Report: Coalition Assembling a $10 million B'way Fund

News   Report: Coalition Assembling a $10 million B'way Fund
An alliance of producers, union leaders and Broadway theatre owners is seeking $10 million from New York City and other sources to boost production of plays and small musicals on Broadway -- and to boost audiences to support them, the New York Times reported.

An alliance of producers, union leaders and Broadway theatre owners is seeking $10 million from New York City and other sources to boost production of plays and small musicals on Broadway -- and to boost audiences to support them, the New York Times reported.

Some of the money also will be used to create new rehearsal spaces and to fix up existing theatres.

Calling itself the Broadway Initiative, the coalition would augment theatre production by awarding loans or grants to Off-Broadway and regional productions that are considered to have commercial potential. The 1996 Tony-winning Best Musical (Rent) and Best Play (Master Class) originated, respectively, Off-Broadway and regionally, but not all shows have the momentum to make the leap to the commercial arena of Broadway. The Initiative aims to give a leg-up to 25 such productions over five years.

The Times reported that the Broadway Initiative also has set numerical targets for increasing attendance over the same five years: 3,000 more people per day (roughly two and a half theatres-full), increasing attendance from the New York metropolitan area by 10 percent, and getting 75,000 more students into Broadway theatres.

Ideas in the initiative are apparently based on a study of Broadway economics conducted in 1996 by the Bain & Company consulting firm. (The plan was supposed to be hush-hush until negotiations were formally announced after the Tonys, but a "discussion draft" of the Broadway Initiative was given to the Times.) The Broadway Initiative is led unofficially by Jack Goldstein of Actors Equity Association, the actors' union. Addressing the "chronic decline" in production on Broadway, Goldstein told the Times, "There is no single cause or villain or action taken by anyone that caused this. But we are trying to come up with a long-term, thoughtful, comprehensive set of procedures to improve the environment for play production." Giving the Initiative muscle is encouragement from the Giuliani mayoral office, who will likely get involved once a final proposal has been put on the table.

The play-development program would provide grants covering up to half the cost of mounting a production that would have trouble covering costs because of theatre size or limited run. Subsidies (up to 40 percent) would also go to shows in the 19 Broadway theatres with fewer than 1,200 seats, helping them build audiences through previews and the early weeks of a run. The money would come from deferred union wages, reduced theatre rents and assistance in advertising and marketing.

Since producers and investors are the cornerstone of commercial theatre, the Initiative would also help them by setting a cap on maximum losses an investor can suffer. Revenue for the $10 million plan would come from per-ticket contributions by theatres (expected to generate $5 million) and contributions by working union menbers ($1.2 million expected). The City Planning Department would also be involved in rezoning air rights on Eighth Ave. in midtown. Theatres with "landmark status" could take advantage of this commercial opportunity but would have to promise to remain a legit theatre for at least 25 years.

Asked about what difference the Broadway Initiative could ultimately make, League of American Theatres and Producers executive director, Jed Bernstein, told the Times, "Perhaps Paula Vogel's How I Learned To Drive could come to Broadway rather than the Century Theatre." Producer Robert Whitehead said, "Our volume of production has fallen to nothing. In Broadway's heyday, you'd have 60 or 70 new productoins each year, of which 12 to 15 would survive... [But] the failures gave birth to the successes."

As ever, perception and reality are at odds in the Broadway spectrum. The League reports that grosses for the 1996-97 season are estimated at a record $485 million, up $49 million from last season. Attendance will be 10.1 million, the second highest in history, and up from 9.4 million last year. Nearly all the Broadway theatres are full, the season offered five "new" musicals (Titanic, Steel Pier, Juan Darien, Jekyll And Hyde, The Life) plus Play On! and Dream, competing for audiences and honors, and Wendy Wasserstein, Christopher Durang, William Luce, Horton Foote and Alfred Uhry all had new plays staged. On the other hand, all the plays are struggling (Atlanta averages 30 percent attendance), and excepting Julia Sweeney's autobiographical God Said `Ha!' and John Gray's instructional Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, no new American playwrights came to Broadway. Even the new musicals are duking it out, with Titanic, Steel Pier and The Life especially hoping for the Best Musical Tony Award Award.

--By David Lefkowitz

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