How To Tell Broadway from Off-Broadway from . . .

How To Tell Broadway from Off-Broadway from . . . Several members have written asking for a definition of the difference among Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway.

Several members have written asking for a definition of the difference among Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway.

No matter what else you may have heard, the distinction is mainly one of contracts. There are so many theatres of so many different sizes served by so many different unions in New York that this three-tiered Broadway/Off-Broadway/Off-Off-Broadway system evolved to determine who would get paid what.

People who work in big theatres generally get paid more because there are more tickets to sell. So the distinction generally has to do with theatre size (but not 100 percent of the time). Theatres with up to 99 seats generally are considered Off-Off-Broadway; 99-499 seats generally denote Off-Broadway; and 499 and larger generally denote Broadway. There are many exceptions, however, and some overlap. The real key is what sort of contract the production has.

Broadway theatres generally have larger stages and therefore are able to present more extravagant shows. So the term "Broadway Musical" tends to suggest a specific kind of entertainment. Though, as Rent proved this year, a show that originates Off-Broadway can wind up the Best Musical on Broadway.

Owing to the scale of Broadway productions, ticket prices generally are higher as well, up to $75 for Broadway, versus a top of $45 for Off-Broadway, and $20 or so for Off-Off-Broadway. Many tickets cost far less. The fact that Broadway is the name of a large boulevard in Manhattan sometimes confuses theatregoers as well. Most "Broadway" theatres are not on Broadway, the street. A few theatres on Broadway, the street, are considered "Off-Broadway." Life is complicated.

Broadway, the street, wanders diagonally from northwest to southeast Manhattan completely messing up the grid pattern of streets on the island, but creating large open spaces (Madison Square, Herald Square, Times Square, etc.) whenever it crosses one of the avenues.

Many theatres were located on Broadway, the street, at the turn of the 20th century, when the nickname was bestowed. But today only four "Broadway" theatre actually on Broadway: the Winter Garden, the Roundabout, the Marquis, and the eponymous Broadway Theatre.

The Minskoff Theatre lobby overlooks Broadway, but the entrance is on 45th Street. The Palace Theatre has a Broadway address, but is actually situated on Seventh Avenue. Most "Broadway" theatres are located on side streets near Broadway in midtown Manhattan, West 41st Street through West 52nd Street between Avenue of the Americas and Ninth Avenue. The one exception is the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, near West 65th Street.

Off-Broadway theatres can be located anywhere in New York, but most are congregated in Greenwich Village, the upper West Side and to a lesser degree, the East Side.

Off-Off-Broadway theatres also can be located anywhere in the city. Because of their tiny size, most charge little for tickets and pay actors, et al, very little as well. However, because so little is invested, Off-Off-Broadway tends to be a hothouse of experimentation. Because so much of the work is specialized, and has a limited audience, the small size of Off-Off-Broadway theatres is perfect.

Shows make the decision to invest in a transfer from one category to another when they prove (or believe) that they have enough commercial appeal to attract enough people to fill a larger theatre, and to pay more for tickets.

Productions like Julie Taymor's Juan Darien, for instance, debuted Off-Off-Broadway in 1988, moved to Off-Broadway in 1989, and is preparing for its Broadway debut in October 1996.

One more point: Commercial vs Non-Commercial theatres.

Unlike theatres outside New York, most Broadway theatres are commercial theatres, designed to make a profit. Shows like Sunset Boulevard are like small businesses. They exist to make money. They rent their theatre from one of three big theatre landlords in New York (the Shubert Organization, the Nederlander Organization, and Jujamcyn), just as a shoe store rents space in a mall. As long as ticket sales exceed operating costs, they stay open -- sometimes for one night, sometimes for years. But when costs exceed income, the plays or musicals go out of business, or, in theatre parlance, they "close." The theatre remains in business, however, until a new play comes along.

Most Broadway theatres are commercial, with a few notable exceptions. About half the shows Off-Broadway are commercial. Very few Off-Off-Broadway shows are commercial. The profit margin is too slim.

The alternative is non-commercial theatre. Institutions like the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and Circle in the Square in New York are non-profit entities that present a schedule of plays throughout the year. They usually sell subscriptions, and stick to a four- to eight-week performance schedule. Whether a show is sold out or empty, they stick to their schedule. Sometimes, if a non-profit show is a colossal hit, like Roundabout Theatre's She Loves Me three years ago, the show will get a commercial producer and transfer to a commercial run. Non-commercial theatre institutions on Broadway are Circle in the Square, Roundabout Theatre Company (which operates in a theatre technically called the Criterion Stage Right, but which has come to be called the Roundabout Theatre), National Actors Theatre and Lincoln Center Theatre.

There are myriad more exceptions to all these rules, but the general guidelines still apply.

-- By Robert Viagas