Russ Roberts

Mitch Weiss on the Business of Broadway

EconTalk Episode with Mitch Weiss
Hosted by Russ Roberts
Earning to Live or Earning to ... They Say the Neon Lights Shine...

Business%20of%20Broadway.jpg Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes at a Broadway show? This week's EconTalk lifts the curtain on the magical world of Broadway: Mitch Weiss, co-author of The Business of Broadway, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his book and what it's like to manage the production of a blockbuster musical in New York City. Topics discussed include the eight-performance-per-week grind, the how and why of creating a Broadway set, the challenges of wardrobes (domestic and international) and the pluses and minuses of unions which are a central part of the Broadway workplace.

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Podcast Episode Highlights
0:33Intro. [Recording date: September 8, 2015.] Russ: So, let's start with your career. How did you get started? And, give us some flavor of your experience--which is quite wide. Guest: I always wanted to work on Broadway. I grew up in New York. I didn't quite know what I was end up doing. I was a piano player, and my first job in summer stock was as a musical director. But the choice was, do I want to be a big fish in a little pond, or am I fine with being a little fish in a big pond? And there were certain people on Broadway that were my idols. Like Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim and Joseph Papp. And I was willing to empty their garbage cans for free. And I went and told them that, and I walked into their offices, and tried to make friends with the receptionists and do everything I could, coming out of college. And eventually got one of those jobs as an Assistant Press Representative. Which, of course, was nothing that I knew anything about, nor understood. Russ: Yeah. Guest: That was a Harold Prince, Stephen Sondheim musical, an award-winning musical called "Pacific Overtures" back in 1976. Great experience. I met a lot of people; I learned a lot of things from life, not just the business. And rather than--even though I still want wanted to stay in the music end--rather than wait on tables, as most people in show business do eventually, I decided to work in producers' offices. And went from there to--because the show didn't last very long. It opened the same year as Chicago and Chorus Line. So it didn't have a chance. I went on to Equus--with the veteran producer Kermit Bloomgarden, who had also produced Diary of Anne Frank and The Miracle Worker. He was a miracle worker. He was an amazing man. And this was his last show--Equus and Pooled Murderer[?], which also was a flop. But I again learned a lot. They used to throw paper at me and say, 'You deal with the investors. Read the prospectus yourself, and if they have questions, answer it.' And that was it. That's how I started to learn it. So, from there it was from one office to the other, while I was still trying to find some way to do music. Russ: But at some point, you became a manager. Which is a--well, a particular kind of manager. There are different kinds, as you detail in your book. Talk about how you get that break and what was the first show you had, that you would say you had a "lot of responsibility" on. And what was that like? Guest: Well, the simple answer is there's a union called ATPAM--the Association of Theatrical Agents and Managers. When I was working for Joseph Papp at the Public Theater, he had to show A Chorus Line--that was his production. At the time the most successful show in history. And I got to work on it, and eventually I got to apprentice, with the manager, on that show. And, at the time you had to take three years of apprenticeship, study all the union rule books, take 18 seminars, and then take a 6-hour oral--I'm sorry, 6-hour written--and 2-hour oral test. Just to be allowed to go and get a job as a Manager. There's so much money at stake that the Union takes it very seriously. So, I--there's good money in doing it, so I decided to follow the path. And I lucked out. My first show was A Chorus Line. It had already been running; but the most amazing show. Everyone loved it. The audiences loved it. There was so much money coming in. We never had a problem because of that money. And I'm still working in the non-profit sector. It was pretty amazing. Just like 6 years into the show, we'd already taken $330 million dollars. This is back in the 1970s. Russ: It's a lot of money even then. Guest: A lot of money. And it was all going back to non-profit theater. It was a lot of fun. We produced 27 new shows a year off Broadway. We did television. We did film. We did free Shakespeare in Central Park. We had a staff of 600. There is no theater like that now and there wasn't one at that time. It was a highlight of not just my life but pretty much of the theater world. So, Chorus Line was the first show I got to actually be a Union Manager on. And, Union Managers are allowed--we're trained to be Company Managers, House Managers--which in other places is called a 'Theater Manager,' I guess. And also Press Agents. We're all allowed to take each others jobs and sub for each other, and--because we know the finances and the ins and outs of our world. We're trained. Russ: And it's a very small group. The number of people who are capable, because they are union membership, to be involved in a management role on a day-to-day basis on a Broadway show, is roughly how many people? Guest: Well, let's start with there are only 40 Broadway theaters. But the union does work across the country, at some of the touring theater companies. Theater houses. But there's a total of about 650 people in the union who are allowed to be a Press Agent, a House Manager, and a Company Manager. And, as I said--if there are only40 theaters and you can hire 3 people for each theater, one runs a theater, one runs a show and one is the press agent. And that means there are a lot of jobs-- Russ: to be filled. Guest: You need a lot more jobs.
7:37Russ: Yeah. A lot of people--well, it's a very competitive business, obviously. Just a few--before we get into the details of a Broadway show, I'd like to get a little more of your taste and experience. Roughly how many shows have you worked on in your career. Guest: I stopped counting at about 180. Russ: Okay. Guest: That includes off-Broadway, and a few regional theater shows. And touring shows. But most of them were Broadway and off Broadway. Russ: So, is Chorus Line your favorite show, still? Guest: Oh, hands down. And everybody on it loved working there. We had great events, great experiences. We had perhaps the best night of theater--certainly that I've ever experienced. When A Chorus Line became the longest running show in history, back in 1983--it no longer is, of course, but at that time no show had run that long--we had a special event that brought in all 450 performers who had ever been in the show anywhere in the world. And they were all flown in, and they all performed the show at the same time, in one theater, for a star-studded audience, just as a press event. And it cost a fortune. The logistics were overwhelming. And everybody worked day and night for days, and everybody was smiling from the stage hands to the musicians. No one had a problem. It was one of those glorious experiences that you get once in a lifetime. Russ: You write in the book that the stage itself was not strong enough to support 450 people. Guest: And we only found that out the day before. Russ: And so, what happened? Guest: The city engineers were there; we had our stagehands; and we went out and bought a whole bunch of lumber. And we reinforced that stage in an hour. They had so many beams underneath it. And everything went fine, at that point. It could have been a catastrophe. Russ: What does it mean, they all performed it at the same time? Guest: Well, it was--the show was slightly re-written to exchange cast members as the show went on, from the beginning through the end. However, in the finale, which is supposed to have the entire cast in it, all 450 people--some of them started in the aisles, some of them started up in the balcony--but they all eventually ended up doing the kick line on that stage. It was staged so that all 450 could fit. Russ: Wow. Guest: It was pretty stunning. Russ: Yeah, that's pretty cool.
