visit D.C.
In D.C., where the musical opened in September 2016 following a full local rehearsal period, Come From Away felt “much more immediate—more visceral,” Tetreault recalls. At a private preview performance for survivors of the Pentagon attack and their families, “the company was visibly moved” and “the audience was blown away.” That emotional dynamic made the Ford’s run a key step as the show prepared for New York, Tetreault says. And in tribute to the show’s Canadian roots and writers, Come From Away subsequently had a commercial run in Toronto.
In the Broadway playbill, La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle Rep’s names appear above the title. A nonprofit’s name above the title on a Broadway playbill title page—where a potentially long block of producer names is likely to loom—indicates that the nonprofit was instrumental in helping bring a show to life. But it doesn’t necessarily indicate that the nonprofit is a “producer” as other people and entities listed there may be. “It is acknowledgement, but they’re not technically ‘producers’ of the Broadway production,” Frost says of La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle Rep and their above-the-title credits.
The title page also includes an “originating” credit line: “Come From Away was originally coproduced in 2015 by La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle Repertory Theatre and presented in 2016 by Ford’s Theatre.” Frost says the different words “produced” and “presented” in that sentence simply reflect the fact that La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle Rep were the original coproducers. It’s “language that was worked out between us and the three theatres and that everybody felt was a fair representation,” she says.
Looking back on the experience of helping nurture Come From Away, Seattle Rep managing director Jeffrey Herrmann says that Junkyard approached the process with “a lot of sympathy and understanding for the not-for-profit side of the equation.” Working on the musical was “a delight,” he says.
Amélie, A New Musical
In the 2001 movie Amélie, a shy Parisian schemes to bring happiness to others. In recent years in the U.S., theatrical producer Aaron Harnick had a scheme of his own: He thought the film should be a musical.
According to producer David Broser, Harnick’s fellow principal at the production company Harbor Entertainment, whose Broadway credits include 2009’s Oleanna revival, Harnick took out an option on the stage rights for the movie some years ago. Then, Broser says, “We went around looking for the right creative team.”
The roster that fell into place included book writer Craig Lucas, composer Daniel Messé, and Nathan Tysen, who would write the lyrics with Messé. Pam MacKinnon, who would direct, agreed with Harnick that Amélie had the emotional pull to make a good musical. Moreover, she notes, the title character speaks relatively rarely in the movie. “The musical is a prime opportunity to give this woman voice,” MacKinnon says.
Amélie has undergone multiple iterations. In or around 2014, the producers sounded out Berkeley Repertory Theatre about mounting a full production. “We have a lot of these conversations,” says Medak, noting that she and artistic director Tony Taccone regularly “say no to the projects that just don’t interest us.” But Amélie attracted them because of its artistic team and because “the story offered an opportunity to play with form and content,” Medak says. So the company followed its usual procedure in such cases: Open a discussion with the producers about matters like lines of communication, playbill credit, costs, accountability, and the fact that “when the production is here in Berkeley, our primary responsibility is to make it as good as it can be here,” Medak stresses.
The world premiere of Amélie at Berkeley Rep in 2015 starred Samantha Barks in the title role. MacKinnon remembers feeling a rush of relief, at the first preview, when it was clear that the audience was hooked by “the sweep of the story.” Reviews were generally good, and from a business perspective this trial run was smooth enough that Berkeley Rep was able to return some money to the commercial producers. Costs had come out lower than projections because there had been no need to tap the entirety of a contingency budget line, Medak says.
While Amélie was running in Berkeley, Center Theatre Group’s (CTG) Baker traveled to see it. A veteran of both the nonprofit and commercial theatre worlds, he had kept the project on his radar ever since hearing about Harnick’s optioning of the rights through the industry grapevine. Making a musical from the film “struck me as a pretty excellent idea,” he says.
Liking what he saw in Berkeley, he recalls, he contacted Harbor Entertainment to see if they would be interested in involving CTG. They were. Amélie opened at CTG’s Ahmanson Theatre for a Dec. 4, 2016-Jan. 15, 2017, run, with Phillipa Soo in the lead.
When the show officially opens April 3 on Broadway—where it’s produced by Aaron Harnick, Harbor Entertainment, Triptyk Studios, and Spencer Ross—both Berkeley Rep and CTG will receive above-the-title billing. Berkeley Rep will get an additional originating credit.
“I wouldn’t deem them ‘producers,’” says Harbor’s Broser. “I would deem them as helping progress the show to where it is to enable us to get to Broadway.” Whatever the terminology, the theatres helped the musical’s creative team refine its vision. “The show has gotten deeper at every stage,” Broser says.
Who can resist a story about a great rivalry? Not David Stone, a producer whose Broadway credits include If/Then and Next to Normal. In summer 2010, he says, director and playwright James Lapine introduced him to Lindy Woodhead’s book War Paint and Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman’s documentary The Powder & the Glory—works chronicling the careers of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, fierce competitors who each built 20th-century cosmetic empires. Lapine “didn’t think he was the right person for [the material], but he thought it would make a great musical,” Stone says. “I agreed.” He was, in part, fascinated by the idea of how Rubinstein and Arden’s rivalry “both drove them and distracted them.”
Stone says that, with the help of his Next to Normal colleague Michael Greif, he ran the idea by book writer Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel, and lyricist Michael Korie, who had all worked with Greif when he directed Grey Gardens. Everyone was enthusiastic. “I loved the notion of exploring these two larger-than-life entrepreneurs” who triumphed at a time when the business world was “exclusively a boys’ club,” Frankel recalls. Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole joined on to play Rubinstein and Arden.
For years, Stone had known, and hankered to work with, Goodman Theatre’s artistic director, Robert Falls, and executive director, Roche Schulfer. Various efforts at partnership hadn’t worked out due to various missed connections. But when War Paint was ready for a production, after developmental readings between 2013 and 2015, everything fell into place. The Goodman’s “physical space, the composition and sophistication of their audience, and their vast experience in mounting productions of this size” made this project “the perfect fit,” Stone says.
With its distinguished artistic team, War Paint was “right up our line artistically,” the Goodman’s Schulfer says. And from a business standpoint, he notes, the show turned out to be “a great collaborative process. I’ve gone through so much stuff with producers over the years about how, ‘If we give you, like, an extra five cents, can you create a Broadway production?’ and they’re perplexed that we can’t,” Schulfer says. By contrast, Stone had a realistic perspective on the investment rewards equation, and work with his team was smooth sailing.
After War Paint opened in Chicago in summer 2016, it became the most successful musical in Goodman history. In addition to the satisfaction of that achievement, Schulfer says, “Knowing that we had War Paint in our season allowed us to be more optimistic with our financial projections for the year, which allowed us to take more risks in the rest of the season.”
War Paint officially opens on Broadway on April 6, produced by Stone and Marc Platt. The playbill title page will give the Goodman above-the-title billing and an originating credit. The billing will not use the phrase “The Goodman Theatre production of” because, Schulfer explains, the War Paint artistic team went back into full-steam development mode after the Goodman run, so that the show “will have evolved from the production that we did here.”
It does seem fitting that a musical about cosmetics titans should take some time for touch-ups and primping.
Former AT managing editor Celia Wren writes frequently for the magazine.
A version of this piece appears in American Theatre’s April ’17 issue with the headline “3 Nonprofit/Broadway Duets.”