Just before the Tony Awards, an academic paper found 15 minutes of fame. In it, academics from New York University and Lund University in Sweden asserted that while decorated theatre stars “significantly affect the financial success of theatre shows”, movie stars and celebrities did not.
Welcome to the world of academic analysis of the mechanics of Broadway. This particular paper, Star Turnover and the Value of Human Capital – Evidence from Broadway Shows, was published by the journal Management Science earlier this year and was aired during a radio feature on American Public Media’s Marketplace.
It is full of regression analyses to support the authors’ methods and focuses on the first actor to succeed the originator or a role in a new production. Their findings, which are contrary to conventional wisdom and anecdotal evidence, may be understandable from the categorisation of actors as either movie stars, theatre stars or celebrities. The last is a catch-all from pop musicians to TV personalities.
But these categories are problematic, because if an actor is given the title of ‘theatre star’, they cannot be a movie star or a celebrity. For the purpose of this analysis, Alan Alda is deemed a theatre star, even though his greatest fame was arguably achieved by his role on the TV series M*A*S*H.
Matthew Morrison, despite originating roles in Hairspray and A Light in the Piazza (receiving a Tony nomination for the latter) is deemed a TV star due to Glee, while Jeremy Jordan, a Tony nominee for Newsies and a regular on Supergirl, is categorised as a theatre star.
The study really reveals how problematic it is to define actors by a single medium, since so many travel between the worlds of theatre, movies, TV and even music. It’s exactly why it can be so difficult to predict which actors, in which roles, in which shows, will add up to box office draws.
This study is hardly alone in attempting to create predictive models for Broadway. Other papers on the subject – and surely this just scratches the surface – include An Empirical Study of Factors Relating to the Success of Broadway Shows and Survival of Broadway Shows – An Empirical Investigation of Recent Trends.
Marc Hershberg, an attorney who also contributes to the Forbes website on all matters theatre, garnered attention for his honours thesis When the Lights Go Out On Broadway, which demonstrated an algorithm for analysing how Broadway shows would fare.
One of his conclusions was the exact opposite of the Star Turnover paper. He wrote that, by his analysis “audiences appear to exhibit the expected preference for familiar performers.” He didn’t need to qualify or categorise stardom.
Hershberg used his Forbes platform last year to write about the predictive model of Richard J Wallace, whose algorithm, developed during his doctoral work, led him to declare that the musical Pretty Woman would not recoup its investment. Wallace has now established a consulting firm, Broadway Pro, for those who wish to use his analytical tools.
While financial modelling, data science and analytical rigour are certainly part of the planning of theatre productions, no production has announced that its creative decisions were made according to the numbers. As yet, there is no evident Broadway version of the methods used in baseball, as chronicled by the book and film Moneyball.
Given the cost of producing Broadway shows, it’s not easy to test the assertions using predictive modelling, but only to analyse shows after the fact
Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine any producer who would trumpet that fact, since it would suggest that creativity and art no longer play a role in playing the Broadway game. Also, given the cost of producing Broadway shows, it’s not easy to test the assertions using predictive modelling, but only to analyse shows after the fact.
But for those interested in the science of creating commercial work, there are a number of papers out there, many which cite one another. The papers may have some validity when applied to recent works, but they are ultimately yielding averages of what has worked in the past.
They homogenise outliers like musicals about the creator of the US financial system, travellers who were rerouted to Newfoundland in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, or a teen who finds popularity through the misrepresentation of his relationship to a fellow student who took his own life.
Analysis certainly can have its place and producers would do well to factor such modelling into their thinking. But if Broadway history has shown us anything, it’s that there’s great opportunity in breaking the mould, and perhaps the algorithms, with the spark of genius.
John P Dempsey and Dana Rowe, the team behind The Witches of Eastwick and The Fix, debut their newest musical Blackbeard on Wednesday at Signature Theatre in Virginia. The story of the fabled pirate is staged immersively, we’re told, entirely on a pirate ship. Signature’s artistic director Eric Schaeffer directs.
Hildegard of Bingen was a composer, philosopher, and mystic in 12th century Germany, who would ultimately be sainted for her works. The story of her life is the basis for the new musical In The Green, premiering at Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 venue, opening Thursday. The book music, and lyrics are by Grace McLean, who also appears in the piece, which is directed by Lee Sunday Evans.
Monologist David Cale debuted his one-man musical We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, and that production has now traveled to The Public Theatre, opening Thursday. Cale’s reverie of his youth is once again directed by Goodman artistic director Robert Falls.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/