10:40Russ: So, how about a show that you wish that you had worked on that you didn't get to? What's your biggest miss that you wish you had a chance to be part of? Guest: Oh, Lord. Probably, Wicked. Again, because people there seemed to enjoy the experience tremendously. It's also a big money maker. There's something to be said for having a lot of money to solve problems. You don't necessarily make more money as an employee. Russ: But the headaches are smaller. Guest: The headaches are much smaller. And you get to do special events. You get to do the public events that make everyone [?], including the audience, stand out. Currently, I wish I was connected to Hamilton. Russ: Yeah. Don't we all. I just bought tickets for May. That's when they start to get somewhat affordable. Guest: Yeah. Right. If it will ever be affordable. But again, that's the public theater. That's a nonprofit that created that show. Russ: What does it seat, by the way? Do you know? Roughly? It's at the Richard Rodgers, I think. Guest: Yeah. It's certainly over a thousand. I would guess, from memory, it's about 1200 seats. Eleven hundred, 1200. It's not like a movie. One of the great things about the Broadway experience is you cannot make a lot of money from a show that only runs a month. Movies go out there--in one weekend they come back with $500 million. Russ: Because they are in 3000, 4000 theaters. Guest: That's right. It's not possible. There was one point at which the producer David Merrick had come up with the idea--he was producing the show 42nd Street. And it was a big hit. And he contemplated opening it in a second theater on Broadway at the same time. And he went through all the logistics of how do we do this and what's it going to cost. And ultimately he decided not to do it. So we had no experience to know if it would ever work. Russ: It's an interesting idea. I want to go back to Wicked for a second. Guest: Yeah. Russ: I was lucky to see it without any expectations. I was in New York with my wife. We wanted to see something. We were looking around, trying to decide what to watch. And it sounded kind of goofy, to be honest. Russ: It was sort of--Oz--we didn't have very high expectations. We had a good seat, though, which helped. And I remember coming out of--at the end of the first act, I was so overwhelmed--I think it's a top 5 pre-intermission number, "Defying Gravity"--I was so overwhelmed I said to my wife, 'We could go home right now.' I mean, this was--I mean, I didn't want to. But it was so spectacularly great, the first act. And when you walk out in the second act, I think it's--I think you said, the largest Broadway theaters are just under 2000. And that must be--it must be in one of those. It must be close to a 2000-seat theater. Guest: Yes. Interesting enough, though, just as an aside: they actually chopped off some of their seats that are hidden behind a wall in that theater. Not a lot of them. It was from the previous show, and they just never un-[?] that, in that theater. I'm sure they could be making a lot more money, but they just decided to leave it alone. They were making enough. And they are. Russ: So, as I walked out I realized: Here--I walked out, just emotionally overwhelmed, exhilarated. And I wasn't alone. There were roughly 2000 people with the same feeling. And I thought, 'What an extraordinary thing. Performed 8 times a week, 16,000 people, for 50 weeks a year.' For now, what--10 years, roughly? How long? Guest: They are on their 12th year. Russ: Given--bliss[?]. I mean, you can go to a baseball game; I love sports; you can see an amazing sporting event. But that theater experience, to deliver that day in, day out, at that level of--it's never like, 'It's okay today.' It's always spectacularly great, when you have a hit like that. There's nothing like it. It's just an extraordinary thing. Guest: Well, actually it's nice to hear you say that. You know, sometimes we feel, those of us who work on Broadway, we feel like critics and the audience aren't enjoying it as much as we are. That it is the kind of thing that where the process is more fun than the actual outcome. And certainly on certain shows that's true. And hopefully they don't last very long. People are always asking: 'How come that one's a hit and this other one wasn't? Why didn't the producer and the director and everybody know'-- Russ: Fix it. Guest: Yeah. And there is, you know, a lot of problems with our process, perhaps, and how we can fix things. Certainly Disney, I will say, came up with their own personal solution about how they were going to fix these things. And that was by committee. They take the show out of town. They usually do one or two different theaters. And basically they are not allowed to fail. Even though they have. They've had some shows that have not done well. But they bring shows in on which they have spent much more than the average producer, because they have corporate money to throw into it to make sure it's a hit. Russ: And it's a totally different strategy, as you point out, than a typical Broadway show. Which is "hit or miss." Guest: Famously, their very first venture on Broadway, Beauty and the Beast, which I got to work on--there was a period of time at the beginning where they were making more money on the merchandise in the lobby than they were on ticket sales--as far as profit goes. Certainly the ticket sales were higher. And they have revolutionized how every show on Broadway now does merchandise. Because we are all learning from them. And they figured it out: 'Hey, if we are doing Beauty and the Beast, we can sell more merchandise even from the movie.' Russ: Trinkets. Guest: Sell more DVDs of the movie. And everything is going to help each other, the kind of synergy department that they have, where one department supports another department, supports another department. And you know, finds a new way to create new product in a fifth department. It's an amazing feature. But since each Broadway show is typically its own corporation and it's very isolated from anything else, most shows don't have that opportunity. They are a hit or miss operation.
18:21Russ: I want to come back for a second--and we'll talk a lot more about the business side in a minute. But I want to just ask you about the emotional side. When you made the remark that when you are on the inside, you don't know if people react to it the way the performers and the people behind the scenes do. And of course, as you say, bad shows don't turn out that way. But when you have a mega-hit, like A Chorus Line, or Wicked, or Les Mis [Les Misérables], you have a mega-hit like that--one thing that your book helps me appreciate is, the amount of stuff that goes on behind the scenes is so complex, from the sets to the wardrobe to the lighting to the electricity to the music, the actual performers, the choreography, etc. And we in the audience, we just watch it. We take it for granted. We don't--but of course, for the people inside, it's a tightrope. There is an emotional tightrope. There is an incredible vulnerability. I think one of the things--if you've ever experienced any theater from the inside, there's an incredible camaraderie because of that vulnerability. There's a fear of failure. There's the exposing of one's self, vocally, physically. Just the--you are out there on stage with thousands of people watching, and things go wrong. And everybody knows that. So, from the inside there's this incredible tightrope experience. And we on the outside go, 'Oh, yeah, that was great. Everything went well.' But on the inside there's that unbelievable roller coaster of emotion. What's it like when that goes on, day in, day out, 8 days a week, for a decade or more? How do the performers--how do you deal with that? Does it change? Guest: It's not just the performers. One of the exciting things about my job--it's probably the best part of my job--is that I know what every single person working on that show is doing: whether their aunt is having a baby, whether their throat is going; whether there is an understudy that will need to go on; whether someone in the box office is sneaking somebody in--which is very impossible to do at this point. I