The challenges of recouping on Broadway

Sonia Friedman, who is one of the theatre winners at this year's Hospital Club awards. Photo: Eliza Power.
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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In the recent Stage 100 list, Sonia Friedman was placed 5th – right beneath Cameron Mackintosh.

She's snapping right at the heels of someone who is quite possibly the world's most successful theatrical producer of all time, at least financially speaking, and though she doesn't own any theatres personally (at least not yet), it's one of the few things separating them now in terms of power and influence in the two great theatrical meccas of the West End and Broadway. (Her company, though, falls under the umbrella of ATG, which is of course are top of the Stage 100 list and now owns the largest number of UK theatres as well as one of the biggest theatres on Broadway as well).

In fact, she's outstripping Mackintosh on at least one front: on the Internet Broadway database (ibdb.com), she has some 28 producing credits listed, whereas Mackintosh only has 13 (plus credits for 3 more that he originally produced earlier, different versions of). And Friedman's credits there have, moreover, been collected in the last decade, whereas Mackintosh's have occurred over more than 30 years.

Just last year Friedman told The Observer,

Most producers wait years and years to win a Tony: I’ve done it three years in a row. It’s pretty intoxicating.

And this year, she could well add another Tony to her mantlepiece, as producer of the Broadway transfers of The Globe's double bill of Twelfth Night and Richard III, starring Mark Rylance.

Just last week it was announced that the shows had already recouped their $3.1 million capitalisation (And they're still running in rep through February 16, so there's more money yet to be made). The New York Times noted of the achievement,

Shakespeare is by no means a sure thing at the box office: Starry Broadway productions of Romeo and Juliet (with Orlando Bloom) and Macbeth (with Ethan Hawke) struggled to sell tickets this season.

And the profitability was matched by a notable accessibility: taking its lead, perhaps, from the Michael Grandage Company's initiative of selling a quarter of its tickets across its West End season for just £10, some 250 seats a night at the Broadway Shakespeares – or about a quarter of the theatre – were sold for just $25 "as a means of making Broadway more affordable to theatregoers," in the words of the New York Times

It's indeed thrilling that Grandage and Friedman are both consolidating their efforts around building the audiences of the future, as well as providing beacons of quality; but it also proves that it works. The Broadway Shakespeares have been playing to audiences of 101.8%, while the Grandage season has been playing, across the entire season, to over 92%.

An audience is being challenged as well as changed. As Michael Grandage recently told me in an interview,

You only had to walk into the box and look into the auditorium nightly. In our very expensive seats, there was a lot more white hair. But look at where the £10 seats were, and we could see something different.

Some 30% of those who booked for the Grandage season were first time bookers, too.  But his season also brought in training posts for young directors and designers, created a youth theatre, and did free performances for schools. "Can you do all that, and still give the investors their money back? Well, you can -- because we are going to," he told me, proudly.

Grandage and his producing partner James Bierman made the West End sums work – and created a new template in the process for producing commercial theatre there with subsidixed ambitions. Friedman's work in taking Shakespeare's Globe – itself, of course, our single most successful unsubsidised theatre in London – to the ruthless marketplace of Broadway and turning their shows into must-see hits is partly thanks to the Broadway star status of Mark Rylance, but also the endorsement of Broadway critics who, when it comes to serious theatre at least, are still powerful arbiters of taste.

It was critical power that has also propelled another Broadway star revival, of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, to profitability: it, too, announced last week that it had recouped its £2.6 million capitalisation.

As the New York Times noted,

Only about 25 percent of Broadway shows turn a profit for their investors, and when plays do so, they usually feature Hollywood celebrities in the cast. While The Glass Menagerie has one such star, Zachary Quinto (the recent Star Trek movies) as Tom, the play’s box office has also benefited from strong buzz about the quality of the production and the performances of its four actors.

And some of that success, at least, was British: not in the casting, but the direction of John Tiffany, sets by Bob Crowley, and mvoement by Steven Hoggett.