Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Entertainment ecosystems, part 2: The Broadway Channel

Posted by metaphorical on 30 January 2008

… we speak of things that matter,
With words that must be said,
“Can analysis be worthwhile?”
“Is the theater really dead?”

    — Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel

I argued in an earlier post that the music industry was killing off its ecosystem. Well, theatre has never had much of one, and it’s killing off what little it has.

Back in December, Carroll Senior High School, in Dallas, Tx., mounted a production of “The Phantom Of The Opera.” It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. As the local NBC station reported,

R&H Theatricals, a division of The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, has selected Carroll Senior High School as one of six pilot productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s acclaimed musical in anticipation of its eventual release into the community, regional and school theatrical market.

“While there are no plans at this time to release Phantom to the stock and amateur market, we want to be fully prepared for when that great day arrives,” said Charlie Scatamacchia, Vice President for R&H Theatricals. “What we learn from the production at Carroll Senior High School and five other sites we’ve chosen will help us with the process of bringing the longest running musical in Broadway history to theaters across the country.”

Working from the very same script and score that is currently being enacted every night on Broadway, in London’s West End, and on U.S. National Tour, the production here at Carroll Senior High School along with the five other pilot productions will provide R&H Theatricals with the roadmap for future local stagings of “Phantom” across America.

Phantom is a very carefully managed theatrical property. And it’s wealthy beyond belief. It’s the exception. It opened in London in 1986 and is still playing in the same theatre there. It opened in New York in 1988, and is still playing at the Majestic Theater, 20 years later, the longest run in Broadway history, and the only current show to run permanently in other cities as well.

“’The Phantom Of The Opera” has been produced in hundreds of cities in more than 20 countries around the world, and seen by an estimated worldwide audience of 80 million people to date. It has received more than 50 major theatre awards, among them seven Tony Awards including Best Musical.

Phantom spun off a movie in 2004. Of course, the play is loosely based on the classic 1925 movie, itself adapted from a classic 19th century novel. Phantom is a phenomenon. It’s also the exception.

Playbill calls it the “the most successful stage musical of all time.”

The Phantom of the Opera has worldwide ticket sales exceeding $3.2 billion (surpassing the highest grossing film of all time, “Titanic,” which has grossed $1.9 billion worldwide) and has been seen by over 100 million people. The winner of seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the New York production has been seen by over 10 million people and grossed over $550 million.

A top play on Broadway will break $1 million in ticket sales, and a great week on Broadway would be $20 million across 30 shows. A single movie will routinely break $20 million in its first week.

A studio spends $10 or $110 million making a movie and then an equal amount to promote it. In only a few weeks we go from having never heard of a movie to knowing quite a bit about it — for values of “we” that go as high as 300 million people. Oceans 12, a truly awful movie, cost $110 million and grossed $125 million.

What a studio is doing in those few weeks is creating a brand. And it pays off. The initial marketing creates reviews, word-of-mouth recommendations, blog comments — in general, mindshare. And the brand, in turn, generates ticket sales, foreign ticket sales, DVD sales and rentals, and, at least occasionally, a bidding war among television stations to air it, McDonalds give-aways, toys, and, last but not by any means least, sequels, remakes, and television shows (e.g., Buffy the Vampire Slayer and In the Heat of the Night). It’s fair to say that “Titanic,” “Mission Impossible,” and the James Bond series are all multi-billion-dollar enterprises.

And it’s not just the top movies. Here’s a really unscientific comparison to describe what I mean. Search for “God Grew Tired of Us,” which won a jury prize at the 2006 Sundance festival, and you get 145,000 hits. Of course they may not all be about the movie, but a spot check suggests at least the first 800 are. By contrast, “I Was Tom Cruise,” which was an Outstanding Play winner at the 2006 Fringe NYC festival has a mere 9830 hits.

What theatre does, by and large, is create brands that it then just wastes. Phantom has not. It is the exception.

Yet look again at Phantom’s stats. Its New York ticket sales of half a billion dollars, over the course of 20 years, are far less than Titanic achieved in a matter of months.

And its rights-holders are only now getting ready to “release Phantom to the stock and amateur market,” as Scatamacchia put it. What that means is that for 22 years, high schools and amateur and regional theatre companies have not been able to mount productions of it. They can’t even get the scripts, or sheet music, or information about building the sets. In fact, they have no clue what the show even looks like without traveling at least to Las Vegas to see one of the few licensed live productions of it.

And that’s true for most Broadway shows (except the Vegas part). It’s why “The Wizard of Oz” and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” are performed so often by high schools, and “Rent” and “Phantom,” enormously popular among teenagers, aren’t. It’s easy to secure the rights, scripts, and music for the one, and literally impossible to get them for the other.

