As one of America’s most esteemed living playwrights, Paula Vogel is often invited to speak to groups of theatre fans and aspirants around the country. But as familiar as her name may be to those audiences, there’s one thing they sometimes don’t know about her.
“I’m often introduced as a ‘Broadway playwright,’” she says. “But I’m not.” That’s right: While Vogel may have won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, neither the work she won for (How I Learned to Drive) nor any of her 14 other plays have been mounted in the Times Square district under the appropriate Actors’ Equity contract in a theatre of more than 500 seats (the technical definition of “Broadway,” in case you were wondering).
That will change on April 18, when Indecent opens at the Cort Theatre. So how does it feel to make your Broadway debut at 65, after writing plays for four decades? “It is a delayed gratification,” Vogel admits. “But as I always say, the greater delay, the greater delighted.”
The default assumption that Broadway represents the pinnacle of American theatre persists, despite much evidence to the contrary. Arguably, the claim still holds some truth for musicals, which have come to dominate Broadway consciousness so much that plays often seem like the industry’s proverbial neglected stepchild. But plays are very much alive and well on Broadway—in fact they usually constitute the majority of new productions in a typical season. When Broadway League president Charlotte St. Martin says, “Broadway just isn’t Broadway without the dramatic play,” she’s not speaking figuratively.
But ever since the current framework for not-for-profit theatre companies emerged in the 1950s and ’60s, American playwriting has increasingly been nurtured by artistic directors and dramaturgs, not commercial producers. Notable plays bred in the nonprofit world surface on Broadway with considerable regularity, and often success. (Most recently, Stephen Karam’s The Humans, whose runs at Chicago’s American Theater Company and New York City’s Roundabout Theatre Company preceded its year-long Broadway run and Best Play Tony.) While Broadway was once home to all major American plays and musicals, it long ago ceased being a generator of new dramatic work, and now serves more as an occasional showcase for original American dramatic writing when it’s commercially convenient.
This season the stars aren’t just aligning for Vogel. In fact, an impressive array of new play openings, all by playwrights making their Great White Way debuts, grace this Broadway season. All have that rare combination of quality, timing, reception, and luck needed for a major commercial production of a “straight” play today—and all come with a nonprofit pedigree. Most are direct “transfers” of recent Off-Broadway runs. Vogel’s Indecent (a backstage drama about censorship of a 1920s-era Yiddish classic) was developed and premiered by New Haven, Conn.’s Yale Repertory Theatre before playing at California’s La Jolla Playhouse and New York’s Vineyard Theatre. Joshua Harmon’s comedy Significant Other comes from a 2015 run at Roundabout’s Off-Broadway space. J.T. Rogers’s modern history play Oslo has pulled off the rare feat of doing so well at Lincoln Center Theater’s Off-Broadway space last summer that the company decided to move it upstairs to their Broadway-eligible stage this spring. Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 (yes, it’s a sequel) is unique: Though the New York production has been initiated just for Broadway, South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., commissioned the script, and will open its own nearly simultaneously world premiere production in April.
Meanwhile, the Broadway transfer of Sweat (from the Public Theater, after stagings at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage) offers yet another “delayed gratification” for a veteran playwright, Lynn Nottage, whose work is already a staple of the professional repertory and academic syllabi. Her 2003 period piece Intimate Apparel remains one of the nation’s most produced plays (according to American Theatre’s own tally), and Ruined—her searing portrait of sex trafficking, women, and war in the Congo—won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in a long run at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off-Broadway space. Yet neither play was picked up for a Broadway transfer. Sweat, a play about class and racial tensions in Rust Belt America, had the good fortune—career-wise, at least—of opening at the Public just days before the 2016 presidential election. Though written before the campaign even began, Sweat immediately drew passionate raves for its timeliness. Calling it “my No. 1 recommendation for life in the Age of Trump,” The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout all but demanded a Broadway transfer “as soon as an uptown theatre becomes available.” That kind of buzz was enough, even in the absence of name actors, for Stuart Thompson and Louise Gund to raise money to present the commercial transfer of the Public’s production at the Roundabout-owned Studio 54.
