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Wilmington Plays on a Big Stage

Sitting in my hotel room in New York after the first day of DINER rehearsal, I have been thinking about how long the process is for developing a new musical for Broadway. Musicals, more so than straight plays, take a long time to develop. The collaboration between bookwriter and composer is in itself, a process - discussing the style of the music; where and when a song fits in a scene; what the song says better than dialogue can say. It takes years of writing and re-writing, doing readings and workshops to hear how it sounds and getting some feedback from others, then at least one, but more likely two or more, regional theatre productions to see how it plays with an audience and work out technical details; and then more rewriting.

And when you are finally where DINER is in its development process today, how important the 'landlords' (the Broadway theatre owners) become. There are 40 Broadway theatres with 500 or more seats in the Broadway theatre district as well as Lincoln Center. Seventeen of them are owned by the Shubert Organization, 9 owned by the Nederlander Organization, 6 by Jujamcyn Theatres, 3 by the Roundabout, (a non-profit theatre company), and a handful of individual owners. The Broadway theatre district runs from 40th Street to W. 54th Street and from Sixth Avenue to Eight Avenue, although there are two Broadway theatres west of Eighth Avenue. It includes Times Square.

The theatre owners are first and foremost, real estate owners. They have contracts with the box office and front of house staff, the stage hands and musicians, all of whom work for the theatre owners, who rent their theatres to tenants whom they believe will be long-term and pay their rent regularly. Rents are fixed fees plus a percentage of box office, so the better the box office, the better the rent. And when a show closes, it can take a couple of months to get another one into the theatre, so no rent for those weeks even though the theatres still have operating costs. So the landlords always have back-ups who have to have their casts and financing ready to go. It’s a big balancing act by all involved. Stars can fall out because they get a film offer or they just can’t hold themselves out for long. Backers can get tired or have “a reversal of fortune.” And the theatre owners are trying to determine which shows will really work for the New York audiences. So having a wonderful regional production of DINER at DTC is crucial to the process of getting it to Broadway.

The ‘landlords’ will want to come and see the production and make sure it is ready for Broadway and that it “works.” Then they will try to figure out which of their theatres best suits the show and when it might become available. Sometimes, they may even like a show so much that they will invest in the Broadway production. The president and vice president of the Shubert Organization came down from New York and saw our production of MAURICE HINES IS TAPPIN' THRU LIFE and called and offered us a 499 seat theatre on 50th Street, just west of Eighth Avenue. Because it is 499 seats, it is considered an “Off-Broadway” theatre, which has financial advantages, yet its geographical location is just one-half block from WICKED and FUN HOME (last season’s Tony Award- winner for Best Musical). So it is a very desirable theatre and was available immediately allowing the show to transfer quickly and keep its momentum from the DTC production. They (and I) felt that a smaller, more intimate theatre was better for Maurice because so much of his appeal is his connection with the audience. If Maurice’s show had to wait for a Broadway theatre to open up, it could take months before it could be done.

The moral of the story is that the theatre owners need to be brought into the process early so they can monitor the progress of a new musical, and also let producers know whether they are even interested. The hope is that they always have your show on their mind and are thinking about where it might fit, and hopefully, when the show is ready, the balancing act all comes together. After all, as the landlords, they take as much risk with their real estate as the producers and investors take with their money.

Bud Martin

Executive Director

Delaware Theatre Company

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