Variety held its first Power of Broadway event October 1 at Bryant Park Grill, kicking off a commitment to further expanding the publication's coverage of theatre as announced by Editor-in-Chief Claudia Eller. The centerpiece of the breakfast, attended by Broadway performers and industry players, was a keynote conversation with Tony-winning producer Jeffrey Seller (Rent, Avenue, In the Heights, Hamilton) and Shubert Organization President Robert E. Wankel.
In the discussion, the two theatre bigwigs mused on the current and future state of Broadway, including the challenges it must overcome and the opportunities for innovation. Read through highlights of the conversation, moderated by Variety's Gordon Cox, below.
Broadway attendance and grosses continue to rise year-over-year, and the increase in average ticket price is often the first figure attributed to this growth. Wankel, however, asserts this is not the only factor.
"Everybody thinks we're growing grosses by over-charging people, but that's not factual. We like to think we have a price point for everybody," he said. "If you really look around, every show has different ticket prices. I think it's growing because we've had a lot of great shows on Broadway. If you give the people a great show, they come."
Seller added, "We're not going to lose our audience because of ticket prices. We will continue to build our audience through good work."
Diversifying the House
In addition to addressing representation in the workplace, the two noted a need to continue reaching new audiences (demographics provided by the Broadway League indicate that Broadway audiences remain over 75 percent white).
"Our work is to continue to expand those audiences—to make our audience look like our country," Seller said. "No doubt, one of my challenges at Hamilton will be to continue to ensure that our audience looks like our cast, which looks like our country. And of course I am cognizant of the fact that because of price barriers and communication barriers, the Hamilton audience is probably still too white."
Similar to programs devised by the Broadway League and American Theatre Wing, Hamilton has reached students through its #EduHam program, which allows high schoolers from New York City public schools to attend performance and create their own history pieces inspired by the musical. "That's a start," he says, "because those 20,000 kids are there, and they will hopefully be the ones who say, 'Maybe I'll go to another show.'"
Broadway in the #MeToo Movement
When asked how the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have impacted Broadway, Wankel noted that training programs and committees have been implemented to take a necessary and overdue look at workplace culture in various fields of the industry.
"If you just look around, everybody has become extremely sensitive to the #MeToo movement; they're very careful about what they say and what they do," said Wankel. "It may be too long in coming, but it's here, and I think it will be nothing but positive for us and every other industry. Everybody is getting trained to make sure they're aware of what's going on in the world."
The Digital Revolution
As technology transforms the entertainment landscape, providing unprecedented access, interaction, and engagement, Seller believes theatre has the opportunity to use that to its advantage and underline what makes live theatre an essential art form.
"What the digital revolution did for Hamilton is it saw an album come three months after we opened. We've had now two billion streams, and that was the way in which Hamilton was able to seep into the American culture in such a profoundly positive way," Seller said. "So what we have is an opportunity to do is use those resources of the digital revolution to make coming to a live event more attractive and easier. And as we continue to develop as a species, we are going to continue to want to get together and go to theatre events as we always did, and that is going to make a vital business that offers enormous opportunity for everybody in this room to express themselves and to continue to try to make a living while affecting mankind."
The event coincided with the release of Variety's "Broadway to Watch" list, highlighting artists and individuals helping shape the industry onstage and off as the industry looks ahead. The list includes The Band's Visit Tony winner Ari'el Stachel, School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play scribe Jocelyn Bioh, Be More Chill composer Joe Iconis, Jujamcyn President Jordan Roth, and recent Pulitzer Prize winner Martyna Majok.