It’s good news to see so much new drama on Broadway. But why did it take so long for these playwrights to reach the U.S.’s commercial stages? The delay is symptomatic of a bifurcation of contemporary American theatre, between the national nonprofit network of resident theatres, workshops, and MFA programs in one universe, and a Times Square-based commercial industry in another. Thanks to a few resourceful impresarios (Scott Rudin and Jeffrey Richards, among others), the commercial theatre does continue to engage directly with non-musical dramatists, but typically with star-driven vehicles, or playwrights who are stars themselves (like David Mamet, who’s had four Broadway premieres in the last nine years). Otherwise commercial producers have been heavily reliant on the nonprofit realm to supply new work to a business that still produces as many plays on average (including revivals) as musicals. In short, the continued survival of the new play on Broadway depends more than ever on the efforts of not-for-profit theatres.
Transfers constitute the majority of new American drama on Broadway within memory. Just look at the numbers: For each of the past 20 seasons, an average of 36 productions of original and revived plays and musicals have opened on Broadway. Plays have accounted for more than half. Of those 20 or so titles a season, roughly half have been new plays. Subtract from those 10 roughly two or three imports from Britain, Ireland, or Europe, and we’re left with a fairly consistent average of seven or eight unofficial “slots” for what could be deemed new American plays. Of those, only two or three tend to be initiated solely by a commercial producer anymore. Most are either transferred from a nonprofit Off-Broadway or resident company, or they’re produced in a Tony-eligible venue by one of Broadway’s three nonprofit theatre companies (Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, and Lincoln Center Theater, soon to be joined by Second Stage when it reopens a refurbished Helen Hayes Theatre in 2018).
Nonprofits have overtaken commercial Broadway not only in mounting new plays, but in shaping the national repertory. Consider:
- Of the last 20 plays (not musicals) given the Pulitzer Prize for drama, seven have never appeared on Broadway. One later had a Broadway revival (Wit), and another eight came to Broadway only after qualifying for the prize. The last Pulitzer-winning play to open “cold” in a commercial production was Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers in 1991. Since then only Proof, I Am My Own Wife, August: Osage County, and Rabbit Hole won Pulitzers on the basis of Broadway runs—and all were premiered by nonprofit companies.
- The only other American playwriting award with the cachet of the Pulitzer is the Tony, by definition given only to work produced on Broadway. But only one of the last 20 Tony winners for Best Play did not transfer from somewhere (Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? in 2002). Of the others, seven began at Off-Broadway nonprofits and four at major resident companies around the country. The eight others were recent hits from London—where, it should be noted, many originated in government-subsidized theatres.
- Another index of contemporary drama, American Theatre’s own count of each season’s most produced titles in the nation’s nonprofit theatres, shows that of new American plays cited on the past five lists, many had played on Broadway at some point, but only three did not originate at a U.S. nonprofit. And two of those, The Mountaintop and Red, premiered in—you guessed it—London.
Speaking of London: Contrary to perennial fears of British invasion, plays from the U.K. typically constitute a minority of the new drama on Broadway. Still, even with just an average of two or three titles a season, foreign imports can still constitute more than a third of all new plays on offer. More significant, perhaps, is the disproportionate attention a highly acclaimed play from London can receive in press and awards. Not only have such titles won 40 percent of the last 20 Best Play Tonys; they frequently garner more than half of the Best Play nominations. (Pop quiz: Which playwright holds the all-time record for most Tonys? Answer: Tom Stoppard, with four.)
That Broadway rarely produces new dramatic work not developed elsewhere won’t come as news to longtime observers. Several social and economic factors over the past half century have steadily eroded the output of the Broadway industry in general, especially its ability to nurture new work. In its fabled “Golden Age” of the 1920s to 1950s, many now-canonical American classics had their premieres in commercial runs at Broadway theatres. It’s hard to imagine now, but there once was a time (namely, the ’20s) when a single Broadway season could host well over 200 opening nights, nearly two-thirds of which were new plays. But before assuming that the American theatre was somehow “better” then, it’s worth noting several factors that made such a glut possible, and which no longer apply.
