NEW YORK — In June, four original dramas by highly regarded playwrights vied for the Tony Award for best play of the Broadway season. Three months later, all four were gone.
Their truncated lives reflect an imbalance that has all but eradicated a once thriving category of American entertainment: the commercial new Broadway play. For decades, the theaters of Broadway — now numbering 41 — were the moneymaking breeding ground for these plays. But what was once the rule on Broadway is now the rare exception. And the traditional for-profit, new Broadway play is disappearing almost as surely as the dodo.
Three of those four nominated new plays — “Indecent” by Paula Vogel, “Sweat” by Lynn Nottage and Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2” — were brought to Broadway by commercial producers; the fourth, and eventual Tony winner, J.T. Rogers’s “Oslo,” ran under the auspices of the nonprofit Lincoln Center Theater. Despite stellar reviews and placements on all manner of top-10 lists, none lasted more than 172 performances, and one closed after a mere 105. Even a mediocre musical easily laps that.
This season is looking bleaker. Five original plays have opened thus far, three of them middling or slightly better commercial ventures counting on star performers: Amy Schumer in Steve Martin’s “Meteor Shower”; Uma Thurman in Beau Willimon’s “The Parisian Woman”; and Mark Rylance in Claire van Kampen’s “Farinelli and the King.” And only one more, the “Harry Potter” double bill from London, a mega-event with a brand-name appeal more like a flashy musical’s, is on tap for the spring.
As a result of these trends, the playwrights of America don’t aim for Broadway anymore. The most storied platform for theater in the country — maybe the world — is no longer the place that many of the most accomplished dramatists think of as a natural haven for their work.
“It wasn’t even a dream of mine,” says Young Jean Lee, a playwright in her early 40s whose sharp, funny plays about ethnic identity are produced to admiring reviews across the country.
That must sound outrageous to anyone who doesn’t follow the goings-on of the theater. Isn’t Broadway the pinnacle of the profession, once the destination for Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman, and after them, Neil Simon, Edward Albee, August Wilson and David Mamet?
Not for this generation. Elbowed out by the musicals for which a ferociously tourist-driven marketplace gladly opens its wallets, and drained of customers thanks to the shrinking ranks of faithful cosmopolitan customers who make possible long runs of straight plays, the works by the next O’Neills or Wilsons are highly unlikely to find a Broadway home. (Regional and off-Broadway companies are now the dominant incubators of new plays.) Only in the shortened runs of the nonprofit theaters of Broadway, which produce plays for two- to three-month engagements, does one find a model that seems to sustain new plays.
What this means for a form that seeks to nurture important creative voices is a stunting of the American play’s artistic reach and a drying-up of a means by which playwrights earn real money. This helps explain why outstanding dramatists of our era — such Pulitzer Prize winners as Nottage, Vogel, Annie Baker, Suzan Lori-Parks, Ayad Akhtar, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Bruce Norris and Stephen Adly Guirgis — aren’t household names the way some of their major predecessors were.
The change in the commercial play’s fortunes happened over decades, accelerating in the 1990s as Broadway’s trade and marketing arms made a push to brand it as a tourist destination. Entertainment corporations such as Disney, with a library of animated movies that it could turn into stage musicals, entered the marketplace, vying with independent producers for Broadway’s few dozen commercial playhouses. Such creative powerhouses as composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh proved in the 1980s with shows including “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Misérables” that musicals could far outlive plays as moneymaking ventures, and others were eager to replicate their successes.
Travel-related companies became official sponsors of Broadway, and as crime rates dropped, a seedy Times Square underwent a revolutionizing, family-friendly makeover. In the late 1990s, the number of visitors to the city exploded. Between 1998 and 2016, the annual number grew from 33 million to more than 60 million, creating huge new pools of patrons for theatrical properties with broad appeal. And musicals were largely what appealed to them.
“Audiences have increasingly been coming from out of town, and that audience is more and more attuned to musicals, because that was what they were seeing in their touring houses,” says Tom Viertel, a longtime independent Broadway producer. Today, a whopping 70 percent of Broadway’s audience is tourists. “It’s really put us in a position,” Viertel adds, “where producing plays is the exception rather than the rule.”
At the same time, the costs of putting on a show and buying a ticket have been escalating steadily, making riskier work harder to produce. (In his new manual on budgeting a Broadway play, for instance, veteran Broadway general manager Peter Bogyo established $3.5 million as a budget hypothetical for a play with eight actors, four understudies and a $425,000 set.)
