Producer Tom D’Angora doesn’t make it to every performance of NEWSical The Musical, but he's there for most of them. “It’s like being in previews for your entire life, or like Groundhog Day. I’m always backstage pre-show, trying to keep things silly, so the ridiculously funny cast is ready to go.”
He’s one of a handful of New York theatre-makers behind Off-Broadway (and Off Off-Broadway’s) longest-running shows who offsets the harsh economics of New York with personal involvement, spending time instead of money to keep costs down and his curtain up. D’Angora’s political lampoon, for instance, is a sort of theatrical combination of The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. It continually reacts to the news cycle, which requires D’Angora take a hands-on approach to production.
Despite the work it entails, D’Angora makes sure the show responds rapidly to breaking stories. He relies on Rick Crom, the show’s original writer, and on other comedians for a speedy turnaround. “I’ll even say, ‘If you can get me a ninety-second song in an hour, it’s going to go in tonight. We’ll put it in for two weeks… and in three, no one will know what it is.’” One rule of thumb for subject matter: “When you see the number-one trending topic for a week, if it’s not tragic, then you start looking at it.”
Trendiness aside, D’Angora’s activity helps his show appeal both to new audiences and repeat viewers. Similarly, the Neo-Futurists’ informal motto for their show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind is ‘If you’ve seen the show once, you’ve seen the show once.’ For each one-hour performance, the ensemble performs a random set list of plays from a ‘menu’ of thirty, some new and some held over from previous weeks. The full menu gets posted in the theatre, and audience members shout out the title of the one they want next. According to member Rob Neill, the Off Off-Broadway troupe has staged 4,125 short plays since he co-founded the New York chapter of the Neo-Futurists in 2004. “There’s nothing currently on the menu that’s been running for over eight weeks,” he says, “Within a month, month and a half, the whole show has changed over.”
To produce this prodigious number of scripts, the Neo-Futurists embrace a frenetic pace. “From Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, we are crafting and discussing with each other, usually via email or text. At Tuesday’s rehearsal, everybody pitches [their] work. It’s basically a table-read, usually anywhere from two times to three times the number of plays that we need to go in.”
Another thriving Off-Broadway producer, Catherine Russell, manages every detail of her plays. “I think that, as a producer, you should know how to do everything,” she says. “You should know how to hang a light, how to fix an air conditioner or a boiler. If you can do some of this stuff in-house, that’s better to keep costs down.”
Russell runs The Theatre Center in midtown, where she manages The Fantasticks (for the last 8 years) and Perfect Crime (for an astonishing 29 years!). In addition to her work as the venue’s landlady, she manages the box office for The Fantasticks each night, then gets in costume to star in Perfect Crime—for a role she’s played since 1987. In that time she’s only missed four nights, a feat that’s placed her in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The showbiz philosophy of ‘The show must go on’ demands hustle and energy. Over the Neo-Futurists’ weeklong process, company members will learn lines, rehearse choreography and buy or craft props that may get tossed in the garbage on Saturday night. But they embrace the turmoil. “There will be failure, there will be chaos,” says Neill. “You have to be on your toes as a performer and a person in our tech booth. It’s all a collaboration … and we’re embracing the randomness.”
Perhaps the most surprising trade-off of time for money involves advertising. NEWSical the Musical, for example, has no marketing budget. “We spend nothing on advertising. Zero,” producer Tom D’Angora explains. “Everything we do is in-house. It’s all word-of-mouth.”
D’Angora will be especially busy this summer. In addition to producing NEWSical, Naked Boys Singing, and The Marvelous Wonderettes, he also manages the grassroots operations for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. He sees his two roles—organizing voters and attracting audiences—as identical. “It’s the same skills: You create word of mouth instead of a billboard or a commercial. You get them talking on the streets, you pound the pavement.”
This tactic gets results, not just for politicians but for many of the profitable, long-running shows in New York. In Russell’s view, “there’s never enough money Off-Broadway to do the marketing you want.” She continues, “I think there’s a perception in New York that it’s impossible to make money Off-Broadway. If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and work hard…, it is possible to have a long-running show. And I have to say, it’s a lot of fun!”