First, there were simply more theatre buildings. The oft-cited record-holding season, 1927-28, had 257 new shows, but there were 71 theatres to house them, and they typically had very short runs. In a typical season today, approximately 40 new productions (original works plus revivals) open in the 40 or so officially recognized Broadway venues, most with plans for runs of a season or more.
Second, while movies have offered plays competition since the beginning of the 20th century, before Hollywood’s full conversion to sound the American stage still had a monopoly on spoken drama. That had the ill fortune of changing right alongside another cataclysm in the 1930s: The one-two punch delivered by sound films and the Great Depression quickly reduced the number of theatres and productions. By the 1950s, when television offered yet more competition, new openings per season dropped to an average of around 60. More theatres were demolished in the 1980s, while cable television and home video exploded, and Broadway settled into its current routine of roughly 40 shows in 40 theatres.
Coincidentally or not, that same postwar period of Broadway’s decline ushered in the rise of both New York’s Off- and Off-Off Broadway movements and the modern nonprofit resident theatre system. As Broadway producers increasingly relied on musicals to capture tourist dollars, new American playwriting began to emerge not in Times Square but in Greenwich Village, Chicago, regional theatres, workshops, and at MFA programs around the country.
Meanwhile, as if in response, Broadway became ever more restrictive in its self-definition. In 1949 Equity, together with a handful of downtown New York theatres, laid out the first parameters of “Off-Broadway” as we know it today. As a result, “Broadway” was for the first time defined not just by location but by house size: First it was any theatre over 299 seats, raised to 499 in 1974. Nowhere has the industry been more exclusive than in its coveted Tony Awards (inaugurated in 1947), which notoriously limits eligibility to productions in officially authorized Broadway houses. The Tonys initially allowed for some flexibility (the downtown Threepenny Opera revival of 1954 received nominations and awards), but by the ’60s stricter boundaries were drawn, so that now-iconic works of the period—The Zoo Story, Dutchman, Funnyhouse of a Negro, and The Boys in the Band—were never eligible for a “Best Play” prize.
By 1967, when the American Theatre Wing partnered with the League of New York Theatres and Producers (now the Broadway League) to televise the Tonys, their mission soon became as much about promoting the Broadway brand to a national audience as to honor the best work of the American theatre, wherever it may be.
With real estate, labor costs, and entertainment competition increasing (and the number of theatres decreasing), risking a large capitalization on a new non-musical play by an unknown writer with no star actors became a risk few producers would still take. But the concurrent proliferation of Off-Broadway and regional activity provided any producers still interested in new work a chance to “farm out” their development. Relying on the smaller theatres to rehearse actors and build scenery gave the show a free (and tax-deductible) “tryout.” In 1969, Arena Stage’s production of Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope was the first regional-theatre-initiated play to win the Tony. Many classics of 1970s Broadway, including Sticks and Bones and American Buffalo, were successful examples of the transfer phenomenon, as were Tony winners Torch Song Trilogy and The Heidi Chronicles in the 1980s. But the practice was still limited. Sam Shepard’s early masterpieces Buried Child (1978) and True West (1980), for example, didn’t reach Broadway until their late-’90s revivals. (At which time, thanks to outdated Tony eligibility rules, both received belated nominations for new play. Both lost.)
Another factor in this shift of new play development from the commercial to nonprofit sectors is the disappearing breed of what once was called the “artistic” producer. Instead of artistic directors and dramaturgs, writers once forged creative relationships with bona fide Broadway producers. Figures like Jed Harris (who produced Our Town) and Kermit Bloomgarden (Death of a Salesman) were entrepreneurial showmen who knew how to make a dollar but also prided themselves on their artistic sensibility and genuine affinity for good plays. While they and their ilk constituted a veritable Broadway men’s club, other significant dramas were shepherded to Broadway by pioneering female producers. Theresa Helburn of the Theatre Guild and Cheryl Crawford of the Group Theatre, for instance, managed, long before the 501(c)(3), to cobble together innovative business models ahead of their time, like subscription seasons and profit-sharing, to bring the socially conscious work of O’Neill and Odets to Broadway. Hallie Flanagan’s government-funded Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s also frequently presented on Broadway.
