In the basement office where he presides over the bustling activities of New York City’s not-for-profit Lincoln Center Theater, André Bishop tells a story about Sunday in the Park with George that sounds downright comical.
The current artistic director of LCT formerly held the same post at Playwrights Horizons, the Off-Broadway nonprofit that commissioned Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1984 musical about George Seurat. “When it was announced that Stephen Sondheim, until then a commercial Broadway composer, was coming to us Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, we got enormous criticism that we had sold out,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘If you think this musical about a pointillist painter is us selling out, you’re crazy.’ But people tried to stop us from getting whatever government money we were getting at the time, because they thought we were straying from the path of right. That would be unimaginable today.”
In a contemporary theatrical landscape where nonprofits and commercial producers are frequent accomplices, rivals and sparring partners, he’s right. Bishop’s anecdote hearkens back to a time when the two worlds were separated by a Berlin Wall—a wall that over the past 30 years has been felled by a complicated mix of economic, cultural and artistic shifts. Today the overlap between the two sectors is a fact of life.
“In this changing environment of the arts in America, it is a reality for institutions to seek partnerships that enable the work,” says Diane Paulus, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.
Under Paulus’s leadership, the venerable not-for-profit has become one of the poster children for a regional theatre that benefits from strong ties to the commercial world. This season alone, the organization has collected royalties from a trio of Broadway shows that had earlier runs at ART, all with varying levels of commercial attachment: Pippin, The Glass Menagerie and All the Way.
In the eyes of most not-for-profit leaders as well as commercial producers, the overlap is an ongoing, occasionally fraught partnership borne out of economic necessity, but one that can pay dividends both financial and artistic.
Even today, however, not everyone is on board with the new state of affairs. Contrast Paulus’s acceptance with the stance of Robert Brustein, one of the fathers of the not-for-profit movement and the founder of the theatre Paulus now runs. He bristles that since it began some 50 years ago, the not-for-profit movement has been adulterated by the very commercial forces that it was created to counterbalance.
“The alternative theatre, the resident theatre, was originally founded to do the kind of work Broadway couldn’t do, or wouldn’t do, or couldn’t afford to do,” Brustein says. “If the nonprofit and the commercial theatres merge, one of them is going to lose direction, and I think the nonprofit theatre is doing that right now.”
That kind of criticism is just one of the things with which not-for-profit leadership must continually grapple as they struggle to follow their missions in the face of waning funding from the government, foundations and other sources.
“There are things I do regularly that horrify Robert Brustein,” admits Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater. The Off-Broadway not-for-profit founded by Joseph Papp was one of the first to have an institution-changing Broadway success with A Chorus Line, and has since succeeded on Broadway with productions such as the recent revivals of Hair and The Merchant of Venice. This season’s critical hit, the Alison Bechdel–based musical Fun Home, played at the Public with commercial producers onboard.
Eustis continues, “But my job is to figure out, in this environment, how to fulfill our mission. We just have to be very vigilant that we are not watering down what we stand for.” There’s the rub, as the challenges of sustaining subscriberships, buildings and staffs make commercial money increasingly tempting no matter what the project
These days critics such as Brustein have diminished in number, and there’s no denying that a wealth of exciting works, stretching from Hair to Passing Strange, have come out of the interchange between the two worlds. But not-for-profits and commercial producers alike recognize they must proceed with caution into territory that can be potentially dangerous for both sides. It’s a careful dance that each nonprofit takes day by day, achieving what most in the field consider a new equilibrium.
But secretly, everybody thinks somebody else is doing it wrong.
“Everyone in this business can name three nonprofits that we feel are losing their way to commercial interests,” teases Jason Robert Brown, the composer whose musical Honeymoon in Vegas premiered at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse earlier this season and whose current Broadway outing, The Bridges of Madison County, bowed first at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. “But none of us will do it on the record.”
At the crux of the conflict is a tangled knot of artistic and ethical ideals and legislated tax protection, conferred on nonprofits as an incentive to uphold missions to create work that has social and cultural value but may not have an equivalent value on the free market. As not-for-profits have expanded over the years and intermingled with the commercial world to produce shows, the distinction between the two sides can become muddied.
“There’s nothing that says a not-for-profit can’t make money,” notes longtime theatre attorney John Breglio, the executor of the estate of A Chorus Line creator Michael Bennett and the commercial producer behind revivals of A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls. “It’s what’s the not-for-profit does with the money that’s important. None of the proceeds can ‘inure to the benefit of a private individual.’ It has to go back to the not-for-profit.”
Nonprofit and commercial interests can weave together in a seemingly endless number of contractual permutations. A nonprofit can develop and produce a new work that a commercial producer subsequently picks up for Broadway or beyond. A producer can bring a potential commercial property to a nonprofit to develop it, or a theatre can solicit a producer’s financial support in order to produce an ambitious new show, in exchange for the first right of refusal should its reception warrant a future life. Three New York not-for-profits own stages on Broadway, the flagship of commercial theatre, and some nonprofits (such as New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club) maintain for-profit subsidiaries to shepherd their own shows on to further success.
In today’s climate, the intersection between the nonprofit and the commercial sectors primarily centers around musicals, as rising production costs have made mounting large-scale shows with big casts and sizeable orchestras increasingly challenging on both sides of the fence.
These days, for some nonprofits, such deals are so commonplace they’re nearly rote. Pacts tend to hinge on a not-for-profit financing a production with the same amount of money it would budget for any show in its season, while the commercial producer kicks in whatever amount the project requires above and beyond that. The producer then has the right to steer the show into the commercial realm, while the nonprofit receives revenues from those market endeavors, often 1 to 2 percent until recoupment, when the percentage can go up.
Even accounting for a range of variation based on the specific project and partnership, that’s the basic framework. “The really big issues, like how much the enhancement is and the payment schedule, tend to be resolved pretty easily,” says theatre and entertainment attorney Carol Kaplan, who has represented both commercial and nonprofit entities in such deals. “Often it’s now the smaller things, like seats to the opening night on Broadway, that become a major negotiation.”
The back and forth between the not-for-profits and the commercial world has been a force at work in the field for almost as long as the nonprofits have existed, but good luck finding a definitive history of such exchanges. In the earliest, most idealistic days of the nonprofit movement, any interaction with the commercial realm was a badge of shame to be hidden at all costs.
Still, a handful of landmark developments can be singled out, starting with the 1967 play The Great White Hope, which bowed at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and became the first instance of a regional theatre cast being brought to Broadway, winning Tonys for stars James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander. The two actors went on to star in a 1970 film version, one more example of the enticing rewards that could come the way of a not-for-profit should one of its productions find success in the market.
The 1975 smash A Chorus Line, produced on Broadway by the Public, alerted resident theatres around the country to the potential jackpot that a hit musical could funnel back to an organization’s coffers. Later, the 1984 musical Big River, a project brought in early development to Brustein at the ART by producer (and former student) Rocco Landesman, was such a hit that Landesman guided it toward Broadway after a stop-off at California’s La Jolla Playhouse.
The latter wasn’t intended as a model for future alliances but it became one anyway, a blueprint for collaboration even down to a project’s generative roots, paving the way for across-the-aisle partnerships that resulted in long-running hit productions like Rent, which started life at New York Theatre Workshop, and Jersey Boys, another La Jolla alumnus.