Exceptions arise every season, primarily because a potential box-office star has been recruited — as is the case with Thurman in “The Parisian Woman,” or Schumer in “Meteor Shower,” both of which opened in December to mixed or negative reviews. Or in some extremely rare cases, there’s a belief that a play can win the one prize that can still generate business at the box office: the Tony Award.
But even “Parisian Woman” was not written for Broadway. “When I wrote ‘The Parisian Woman,’ ” Willimon notes, “it was commissioned by the Flea Theater, a small, 65-seat off-off-Broadway house that is much more akin to the basement of the Drama Bookshop than any Broadway theater.” What convinced “Parisian” producer Viertel that the play might thrive in the big time was that it had a big, meaty role for a star — not to mention a writer who, by virtue of his Netflix adaptation of “House of Cards,” had a potential fan base of his own.
Still, in some mournfully fundamental way, playwrights no longer feel as if Broadway belongs to them, a refrain that has been heard over the years from dozens of playwrights.
“You just assumed that wasn’t even a possibility,” Willimon says.
Jon Robin Baitz, a gifted literary craftsman who secured a commercial run for “Other Desert Cities” only in 2011, at age 50, says: “I’m like many people in that I don’t discriminate in quite the same way as writers once did between Broadway and off-Broadway. But I will admit that my fiscal fortunes were on the upswing during ‘Other Desert Cities.’ ”
The bottom for the commercial play seems to have dropped out recently. A look at Broadway’s current offerings bears out this reality. Of the 31 productions running at the moment, 24 are musicals; only seven are straight dramas or comedies. The current longest-running play of any kind — a slapstick British farce, “The Play That Goes Wrong” — has been on the boards for a mere nine months. In comparison, the longest-running musical, “Phantom,” has been going strong for almost 30 years. The ratio is almost a mirror image of what Broadway was like 50 years ago, when commercial plays outnumbered musicals 2-to-1. The 1965-1966 season, for instance, featured 34 plays and just 15 musicals.
A few producers, most notably film and stage producer Scott Rudin, remain committed to holding open the door for the potentially moneymaking new play. Rudin turned a profit, for instance, with the 2016 Tony best-play winner, Stephen Karam’s family drama “The Humans,” which moved from an off-Broadway run to an 11-month stay on Broadway and is now touring the country, with a stop at the Kennedy Center in January.
But Rudin’s follow-up new play, the critically embraced “A Doll’s House, Part 2” with Laurie Metcalf and Chris Cooper, shuttered almost immediately after the stars left the production and were replaced by less well-known players. The difference between “Doll’s House” and “The Humans” may have been the Tony award that “The Humans” secured.
It is primarily courtesy of four nonprofit theater companies that plays in any form retain a toehold on Broadway: Roundabout Theatre Company, Lincoln Center Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club and now, with its purchase and renovation of the soon-to-reopen Helen Hayes Theatre on West 44th Street, Second Stage Theatre. Like the other three, Second Stage is a nonprofit subscription theater, with an off-Broadway space, that produces a full season of plays. This is how such regional companies as Washington’s Arena Stage or Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre also function.
Second Stage’s move to Broadway, spearheaded by artistic director Carole Rothman, means that these four nonprofits will operate a total of six Broadway theaters, cementing their status as formidable Broadway real estate powers, controlling almost as many theaters as the smallest of Broadway’s big three landlords, Jujamcyn Theaters. (The other major theater owners are the Shubert and Nederlander organizations.)
For Rothman, the $51 million acquisition and renovation of the 585-seat Hayes was a natural step for her company, which also produces in an off-Broadway theater on West 43rd Street; it just had a hit revival there of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song.” The Hayes’s shift to nonprofit control is another sign that most plays that are to receive Broadway exposure need the economic cover and a short planned life span that a nonprofit institution, bolstered by its well-heeled donors, can provide.
Second Stage joins Broadway this spring with the revival (and Broadway premiere) of Kenneth Lonergan’s 2001 play “Lobby Hero” — starring Chris Evans and Michael Cera. That will be followed by Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men” — giving Lee that Broadway debut she never anticipated. And this is where Rothman says her task kicks into high gear — to persuade the “plethora” of talented playwrights working in smaller venues across the country to think about writing for Broadway audiences.
“I really do believe that we are living in a golden age of American playwriting,” Rothman declares, adding that it’s an education process, for playgoers and playwrights, to know how to find one another again on the Great White Way.