One of the last major American plays to premiere directly on Broadway was 1988 Tony winner M. Butterfly, a feat author David Henry Hwang attributes to the tenacity and dedication of his producer, Stuart Ostrow. “Stuart was an artistic risk-taker,” Hwang recalls, “someone who fell in love with projects and committed to them with passion.” Hwang credits Ostrow with bringing in director John Dexter and designer Eiko Ishioka, who together created the memorable physical life and visual imagery of the production. (Says Hwang, “I think it would have been harder [financially] for a nonprofit in those days to bring together a British director and a Japanese designer.”) And when the play met with negative reception at its tryout in D.C., leading a coproducer to bow out, Hwang recalls, Ostrow mortgaged his house to get the show to New York.
Today, such producerial commitment on behalf of non-musical plays is increasingly rare. Doug Wright, president of the Dramatists Guild of America, understands their reasoning. “It takes a brave, committed producer to risk millions on an unproven work,” he says. The average capitalization of Broadway plays is close to $3 million (the budget size of a small independent film), and weekly operating costs approach $300,000. Unlike subscription-based companies, commercial producers don’t have a locked-in audience base and must build an “advance sale” from scratch, which is all the more challenging without a famous title, playwright, actor, or other built-in cachet. (Hence the appeal of pre-packaged acclaimed London productions.) They must also vie (or wait) for one of those 40 exclusive Times Square playhouses, many of which are occupied on any given season by long-running hits. When one becomes available, it likely contains more than 1,000 seats—a difficult size for plays that may have been conceived for a more intimate space, not to mention a harder box-office target to hit eight shows a week.
For the few producers who keep the dream of serious drama on Broadway alive, the only reason to risk all those variables is honest love for the material. Monetarily, the risks are too variable and the potential rewards too small to consider it a “sound investment,” especially in an industry where only one out of five shows (even musicals!) recoups. It’s no surprise that when it comes to transferring the more artistically ambitious plays from nonprofit theatres, there are only a handful of recurring names, including Elizabeth McCann, currently coproducing Indecent, and Stuart Thompson, a lead producer for Sweat. Another is Daryl Roth (also behind Indecent), whose long commitment to transferring new plays goes back to Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and David Auburn’s Proof (both of which received their world premieres at nonprofit theatres).
“If you don’t feel it deeply—the passion of the piece—don’t do it,” Roth says. “It’s just too hard. And the reasons for doing it have to be true. It can’t be for the glory of the day, the money you think you’re going to make, the Tony you think you’re going to win.” Roth’s involvement in Indecent stems from her long commitment to Vogel’s work, having produced the extended Off-Broadway commercial run of How I Learned to Drive, a play she first saw at the Vineyard Theatre. She maintains, though, that nonprofit development remains “the safest way for a new work to be birthed” and sees herself as a close collaborator with those theatres.
Someone taking the riskier approach of mounting new plays “cold” on Broadway is mega-producer Scott Rudin, who is doing just that with Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2. Hnath, having already been promised a production at South Coast Rep, was wary of taking the play to Broadway so soon, but was ultimately won over by Rudin’s old-school approach to artistic producing. “He can really talk shop about plays,” says Hnath about their early meetings. The playwright was most concerned about “being able to recreate the process I’ve had on all my plays,” including workshops (with a resident dramaturg) that included breaks for revising. Rudin granted him both the workshops and the dramaturg, reassuring Hnath that he would have “the process I would have for the Humana Festival [at Kentucky’s Actors Theatre of Louisville], but on Broadway.” It’s no coincidence that Rudin apprenticed under some of the “Golden Age” Broadway producers (including Bloomgarden), and, as he recently told NPR’s Terry Gross, “grew up kind of wanting to be them.”
Given Rudin’s unique stature as a one-man stage-and-film production company, though, he is able to take risks other independent producers can’t, since any given play is just one product in his entertainment output. Is his high-budget “commercial artistic director” approach sui generis? Or does he signal a new direction for the future? In a provocative recent essay for online journal the Clyde Fitch Report, Michael Barra (president of Araca Media and Entertainment, formerly on the staff of Disney Theatrical Group) wrote a piece headlined “How the Rise of Big Media Is Disrupting Broadway,” arguing that commercial theatre may only continue to survive as one arm of larger entertainment-media empires. The downside, Barra points out, is that “Mom-and-Pop producers” won’t be able to compete with loss-leading giant media companies “for whom a presence on Broadway is but a phase of a multimedia content plan.”