know everyone's personal life. I know who has just had a terrible day because they've lost their aunt--they're going out on stage. I know who has been throwing up in the bathroom. Right up until curtain time. The audience--our job is to create theatrical magic. And that is the exciting part of it. And unlike--and maybe I'm wrong because I have never built a skyscraper--but the difference in my head is, if you build a skyscraper, it's finished. It's totally rented out. Everybody is in there. You are done. For us, we are building that skyscraper daily. And twice a day on matinee days. So you come up with systems that people in our unions with experience have learned to almost take for granted. You walk in, you know you have to be there 15 minutes earlier than you would think you have to be there because you have to make sure a certain part of the stage is swept, because there's extra damage to it every night in the performance. Or, you want to make sure that every single light bulb is still working. That is done before every single performance. Twice a day on matinee days. We do not take that for granted. They are checked; there are ladders pulled out; the floors are mopped. Every detail is taken seriously. Russ: Well, just the props--just making sure that people have stuff to touch and that they are supposed to carry. Guest: Stage at Lion King--you lose your breath. What they have going on there--it's a genius. A genius designed the backstage at Lion King. The Lion King is amazing. And you see it on stage, but it has to go somewhere, and be available somewhere, to make that show happen. So, everyone who is backstage is running around with their talents and their skills. And if something breaks you have to have someone available immediately, either fix it or replace it. By the way: that includes seats in the audience. Once a week there is some seat--somebody sat wrong on the chair in the orchestra on the aisle and they broke the seat and they didn't bother to tell anybody. We have somebody who runs out before the show and fixes the seat. We do not lose a seat; we don't take anyone for granted that way. If we can. Russ: So, when you've had a show, though, that runs for that long--first of all, obviously things go wrong all the time, like the seat breaks or a light burns out or the prop breaks, and you've got to replace it for the next day. Obviously there are headaches--there are constant issues. But at once point--does it ever get to the situation where it's kind of humming along, in your perspective? And then, thinking about the performers' perspective, is it ever like old hat? Just to get out there and just sing and belt it out? Guest: Yes. And no. Both answers. After x number of years, of course. There's something about how your day goes--when you are supposed to be somewhere. You get a little more sense of freedom about when you have to show up at work and what has to be done. However, cast members change. And therefore you have to rehearse. It is required that there be rehearsals every week. If your show is running 25 years, like Phantom you are still rehearsing every week. Not everybody. But the stage managers are pulling understudies in, who were working alongside of regular performers. And they are going over certain songs, or certain--little dance steps that perhaps somebody didn't get right. Because we are always watching. Is this show good enough to be worse that wafting[?] the amount of money that is being charged on Broadway? So, there is a sense of--I may be a little bored with my job today, but give me till 2 o'clock when the phone has been ringing, and I'm sure there will be 300 emergencies that no one was expecting. And we won't even be able to worry about whether we were bored. And that's the truth. It just changes. Russ: So, talk about the performers. They are--as the Manager you've got to deal with, I assume, a lot of egos. Personal quirks. Etc. Guest: You have to be delicate about this. Russ: You have to name names. Guest: Sorry. I'll name them all. Um, actually, I have to say, that one of the joys is that the backstage area, which is not glamorous--it's not like those big movie, musical movies. It kind of humbles everybody. People get nervous in their roles. Sometimes they need their private time to prepare. Certainly in a serious drama. They need to be left alone at certain times. There are times when a shower won't work, or you know, the bathroom has a problem. Russ: Well, they are old buildings, as you point out. Guest: Yeah, most of them are old. They've been renovated to some extent. But-- Russ: They weren't designed for massive special effects like we often have now. Guest: Right. Which is why Lion King and Wicked are in the newer theaters. Because they need that stuff to maintain all of their props and costumes and scenery. But, going back to the performers: Everybody started pretty low down. I'm going to drop a few names. I lucked out when I was in my 20s, of working with and becoming friendly with some very big stars now, who I don't see any more. They've become movie stars. But they were in my living room; we'd go out for coffee. They were in shows. They took the small parts first. I had Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Kevin Klein. These people, when they were young and starting out, they were as excited about this as anybody else. So, yes, they'd become stars. And yes, they have their issues. But most people are not a pain in the butt. They just want to do their job. And then they go home. So, I hate to say--I wish I had more--I will tell you, without naming anyone--I worked on one show where the star, at 5 minutes of 8, or whenever the show was starting, 5 minutes before the show started, every performance would call me in and ask me a business question about the box office. However, that was the time that he decided to get undressed and dressed in his costume. And he would wait until I got there. So that at every performance, he would be getting into costume while I was standing there. Russ: Why?! Guest: I don't know. He's married, with children. It's nothing that seemed to have anything to do with that. You would instantly know his name if I told you; and I will not. And he was delightful. But he had a quirk. And you get used to it. What are you going to do?
29:02Russ: Let's turn to your book, which is a really remarkable compendium of detailed knowledge about the business side. And it's intended as a guide for a would-be producer. But it's a lot of interest to anyone who cares about the theater. I want to start by asking about a set, and set design. So, to my surprise, you point out that all Broadway shows rent a theater, and it's a "four-wall deal". Explain that. Guest: Unlike most regional theaters, or even Branson, MI, which has all of these gorgeous theaters, the Broadway theaters are just empty shells. Certainly they try to keep the seats nice. That's out in the audience. But onstage is a floor. And electrical sockets are along the back brick wall. And that's what you rent. So, your designer gets to start from scratch. Every Broadway show puts its own floor on top of the floor that is the stage that you've rented. Russ: That blew me away. Guest: There's so much, so many tracks and so many things that are moving back and forth and up and down, that they are cutting holes in this stuff all the time. So, in order to protect the theater, that's been the requirement. It's that you cannot--you cannot do anything to our building. You can put things on top of it. You can add things to it. But when you leave, you are taking everything with you. Even if it's an improvement on the theater. Once I worked on--we added balconies over the audience for the actors to be talking from. And we started--great idea! What's the difference? You put some audience in there for the next show. The theater owners said, "Take 'em out. We want the theater the way you took it." Russ: And that includes--which, this also, just shocked me--that includes lights? So it doesn't come with any lights? Guest: No lights at all. Not even enough grid, sometimes. Sometimes you have to add the bars to hold the lights. A Chorus Line, also, was the first computerized lighting show. There had never been a computer used for lights until 1976, 1975, whatever--A Chorus Line. And it was built over the--the reason was that they wanted to highlight the faces of the dancers as they froze in certain positions. And you had to do that from the audience's side. So, they built it, a bar, above the audience. And they computerized it. That show, I think--and I probably shouldn't be quoted--had the most number of lights used to date--it was about 280 lamps. Well, we've created, technologically, great advances in which you can have one light perform the work of 10 lights. By computer. It can change colors. It can change sides. It can move directions. It takes longer to program it. But since every designer is going to have their own ideas of what they need, and they have their own budgets and they have to try to make it fit, they get to come into the theater and put lights wherever they want. And not have to worry about what the theater has. So, I'll put that in a positive light. As opposed to the theater could have given them something. Russ: Yeah. But they give nothing.
