Howard Sherman: It’s ‘Broadway’ only in the broadest sense

Broadway theatres. Photo: Martin Durrschnabel
Broadway theatres. Photo: Martin Durrschnabel
Howard Sherman
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. He is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Performing Arts.
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One of the great ironies of the word “Broadway” – certainly one of New York’s, if not America’s, best-known brands – is that it’s not trademarked. While in the US, it is – rightly or wrongly – assumed to represent a certain level and quality of theatre, anyone can use “Broadway” any which way they want. That’s why you can find a Broadway Deli at a casino in Arizona, a Broadway Camp for kids in Michigan, and so on.

The venues that comprise Broadway in midtown New York are limited to only 40 theatres, those which are Tony award-eligible. That means that even some theatres located on the avenue called Broadway aren’t necessarily Broadway theatres. Are you confused yet?

The term becomes even blurrier when you leave New York, as for many any theatre in New York may be construed as being part of Broadway. I often see out-of-town press outlets referring to shows in Brooklyn as playing on Broadway; I also see some regional press releases hungry to connect to the fabled name, pronouncing every new musical to be “Broadway-bound” and any actor who ever appeared in a Broadway show as a “Broadway veteran”. When it comes to national tours, whether or not they’re billed as “direct from Broadway”, they’re usually presented as part of a “Broadway series”.

This last example has resulted in a campaign from Actors’ Equity Association, focused on the origin of such tours. As tour producers have sought to keep costs down, they’ve turned to mounting shows, in some cases with the original creative team, with non-Equity casts.

This wasn’t uncommon in the past, but only after a show had played a first-class national tour, perhaps a second level tour, and a bus and truck tour. Now we see Broadway shows going immediately to major venues cast entirely with performers whose work lives haven’t yet warranted their joining the actors’ union. Examples include Gershwin’s Nice Work if You Can Get it and a current Annie tour.

That's not to say that the casts are untalented or unprofessional

This isn’t to say that the casts are untalented or unprofessional, but it does speak to a level of compensation they’re being denied, as they play touring houses larger than those on Broadway and charge the same as for shows with Equity companies. No question, a big musical will carry a big up-front price if it features a cast paid the current production contract minimum of $1,861 weekly, but compare that with a new tour of the Sams-Lloyd Webber Wizard of Oz looking for non-Equity actors at $455 weekly for a nine-month commitment and only $350 weekly for rehearsal.

This is why, as I read online arts stories in cities like Seattle and Philadelphia, I’m trailed by ads urging me, as a potential audience member, to “Ask if it’s Equity”. For audiences looking for the closest approximation of the Manhattan Broadway theatregoing experience, it’s a fair question.

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