The important decisions that Broadway producers must make never end.
First off, of course, they must choose a dramatic property to back. Then they must select a director and, with that director, a cast of performers. What should the poster look like? The advertising? Should there be a workshop? An out-of-town tryout? Which city? What Broadway theatre would best serve the production? If it's not available, do you wait until it is, or settle for a different house? One of the simplest questions, one might think, would be the date of the opening night on Broadway. After all, once the show's ready for the big time, it's ready. Just throw a dart at the calendar.
But nothing's easy in the theatre. This was illustrated last October when the producers of 9 to 5: The Musical announced that the new musical, based on the film of the same name, would open on April 30 at the Marquis Theater. "April 30," thought the folks at the Roundabout Theatre Company. "That rings a bell." As well it should have. It was the date they had planned to open their new production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, starring Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin.
The Broadway theatre is a small world, and it's easy to step on another show's toes. The quickest way to do this is to throw your production's coming-out party on the same night as someone else's. This is a no-no not because the producers don't want the critics to have to choose between two openings. That danger was removed 40 years ago when New York Times critic Stanley Kauffmann insisted on attending a preview of each show, instead of the opening night, in order to give himself more time to compose his review. It's been that way ever since, with critics choosing from a variety of preview performances. Yet, the question of exclusivity is still very much about the press. It's difficult enough to get coverage for a show these days. So, naturally, nobody likes to share the spotlight on their special night. Most of the time, this is not an issue. "I think for 90 percent of the people would prefer that theirs be the only show opening on a given day," said Charlotte St. Martin, the executive director of the Broadway League, the longstanding trade organization that represents many of the major Broadway producers. In the spring, however, as the season approaches its official conclusion and the Tony Awards loom, the landscape gets pretty crowded and shows' paths toward the finish line can cross.
In 2003, the musical Urban Cowboy and the play Life x 3 both made a grab at March 27 for their opening night. After a brief standoff, however, the producers of Life x 3 blinked, and it moved its opening to March 31.
Take special notice of that shift: Life x 3 jumped not one day to the left or right on the calendar, but a full four days into the future. Why? Because March 27, 2003, was a Thursday. And if you can't nab a Thursday — the most coveted day of them all for an opening night — you go for the second best choice, a Monday like March 31.
"Those appear to be the most popular days," confirmed St. Martin. Harold Wolpert, managing director of the Roundabout, agreed. "For years and years and years, Thursday was the best night to open, to get into Friday's paper." The thinking goes that a good review in the Friday or Monday paper has a better chance of catching the consumer's eye, whereas reviews that run in the middle of the week garner less notice. Wolpert said that Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday openings are generally the Roundabout's preferred opening days.
|photo by Connie Ashley|
St. Martin, however, doesn't put a lot of stock in that sort of logic. "There're a lot of superstitions and good-luck kinds of things that people operate on. There's really no truth to the [idea] that Thursday should be the number one day. There's been many shows that open on other nights and they continued to do just fine." Those "other nights," however, do not include Friday and Saturday. As far as opening nights are concerned, those days are non-starters. Nobody wants news of their show's opening to be dumped in the pages of the weekend papers. Wolpert could not recall the Roundabout opening a show on Friday or Saturday. Neither could St. Martin remember a Friday or Saturday Broadway opening since she became the League's executive director in 2006. "No one here seems to remember when there was. Chances are pretty slim that that will happen." Additionally, Playbill journalist Harry Haun, who has attended nearly every Broadway opening for 30 years, could not recollect attending such an opening.
One must also be wary not only of weekends, but of long holiday weekends. "Let's say the show's right after July 4th weekend," hypothesized Wolpert. "Critics won't be happy if they have to come in on the weekend. So maybe we open on a Tuesday."
|photo by Aubrey Reuben|
There are other criteria at work when opening dates are chosen, and being a nonprofit poses particular challenges. "As a not-for-profit and subscription theatre," said Wolpert, "one of the things we have to do is juggle multiple shows a season, so we have to make sure we don't conflict with ourselves." He continued, "We'd like to get all the shows open within the Tony season. You have to fit them all in before the deadline. It doesn't give us much wiggle room. You really have to back up to the beginning of the season to make sure you can fit them all in by the end of the season. It can be a real chess game. Maybe an actor in such-and-such a slot only has such dates available."
Once the Roundabout decides which dates it likes best, it checks in with the Broadway League. "We follow the League system. They are guidelines that many people have followed for many years. We are respectful of Broadway and Off-Broadway. I think it's a little bit of 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'" Typically, it is a show's press agent who places the obligatory call to the League.
The system is not entirely foolproof, however, because the non-compete date idea is suggested, rather than insisted upon. "We, as a courtesy, maintain the opening night book," explained St. Martin. "We maintain a set of guidelines which we ask [the producers] to follow. There's absolutely no set way opening nights are set. Sometime it's the press agents that call, sometimes it's the producers that call. There's not a black-and-white rule book that everyone has to follow."
As to those guidelines, St. Martin will not elaborate. "That's an internal process that we don't share." She allowed, however, that it is the League's "preference" that no two Broadway shows share the same opening night. Beyond that, the League watches carefully from the sidelines. "We let them deal with each other. We advise everyone. Hopefully they will get an agreement. We don't get in the middle of it."
As for the Godot-9 to 5 matter, it remains unresolved; both shows still cling to April 30 — a date which has added weight because it is the final day of the shortened 2008-09 Broadway season. The past few Broadway seasons stretched into May. This one, by ending in late April, offered fewer options, opening-night-wise, for spring shows. (Attempts to reach the producers of 9 to 5 were not successful.) Most observers, including Harry Haun, believe the issue will eventually be settled without the necessity of a duel in Shubert Alley. "I've always known one show to change at the last moment. It has happened several times. It's always resolved itself. Nobody's ever dug in their heels and insisted on opening at a particular time."
Others, however, think that the two shows will stand firm, leading to the first double-opening on Broadway in long memory. And if that's the case? Well, it would make for a pretty smashing ending to the season, wouldn't it? One for the books. And one for the League "book," as well.