32:56Russ: So, I'm going to talk about two sets that were unusual, and I want to ask you a couple of questions about them. So I think in the second act of Les Mis when the barricade comes together: I think in every time I've ever seen it, the audience just applauds wildly. Just for the set. I think it's the coolest thing. And I would also, as another example, use The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Which has a remarkable--and you allude to it in the book--has a remarkably creative set design. So, somebody has to think those up. They have to build them for the theater itself. But then, the show ends. And somebody--the show sometimes goes on tour. Or it crosses the ocean. So, I actually saw a Curious Incident in London. And New York. And I was curious: is the set going to be the same? And of course, I think it was "exactly." I don't know if it was literally was. But to the eye of the audience, it looked exactly the same. How did that happen? Did somebody--did they store the stuff? Did they recreate it? Did they rebuild it each time? Did they fit it to the theater that it's now playing in? Not every theater, obviously, can hold some sets. So that might limit what it tours to. But, how does that work? Guest: They rebuild it. The original design from Broadway is designed to, hopefully, allow the audience a little bit or to be the best it can be. Certainly if you are going to tour the show afterwards, you want to replicate it. But trucks and trucking stuff and the travel time involved is very expensive. So, you have your designer redesign the logistics of how that design is going to look somewhere else. And, as you said, every touring theater has different dimensions. The West End, even on Broadway, very different sized theaters, some of them are raked[?]--meaning they slope toward the audience. Some of the audiences are raked. Where, Hamilton is the audience, on the main floor, in the back of the audience, is higher than it is down by the stage. Every theater is slightly different and has its own characteristic. So the designers--in addition, let me throw in a very important feature. New York City has the most stringent fire code in the world. When, if you light a cigarette on stage, there are two stage hands who have been specially trained and licensed, standing with fire extinguishers on each side of the stage, for that particular moment. Then they go back and do whatever else they are doing. So, when you see, fire or any sort of thing on stage, there is a lot going on backstage. And New York has never had a fire that the audience had to worry about. So, whether it's right or wrong--of course, you can go to Chicago, and you can do what you want. So, you have those issues. And in addition, all scenery in New York is fire-proofed. Every piece of lumber on stage, every wire must have a certification. And you see a big curtain that is scrim or the house curtain at the beginning of the show, costs infinitely more money than just having a curtain. Because it is fireproof; and it must be certified. And the fire department does inspections. Arbitrarily. They give you no warning. They show up 5 minutes before your show starts. And you walk 'em around, and they check everything. And they check paperwork before your show goes into rehearsal. And they make sure that everything that's going into the fore, everything that's going in there, is fireproof. So, the unions, of course, that build this stuff in New York, are not required another[?] either. So, if you do a show in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theater and you want to bring into to New York, you have to rebuild your set with union people-- Russ: From scotch. It's not like you are going to paint it, the old one, then-- Guest: From scratch-- Russ: with the fireproof stuff. Guest: Exactly. You are paying for the whole thing, over. Russ: Wow. Guest: Take it a step further. If you are on the Tony Awards: Tony Awards are a Radio City Music Hall. They are not in your[?] theater. Where are your set pieces? You have to build new ones. It's a fortune. Russ: Yeah. You point out that the Tony Awards are a very mixed blessing sometimes. Guest: Very expensive to be part of. Russ: And then that can kill a show. Right? Guest: Absolutely. It kills more shows than it helps. Russ: It's hard to believe.
38:01Russ: One other technical thing I want to ask you about, which you mention in the book, which fascinates me, is understudies. I saw Les Mis in 1985, and I was so excited to see it. And Colm Wilkinson got these incredible reviews. And we showed up--how we got there is a long story, I'm not going to tell it; I think I may have told part of it before. But we got into the theater with a scalped ticket that put us in the very last row of the theater. And it's a big theater. In 1985. And so we get a little piece of paper in our program, Playbill; and I learned from your book that Playbill has an eternal monopoly on programs on Broadway-- Guest: That's right-- Russ: And that someone is paid a special fixed amount to slip that piece of paper in that says there is going to be an understudy in a particular role. And that the amount they are paid is different for a musical and a drama. Utterly fascinating. Guest: We've had a lot of negotiation over the years. Russ: So, I get to the theater, and a little piece of paper says that the role of Jean Valjean will not be played by Colm Wilkinson; it will be played by Kevin Marcum. So, we're devastated and disappointed. And we saw one of the greatest three hours of my life. I was--unbelievable performance. And I couldn't imagine how Colm Wilkinson could be better. And I was so--as the understudy, you could see, Kevin Marcum was--his face and the number of curtain calls he took--it was very gratifying to see him have his chance. Tragically, he died that night. From a heart attack induced by cocaine. So, it's an incredible example of, again, that roller coaster of emotion. Here's this person, the high point of his life, I'm sure. And dies tragically. But more generally, the question I want to ask is-- Guest: By the way, you've--I'm sure you've read the story just recently with Les Mis. Russ: Yes. Guest: It has lost--same thing-- Russ: Horrible. Guest: Just fell off a balcony. Russ: We don't know the--yeah. Guest: It's a horrible--these things happen. We've had accidents in shows. People have lost legs during rehearsal, when the technology--the roller skating musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber-- Russ: Starlight Express-- Guest: Right. Starlight Express. Their accidents--a wonderful, wonderful performer in one of the Disney Musicals, Adrian Bailey, fell. And he's okay, but he will never perform again, because of that. There have been accidents, of course, in Spiderman, which is a story of course unto itself. And they had to re-do the entire show because of those accidents. And by the way: Interestingly enough, there is a clause for all actors called 'Extraordinary Risk.' And they make a whopping $20 a week more than their salary in order to accept extraordinary risk. If they are asked to climb a ladder, if they are going to fly through the air--$20. That's it. Negotiations are amazing. Russ: But back to the general point, back to the general issue of understudies. So: if you've