Last week on News and Notes I was feeling morose. This week on News and Notes, I'm feeling pretty happy. This has nothing to do with current events or anyone's analysis/opinions on those current events. Maybe it's because October is coming, and that means it's time for horror to be back in vogue (it's one of my favorite genres; I'm not sure what that says about me). Maybe it's because I just discovered that Ben and Jerry's has a new bourbon ice cream (I'm pretty sure I know what that says about me). Who can really say?
Since I'm feeling so positively, annoyingly optimistic today, before we dive into the murky world of arts financing, let's look at something nice, shall we? Britain's merry old Royal Shakespeare Company found itself getting plenty of positive press coverage for putting together a season with all female directors. It's a first for them, and a positive example for the rest of the theater world, and they keep claiming that they just stumbled into it without realizing it.
I wanted to share that, because we here in the Minnesota have some new leaders who are actively thinking about such things, and the Star Tribune just published an interview with Sarah Bellamy and Sarah Rasmussen that reveals some of the good that can be done when women get to be leaders, too.
Now, get your spreadsheets ready, and let's analyze some cash flows!
Big bucks for big tunes!
Dust off your jazz shoes and roll out your sheet music, kids! Musicals are big business once again! After years wandering the darkness, the song and dance factories on Broadway are suddenly setting attendance and income records left and right. Now that Lin-Manuel Miranda has taught us all that a musical can be cool, and the Disney corporation has chopped and channeled the craft of creating stage musicals into a cruel and exacting science, people are making fat stacks of cash from all that singing and dancing and emoting and stuff.
Probably not you, though. As in Hollywood, professional politics, corporate finance, and just about any realm where a lot of cash is sloshing around in dark corners, most of it will flow to the top. Let's look at a random example. Let me just pull a completely arbitrary show out of this hat here, and… Oh, look, it's Hamilton. Weird. We were just talking about that. Anyway, much ado was made over the original cast fighting for and winning a cut of the royalties; but, at the end of the day, Lin-Manuel Miranda made about 60 times as much as those cast members put together, and will continue to do so until Hamilton disappears from the stage or the sun explodes in the sky, whichever happens first. (I'm betting on the sun.) But, hey, incredibly lopsided income disparities are all the rage these days, and it's Miranda's job to be on the cutting edge of what's popular and cool.
Though, I guess I can't blame the guys at the top for taking as much as they can this time around. As recently as just a few years ago, investing in a musical by anyone whose name didn't start with "D" and end with "-isney" was pretty much considered a fool's errand. (Bloomberg news described it as "a fun way to lose a lot of money".) A 2015 analysis of recent Broadway history by longtime producer Ken Davenport revealed that 4 out of 5 musicals lost money, regardless how much or little critical praise they got. Given the breathless, obsessive coverage of weekly grosses on Broadway, it's easy to see how easy it is for Broadway investors to be misled about their chances.
When that money train finally rolls into the station, you gotta hop on as quick as you can.
So, get ready for the onslaught of new musicals. Disney already had a bunch of arcane machinery dedicated to extruding its vast grab bag of intellectual properties into profitable stage shows (The Lion King holds the crown as the most profitable piece of theater ever created by mankind), and they're going to be stepping it up into the next gear. As they go through the motions of converting all their old animated musicals into live action remakes so heavy on CGI that I find it amusingly ironic to call them "live action", they are also pushing their top numbers onto the stage. Hence, Frozen is already lurching its way through out-of-town tryouts.
But they're not the only ones. Producers are scrambling to slam together musicals based on every well-known property they can secure rights to (in spite of the terrible lessons that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark should have have taught us all). Next up are adaptations of Spongebob Squarepants and Mean Girls. Hell, we don't even need the "theater" part of the "musical theater" anymore. Bruce Springsteen is coming to Broadway, and tickets are already in the secondary market for $8,500.
But, pity the poor play. Caught between the musical juggernaut and the rise of immersive theater shows like Punchdrunk's famous Sleep No More (and now, apparently, Icelandair's terminal in Reykjavik) straight plays on Broadway are having a harder time drawing in all those tourists. Unless a play's producer falls into the lazy trap of stunt casting (er, I mean "star" casting), it's pretty much a given that they will lose money. Even reviving past tried-and-true hits is becoming too pricey. And look at Punchdrunk over there, so smug with their success that the next show they're making can only be seen by 864 people across its entire run. Stupid jerks.
Enjoy the run while you can, gang, because America's interest in musicals has waxed and waned throughout the decades. It is inevitable that the US will get bored again with musicals and wander on over to some other shiny object, especially if the corporate calculators continue to come to the conclusion that we only want reboots and adaptations of old properties. (The movie industry is learning that painful lesson right now.) To make something longer lasting, our musical theater creators will need to be seriously dedicated to making new and innovative works, even if the odds of making money in the short run are lower. Long-term sustainability is an entirely different beast from short-term profits, and it takes visionary artists to create the next big thing.
Three decades ago, a man had a dream to make a disco-influenced acid-trip of a show about cosmic trains competing with each other on roller-skates. Sure, they laughed! "Andy," they said, "It'll never work! Why not pump out a sequel to Phantom of the Opera instead?" But that man persevered, and history has made its decision. The easy cash-in sequel to a well-known property was a miserable failure, while the oddball, out-of-left-field work of art Starlight Express has been running non-stop for over thirty years.
Well, in Germany, anyway.
Name it after me
But, that's all in the for-profit world. Come away with me on a magical trip to non-profit land, where unpaid internships grow wild and free, and literally dozens of dollars can be yours for the asking!
The nonprofit arts world derives much of its lifeblood cash not necessarily from ticket sales, but from government and foundation grants and those sweet rich people who like to see their names put on things. This has the theoretical upshot of allowing artists to worry less about chasing the lowest common denominator to fill seats and more about our own artistic and philosophical leanings. Of course, that has the downside of the occasional culture war. For some reason, people on the conservative end of the spectrum can't get behind arguments about race and equity in casting and pop-up gay porno theaters, and it sends them screaming into the offices of their elected representatives.
So, you might expect that those wealthy donors to the arts to be all over on the liberal side of things, but that expectation would be disastrously wrong. As it turns out, rich conservatives donate a hell of a lot of money to nonprofit arts organizations. Truly, the urge to have one's name on a plaque in a lobby somewhere knows no political boundaries; whether your name is "Soros" or "Koch", it just feels nice to have a building named after you.
It's all part of the rich history of arts patronage, which has fueled the arts world since time immemorial. Ever since we invented the idea of one person having waaaaaay more money than they could possibly morally justify, that person has sought to trade in a bit of that money for something even more valuable: social standing. Nothing says, "I'm a very valuable person," more than having the big arts building you're attending slathered with your own name.
So, artists, since you've got the rich conservatives in the bag, more or less (and probably always will), have you given much thought to the less-well-off ones? You don't have to give up on the pop-up gay porno theater—you gotta be you—but there is a huge segment of the American population that we regularly write off. Over at the Clyde Fitch Report, Duncan Webb has been working on a series exploring this very issue. This month, his entry concerns reaching these people where they actually are instead of insisting that they schlep on over to our grand cultural palaces named after rich donors.
Before I go, I would like to remind you that next week News and Notes will be taken over by the first of four guest writers. So, I get the week off, and you get to enjoy news and opinions from Taous Khazem. I'll see you again in two weeks!