In their place might come more corporate entities or individual entertainment-media titans. One example of a potential model is the case of Eric Simonson, who, while not a household name, has been one of the most produced playwrights on Broadway in the past decade. The producers of his three plays profiling famous athletes (Lombardi, Magic/Bird, and Bronx Bombers) sought out the financial support of, respectively, the NFL, NBA, and MLB, all of whom were happy to see their “product” celebrated on Broadway.
Many theatre veterans already lament that Broadway has become a theme-park replica of its old self, dominated by corporately produced musicals. If new-play producing looks poised to become more corporate too, should American playwrights even care about writing for Broadway anymore?
One might assume the main benefit to playwrights is financial, but the reality can be more complicated. Doug Wright, himself a Tony-winning Broadway playwright for I Am My Own Wife (which premiered at NYC’s Playwrights Horizons after development at Chicago’s About Face company), says that short-term income can be very unpredictable. “A playwright’s remuneration for a Broadway run can depend on a variety of factors: the length of the run, the size of the house, etc.,” explains Wright, adding that income can be notoriously dependent on box office, even to the point of taking a loss. “It’s entirely possible to have a show running on Broadway and not earn a cent during certain weeks. Often playwrights are asked to waive royalties completely in order to keep shows running for a greater length of time.”
Hwang, who has enjoyed Broadway success with plays (M. Butterfly, set to be revived next fall) and musicals (Aida), notes that he ended up with greater financial reward for the initial nonprofit premiere of a work (Chinglish at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, for instance) than for its Broadway transfer.
Where a “Broadway bump” matters most is in the visibility gained for a play’s ongoing life beyond New York. Christopher Durang had only had four short Broadway runs in as many decades before his Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (premiered by McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., then at LCT) transferred and won the 2013 Tony. The royalties he received from that one play in the subsequent year, he told The New York Times, constituted “the most money I have ever made.” Peter Hagan, president of Dramatists Play Service publishing, says that while many non-Broadway titles do well in both professional and amateur licensing, “It is absolutely a fact that the visibility of a Broadway run has a significant economic impact on the future life of the play.”
So while few plays make it to Broadway without nonprofit support, nothing in the nonprofit world can rival the platform Broadway offers for exposure beyond theatre’s inner circles. Broadway opening nights automatically attract a level of broader national entertainment media attention that regional and Off-Broadway theatres can only dream about. “A play on Broadway has an actual marketing budget,” says Wright. “People become aware of its existence through everything from in-flight magazines to television commercials.” It is for this reason of exposure and familiarity that many still feel that Broadway remains our de facto “national theatre”—without, of course, being a “state theatre”—just because it actively courts a national audience.
With that visibility comes not only success but responsibility, Vogel cautions. “I’m thrilled to be on Broadway,” she says. “Broadway is a limelight. And it’s worth looking at what we put in the limelight.” If Broadway remains, for better or worse, our closest thing to a “national theatre,” then, she asks, “What should we as Americans be making visible?”
Vogel, already successful as a playwright and teacher, worries less for her own belated commercial recognition than for those of her younger students and peers, especially women and writers of color, who are already underrepresented even on nonprofit stages, let alone Broadway. Of the new American playwrights represented each season of late, only one or two (if that) have typically been women or writers of color.
Nottage has, since the announcement of Sweat’s transfer, spoken out about her role as an exception that sadly proves the rule, noting in a statement to Playbill.com that “slowly and with some coercing, the not-for-profit theatres around the country are beginning to recognize and embrace the power of our stories,” while “most commercial theatre continues to revel in their own myopia and cling to their snail-like pace toward inclusion.”
In this as in so many ways, the nonprofit American theatre may be leading the way. It certainly has its work cut out for it.
Garrett Eisler is a writer, critic, scholar, historian, and teacher based in New York City.
A version of this piece appears in American Theatre’s April ’17 issue.
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