experienced that, as a theater-goer--the person you wanted to see isn't in the show--it's very disappointing. Although, again, they are always--understudies are awfully talented and often just gloriously wonderful in the role. But you always wonder, like: What happened? Did the person feel like taking a day off? Is two performances a day just too demanding sometimes? I always wondered whether, if I buy a ticket to the matinee am I risking the probability that the stars will not perform? What are the rules of understudies? And tell the story in your book of the person who was always getting ill. And then feeling better. Guest: Well, and because of those stories, because of certain people's rudeness--for the most part; and I'm even going to go as far as saying 99% of performers, will never miss a show if they can make it. It's usually a doctor. Certainly if you are in a show that requires a lot of singing. If your doctor says you have a choice: You either need to take tonight and tomorrow night off and rest your voice, or you are going to miss four weeks from it, or a few weeks from now, maybe never sing again. The managers require serious--you know, you trust people to a certain extent. If they have the flu, they have the flu. But they are trying to come back. I don't know--I think I only know of one story of someone who really wanted to get out of their job. And they are allowed to. They can give notice. If they really want to-- Russ: It's not like a personal day. Guest: No. It's not. They really don't take it. I do know, for example, in A Chorus Line, which we had no real stars. But when people said, you know, like, 'My aunt is getting remarried on this day four months from now. Can I have that night off?' The answer was 'No!' Which, some producers are nicer than that. I thought that was a bit rude, to say no--somebody's been in the show for four years, they are asking for one personal night. But then you have to say Yes to other people. And that's where the problem comes in. So, there is a loss of money, only after a certain point--because you are allowed sick days. Personal days are rarely allowed. Although each actor is allowed to have one now. But it's under certain circumstances: you have to be in the show for quite a while; you have to build up your credits, very much like a frequent flier program. But, for example, your point being, is if he was out, he sick, he was not playing games. Russ: So, you mention there's a vocal captain. Is there a vocal captain for every musical? Guest: Yes. Russ: What does that person do? Guest: They rehearse the voices, the harmonies. You have big choral numbers in which people have to remember what their actual notes are. People get lazy. They start to sing the melody when they are supposed to be singing a harmony, because the harmony is difficult. It will be for an hour a week. The vocal rehearsal will be an hour in which they'll just go over a song that week; and the next week they'll go over a different song. And it's not everybody who has to show up. Russ: But don't they also do some like voice maintenance, physical help for people? It's hard to sing-- Guest: No. No, no. That's a doctor. Russ: Okay. Guest: Medicine backstage. A vocal coach--an actor can hire their own vocal coach, and many of them do. Because doing 8 performances a week is extremely brutal. People say, 'You love singing. What's the big deal?' Guest: Well. Yeah. Some of these shows ask you to sing some amazing notes. And you are not doing one song. You are singing throughout a few hours. Russ: Yeah. If I sang "Defying Gravity," I'd sing it once. Then I'd take a couple of weeks off. Of course, I couldn't sing it. Guest: But you could do it once. Russ: Yeah, I could. With enough preparation, I could do it once. But I couldn't do it twice. I'd need a break. Well, I've noticed most people can sing it once, in my experience. Very few people can sing it like Idina Menzel can.
46:39Russ: Let's move on to the business side. Shocking, but a realistic assessment is that you write that 80% of all Broadway shows lose every penny. That's a tough ratio. Guest: You know, we always say there's the bad news and the good news. Unfortunately the good news really sounds like Las Vegas. If you put a nickel in a machine, of course you are only putting a nickel in. You have a chance of making $1000, let's say. Well, on Broadway, and I'm going to tell you about one real show that exists right now, they are paying 250% per year on the initial investment. So, if you put $10,000 in, you do the math. That's every year, for a show that may run for 20, 30 years. Not bad. Russ: Yeah. In Silicon Valley it's called a unicorn. They are rare but they somehow manage to exist. Guest: That's it. And there are enough of them over time, and they will pay for all your losses--can you afford--everyone always tells an investor, you have to be willing and able to lose the money. To be a Broadway investor, you have to be vetting[?] it. You cannot put your child's college fund-- Russ: Darn! Guest: in a Broadway show. You can put your child in a Broadway show. But not your college fund. Russ: Yeah. Life's trough. Guest: It's very tough. It's very exciting watching that money roll in; and then of course the Manager has to distribute it correctly. That's very difficult. And the audits aren't fun. But the other great thing about the Broadway investment that you don't get elsewhere, I think, in most businesses, is that after the show closes, you continue to make money. So, the show is gone. And when someone does it in Louisville, Kentucky, or a high school does it in California, you are still making money from that. Because you were never buying the play from the playwright. You were leasing it. And by leasing that means a playwright, of course, continues to make money from that show wherever it's done. But because you were the one who helped make that show famous, the playwright owes you the investors and the producer, some of his or her money, over time. And that can be for 40 years. I mean, 40 years of return when you have a hit. Not bad. Again. And that comes from the record album, from any television version of it; if they make a movie. It all comes back, in smaller portions, but it comes back to the original investors. Going back to the bad news, 80% is pretty bad. You really have to love theater. Russ: And as you point out, many times--and I think most people understand this--strangely enough, people don't know which of the 10 shows are going to be the failures. It should be obvious, ex post; but ex ante, everybody thinks that they could have a hit. Guest: Yeah. And Wicked, when it played in San Francisco before it came to New York--they were trying it there--got very mixed reviews. People weren't sure it was going to make it in New York. So you just don't know the opposite way, either. The famous stories of the show A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which is now a staple in musical theater, it played in Washington, D.C. before it came to New York. And it bombed. No one laughed. No one liked it. Critics hated it. The audience didn't like it. And they worked on it; and they fixed it. They brought it to New York and it became a major hit. It happens. Just like in the movies. Russ: A lot of times they fix it and it's still not any good. I saw If/Then when it opened in Washington, D.C. with Idina Menzel. It was fun to see Idina Menzel, but I didn't think it was a very good show. And they knew it. And they changed it a lot. And again, people walked out of that show with a shrug. Unlike the description I gave of Wicked. I talked to a lot of people as I came out and everyone was like, 'Eh, it was okay.' So they tried to fix it; but I don't think it did very well. Guest: It still comes down to the original talent. These shows--if we put a bad set on the stage, if the show was wonderful, it's still going to be a hit. That's my belief. A lot of audiences--I've had people walk out of shows saying, 'But the costumes weren't special.' It's like, 'Really? Is that what you came here to see?' Did you like the show? Was it worth the experience? And people who haven't gone to the theater don't always get it. They don't really understand what it can do for their psyche and their state of mind in life and how it can change their children's lives. Just in understanding how we live, day to day, and how we deal with our other jobs or our real jobs or our families. We learn a lot as well as hopefully have a good time, with a great Broadway show, when it happens. Russ: I like a good costume myself, but it's not a deal breaker. And, by the way, we're not going to get time for it, but your descriptions of how costumes are made and the cost, in the book, is extremely interesting. Again, that's something you don't think about: you have custom-designed clothing for all the actors and cast, just--it's a challenge. Guest: Oh, yeah. It has to survive 8 performances a week, being washed and dry cleaned. The beads have to stay on. They have to be, sometimes, hand made, and then they have to be adapted for the understudy. A very quick story, a very funny story about the Beast in Beauty and the Beast--we were moving the show to Tokyo and Osaka, Japan. And they have their own system there: their own unions. They have a very different way of acting. Everything is very different there. And the Beast was 4'10". So, we had to convince the Vice President-- Russ: I assume that was shorter than the Beast in New York. Guest: Sorry. Yes. The Beast in New York was 6'2", maybe 6'4". I forget. So, the idea was, you don't just tell Japan, 'You must use the same costume because Disney requires all costumes to look the same, wherever it goes.' We had to explain that to the Vice President. And it took a lot of explaining. The designer had to come in and redesign the entire thing to look correct and to have the correct effect on a short person. Russ: Wow.
54:15Russ: So, on the--the other impression you get from reading your book is the complexity of the union world. There are minimums all over the place; there are special rules all over the place. There are special rules about who can do what, touch what. Teamsters unload the truck with the scenery on the sidewalk but they won't take it into the theater. Etc., etc. The minutia of it is really quite extraordinary and fascinating. Guest: And that's why, maybe unlike other businesses--I can't be sure--but that's why the Manager, why I'm so proud of having been the manager, because it's our job to know this or else the penalties are-- Russ: Severe-- Guest: amazing. Plus, you want everyone working with you, all 200 of them, to enjoy the jobs so they give you a whole bunch of extra time and freebies; and they come up with ideas that somebody else wouldn't have thought of, to help save you money or to make the show better. You get all of that when people enjoy working on a project. And even though there may be $15 or $16 million behind the project, that also the managers are responsible for, to make sure it's spent correctly, to know where it went--by the way, that's the other fun part of my job. In eight weeks I get to spend $15 or $16 million dollars. And it's my job to spend it all. And we get to opening night, and then we've got to, every week, worry about the next amount of money. It's a lot of fun, except it's exhausting. Russ: And again, I don't think anybody on the outside has any idea of this, but, you just think, 'You just go advertise. You put an ad in the NY Times.' But it's very much like a startup. The cash flow is crucial. And if you don't manage it correctly, you die. Guest: Yes. And there are rules all over the place. For example, in the NY Times--it happens all the time--press agents get yelled at: 'Why aren't we in the NY Times more?' Well, the reason is because they have a rule. And if they like your press agent, they will give you one article, the week before you open; and that's it. You don't get any more. Unless, if someone dies or something that's news. But people keep thinking that the newspapers and the online bloggers want to help Broadway. They don't. They are in business to sell their papers or their blog or whatever else they are doing. And you've got your press agents out there who are trying to trick them into talking about your show. Russ: Yeah, that's how it works. Guest: And that's where you have to start. Idina Menzel--you went to see If/Then. If I just told you, 'There's a show, If/Then,' you might not want to go. Russ: No. She carried a lot of weight there. Guest: Oh, she did. And that poor show--I almost had money in that show. I did not. But they kept that show running for quite a while. Isn't that nice? That's the Manager who did that. The wonderful General Manager. She just has this knack for understanding how to keep a show running. And that's the other thing that you want your managers to be able to do, is to bring their experience to survival on Broadway. Because so many shows are going to lose all their money.
57:45Russ: So, I want to come back to the unions. So, there are all kinds of rules, obviously. Again, as an outsider you have no idea of how many rules there are. Things like minimum number of musicians and minimum pay for the person, again, for the person who puts the little notice in the Playbill, etc., etc. And the upside of that--you mention in the book--is that there's very little negotiation. Of course, these are minimum. Some people do negotiate for a higher pay. But I assume a lot of performers--dancers and musicians--get the minimum. Guest: Correct. Russ: So, the upside of that is you don't have to negotiate it, and it's all understood. But presumably some of those salaries are set a little higher than they have to be. Which creates a supply of people desperate to get at those opportunities, that in a more negotiated or free market there would be lower salaries, and presumably, possibly lower ticket prices. Talk about--what do you think of the plusses and minuses of the unions, that environment, which is very New York, as you point out, it's very unusual. Guest: Well, you are talking to someone who, having worked with all these unions--and there are 18 of them, just to scare everybody away. And they all have rulebooks that are a hundred pages or longer, with tiny print. And they've all been negotiated. There's an association, the Broadway League, which represents the theater owners and producers. And so they negotiate on one side. And then, of course, each union, one at a time, negotiates on its own behalf. Very little changes, actually, from one negotiation to the other. But as with the history of unions, in the old days, there were knee caps broken; there were people's lives that were lost. Actors were not paid. Producers left town without paying them at all. And you know, an actor wants to be in a show. So if you say, 'You know what? We're just collecting our money; we'll pay you on Wednesday,' what are they going to do? They are going to go out and be unemployed? Of course they are going to do the show again. And this not only happened to actors. It happened to stagehands and musicians. At a certain point, the unions said, 'You know what? We want a pension. We want health care. And we understand, we have so many people who love working in the theater, that you are not going to give it to us.' So everybody kind of got together and said that it would be a basic minimum; we would have health care; we would have pensions. There's not much more that these unions are doing, for most of their workers. These rules have been created not to hurt the theater, but because the people who know how to put this stuff together, it saves money for the producer. We've learned that if you let the musicians and the actors, during a rehearsal, take lunch at a different time, it saves you money. No one is sitting around waiting for the other one to be ready. If you figure out that we need to take photos for the press and we need to fit it in around rehearsals, they've come up with the times when it's free, and how many times it's free. Because it will save the show money. If the show wants to do something outside the rules, it can do it. It just costs money. And it would cost money anyway. Russ: Do you think--so, one of the things you mention is that, you use, often--I assume maybe always--use a payroll company that's very versed in the minutiae that we are talking about here. Guest: Right. Russ: So that, for the manager, dealing with this is something that I'm sure takes a lot of experience, but you get used to it. And it's kind of like you discuss in the book--it's just the way things are. That's the way it is. Do producers feel that way, you think? Guest: No. Of course--that's part of--it's a small reason why I'm proud of the book, is, it's not my job to convince America that unions are the answer to everything. Not even going to start that argument. Okay? But, on Broadway, the rules make it possible to put on an unbelievably intricate project in the shortest period of time with the best talent that America or the world perhaps has to offer. They all come here. So, for the Manager--that's what we do in our apprenticeship. And in our seminars. We are learning these rule books. Of course, we don't memorize them. You have the rule books with you. You can always go back and refer to it. Even the doormen backstage--for me, in the theater, he's not getting paid that much; I'm happy he has some health care. That's really the basis of all of this. Now, how much does he get paid, what happens if he's only willing, if he's the nephew of the theater owner and he's only willing to work 8 hours a week? Well, you have to have some rules, what's that worth? Because we're not going to sit around negotiating. So, that's been figured out for us. We just look it up, and you pay it. Russ: So, that's some of the up side. I wonder-- Guest: Sorry. Back to--producers all think, at least the famous story, which I think is changing now, was that the reason for the high prices on Broadway were the stagehands. And the musicians. And, having been the person who writes the budget, who follows the budget, maintains the budget, and who has on a day-to-day basis runs the show--that's the Manager: That's not true. And when I tell you that there's a show on Broadway making 250% a year for its investors, that's great. But there's not a penny more being paid to anyone working on that show. So, the question becomes: Who are you hurting? And, who is greedy here? And I'm not saying I don't want those investors to make a lot. I want them coming back. [?] Russ: When you lose 8 out of 10, you better have some winners. Guest: Thanks! Absolutely in agreement with you. Russ: Yeah. Guest: But you also need to have the best talent willing to be there. And New York is very expensive. They need to be able to live. And if you have a person working on wigs for a show like Wicked, which has a lot of wigs--there are some other shows. And they are going home and at the age of 35 still live with 3 other people in a broken-down flat in Brooklyn, and you are working at the top of the chain of the theater world, there is something a little embarrassing about that. When they are putting in 54 hours a week-- Russ: Yeah. I think the question is, in the absence of the complex labyrinth and set of rules and minimums, what would happen in the absence of that? And I--may be a great [?] maybe would still go home to a shared flat. But maybe not. It's hard to know. One thing I would worry about--and by the way, you can tell, I'm a big fan of Broadway. So, you can't say it's broken. It's working, either in spite or because of all this complexity. But I think one thing to think about, and it's a similar issue in the movie world, for, I think, different reasons, but--it's hard to make a small show. Small shows struggle. The shows that I think get staged are often the grandest shows that can cover all the fixed costs of overcoming all these issues. And maybe it just wouldn't be any other way, because it's New York City, and the costs are just too high no matter what. But it is an interesting thing that people want a blockbuster. They don't want to make a modest amount of money for a decent amount of time. I guess an exception would be something like Once--the show. The show, Once is, the show--it's an incredibly simple stage, very talented musicians carried the show, and two star performers make it work on top of that. And it's a clever show. And it's magical; it's a wonderful, wonderful show. But it's not--it's not Phantom, and there's no chandelier moving around. You are not landing a helicopter on stage. But I do think there is a bias on Broadway, for a bunch of reasons, not just the ones we are talking about, toward a blockbuster. Guest: What you are talking about though, it changed. I believe I lived through this. I saw it happen. When Disney and Cameron Mackintosh produced on Broadway, the standard changed. Russ: Yup. Guest: How we had to compete, because the tourists--not necessarily New Yorkers--you know, Broadway used to be a very elitist, New York thing, with a few tourists chiming in. A big hit show like My Fair Lady ran a couple of years. Russ: Right. It's a different thing now. Guest: Very different. Now they are running 20, 25 years, because of tourists. Not because of New Yorkers. Russ: They never should--they never should have cleaned up Times Square. This wouldn't have happened. Guest: It seems to be sliding back. Russ: Yeah, I noticed. Guest: No, you are absolutely right. And that was thanks to the theater owners, by the way. Russ: I know. Guest: Clean it up. Because New York wasn't.
1:07:55Russ: Well, Mitch, we're overtime. I want to close with a related question. I'll let you finish us up. There are a lot of ups and cycles on Broadway. We just talked about one, the role of the blockbuster. Now we have Hamilton--it's hip hop, I'm sure it's going to have some effect on what else people think might succeed. There are always shows being revived. There are always people saying Broadway is dying; there are no good shows. Then something like Hamilton comes along. Or Next to Normal, that's a very different show than the mainstream shows that people have expected; or Rent, which is a transformative show--that just changes the way people thing, what might succeed. Reflect on that, those cycles and trends in your experience and what you think might be coming. Guest: Well, if I had--first of all, if I had that answer, I would take every penny in value and jump in. The--it does run on a 10-year cycle. There are shows of certain--we go through juke-box musicals; we go through the Andrew Lloyd Webber serious musical phase. We go through just fluff. You know--different choices, at different times. It reflects our society and the politics and the economy. Certainly when 9/11 hit, we just needed fun. Everyone--Broadway survived basically because it entertained people. There wasn't much room for a serious drama. That's no longer the case. We have some amazing shows. I don't know what the next step is. Sometimes we overdo it with revivals because it's easy money: you already know what this show is about. You have to decide if the tourists matter more than the New Yorkers, whether you are doing it for art. And there are producers who do it for art and luck out by making money. And you want to basically guess what our society's going to become. It's really hard to know. The great thing--as I said, for me, working in the theater--I don't have to worry about whether or not it's going to survive. It's--first of all, it's blooming. I've never seen it like this. We are making a fortune. Of course, those premium priced seats, which I am one of the few people on Broadway totally against--I just see it as greed. But people are willing to buy it; and that's our marketplace. Russ: It may sustain a few shows that might not otherwise make it. You never know. Guest: Although that doesn't happen, because people-- Russ: It's only the best shows-- Guest: [?] don't care if they have to spend extra on those shows. So they may have those prices available, they are not selling. It's scary. I don't want Broadway to become the airlines, where we start charging--you want a seat in this row versus that row. And I know it's being discussed. We'll see where it goes. Hopefully we're still out there to say we can make money off of really entertaining drama and musicals, and sometimes even make art along the way, and help our culture. It still is a cultural institution. And most of us who are working there believe that. We just, at the same time, would like to keep our jobs and make some money. It's in fact a combination. So, I don't know if I can answer your question, Russ. If you have an idea of where it's going, tell me. Russ: Well, you know, I don't know, either, of course. 'I don't know,' is my favorite phrase.

COMMENTS (7 to date)
Ed Dentzel writes:

I worked in live entertainment for over ten years so I found this show particularly interesting and enjoyable.

However, it seems the theater world is no different than every other business sector where big business loves the rules and regulations, and small firms have to fight paperwork just to open for one day. I'm glad Russ pushed back against Mitch's assertions regarding the unions and their alleged benefit. The monopoly on talent and skill held by the union does nothing but keep more shows out of the marketplace--and that's not a benefit to the theater lover. It's only a benefit to the people already in the crony capitalist system.

Joe Torben writes:

Interesting and fun. Thanks!

But I do have to point out one thing. At slightly after 57:45, Russ says:
"So, the upside of that is you don't have to negotiate it, and it's all understood. But presumably some of those salaries are set a little higher than they have to be. Which creates a supply of people desperate to get at those opportunities, that in a more negotiated or free market there would be lower salaries, and presumably, possibly lower ticket prices."

No. Just no. High ticket prices allow for high costs. Not the other way around. Quite unusal for Russ to commit such a basic error.

This is of course not an argument for union rules, regulation or anything like that. That is wrong for other reasons, one of them being what Ed Dentzel pointed out above. But it doesn't lead to higher ticket prices.

Russ Roberts writes:

Joe Torben,

I'd like to understand the "basic error." My idea is based on supply and demand. When costs are lower, suppliers are willing to supply the good at lower prices so competition among them pushes price down. Similarly, when costs go up, prices rise. Of course, Broadway is not a perfectly competitive market. But even with monopoly, rising costs increase the profit-maximizing price.

If you have a different explanation for how prices get set, happy to hear it.

Michael Byrnes writes:

I think Joe Torben's argument was that producers will charge whatever price that the market will bear. Since the market will bear current prices, falling costs won't lead to lower prices.

What is the counter argument?

Russ Roberts writes:

Michael Byrnes,

The "price the market will bear" doesn't just depend on what customers are willing to pay but also on what suppliers are willing to accept. The latter is a function of costs. More here or here.

Michael Byrnes writes:

Ah, OK, that makes sense and your links help. Also, I missed your reference to the profit maximizing price in your first reply, I agree that would fall if costs fell.

I still am a bit skeptical in this (theater) case though. In addition to Broadway not being a monopoly, my intuition says that theater tickets are set below what an economist would calculate as the profit-maximizing price. (I base this on the existence of ticket scalpers and a robust secondary market for tickets.) I assume that they get some tangible benefits out of this - more packed houses, more "buzz" from "shortages" of tickets at the list price, etc. Anyway, if they are priced below the profit maximizing price and that price falls, they may or may not cut prices. Maybe instead falling supply costs would lead to worse business for ticket scalpers as list prices get closer to the profit maximizing price and there is less surplus available for them to go after?

Jay Stannard writes:


You forgot to pitch him on Keynes vs. Hayek: The Musical. I'm thinking a Brigadoon-esque flashback scene where the two listen to a solo of Adam Smith with a heavy brogue.

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