Theatre survives and even thrives in New York and London because it attracts money from around the world. The most coveted orchestra seats can sell for hundreds of dollars now because rich tourists and sheiks are willing to pay for them. But in the same way that major league baseball needs the minor leagues and pro football needs the NCAA, theatre cannot flourish as a key element of our culture if it is fat and healthy only in two cities on on the planet.

Without a farm system of schools and summer camps, amateur groups and regional companies, without off-off Broadway and off-Broadway, where will future actors and directors and stage managers come from? Without a farm system, where will new scripts come from, and who will stage them?

Theatre has cut itself off from any possible ecosystem. It needs high school students turned on by theatre, learning its language and history, its great designs and performances. Any budding 15-year-old with a videocamera can rent “Citizen Kane” for $2.99 and see Welles’s groundbreaking ideas about cinematography. But if that kid wants take up her sketchpad after listening to the soundtrack to Phantom, where does she go to see its legendary set designs?

Does anyone at The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization really think that a high school production of Phantom will do anything but whet a Texan’s appetite for the real thing? To be sure, it’s possible that a really bad production would turn people off. But not only would those people probably not have ever gone to see Phantom in Las Vegas or New York or London, but we can extend the question. Does anyone at The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization really think that a videotape of a New York performance would do anything but whet a viewer’s appetite for the real thing?

And so I propose The Broadway Channel.

Broadway — and live theatrical performance in general — needs its own cable network. Take two cameras, one wide-angled and fixed, and the other one closeup on the singers, and film every show on Broadway, and every off-Broadway show as well. Show them on The Broadway Channel. Make it a vehicle for selling scripts, sheet music, and set designs. Put clips up on YouTube.

Broadcast the NYC Fringe Festival, and the Edinburgh one as well. Cabarets and nightclub acts come and go — lift them from the depths of ephemera by recording them for posterity. The ones that have a strong viewership on The Broadway Channel have a strong case for being reprised.

Run a contest for best high school productions of a drama and a musical, with prestigious judges from Broadway, the winning tape to be shown on The Broadway Channel. Create Broadway Idol, an American Idol limited to show tunes and with judges who know and care when someone is off-pitch.

Be creative. And create an ecosystem.

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8 Responses to “Entertainment ecosystems, part 2: The Broadway Channel”

  1. ClaireDePlume said

    My mother would shake your hand, Meta. In the 50′s (and somewhat in the early 60′s), I believe she went to nearly if not every Rogers & Hammerstein musical produced in England, not to mention just about every play by Shakespeare either live or on the BBC daily (ironic considering we could glance out our living room windows at the Avon River behind our house). When we first arrived in North America way back in the 60′s, my parents were disappointed that no one “here” ever went to the theatre. Live plays & musicals they found, were both scarce and costly.

    On a trip to England in 1969, the long draught was not over as my mother had expected – all of the theatres in her home town of Birmingham had been converted into “Bingo Parlours” as she called them. We left England once more, she with some melancholy over the “cultural loss”. She could not fathom what had become of England and culture as she had once known it.

    And to this day, I don’t quite know the answer to this question either. Music has died not once but umpteen times. Who actually listens to the radio these days? “There’s nothing on” actually worth listening to. Theatre productions, while exciting, are for the average person a rare outing. Who can afford a typical evening out with seats costing around $90 each, plus parking, plus dinner… As for Stratford Theatre (Canada), a mere 70 or so miles away, I’ve never been. Why it’s all nearly as expensive as going to a Hockey game. Oddly, Hockey appears to thrive much more than theatre, at least in Toronto.

    There may be a ray of hope in this cultural abyss. Your “Broadway Channel” suggestion is great.

    Where do we sign up?

  2. digglahhh said

    Great idea, Meta. And while we’re at it, maybe Gucci should make a line to be distributed at Wal-Mart too…

    I don’t mean to be snarky, but merely intend to raise a question.

    I’ve heard this proposal before, actually.

    Your suggestion makes the assumption that “high culture” has any interest in appealing, or, more accurately, making itself available to the masses.

    The air of elitism is as much of the product as the entertainment itself. I know the wife and kid are die-hard theater buffs for its own merit, but that’s not the rule – probably more of the exception.

    People go to the theater “to have a night on the town.” Businessmen entertain clients. People go to “treat themselves,” to stay culturally literate within particular social/professional circles. Remove the abstract, emotional/self-esteem surrogate half of the product, is what is left really that powerful a draw?

    Of course, we can also debate whether high and low culture is a real distinction or not. But, let’s avoid that for now.

    The high culture crowd likes to think that it appreciates fine art, and it is the exceptional nature of the product that lures them in (as opposed to common, lowest-common denominator movie-goers who can’t recognize and appreciate such talent). Then, the Washington Post puts Joshua Bell in a subway and nobody gives a shit – because the product is divorced from the image part of the consumption.

    (previously discussed methodological issues with the experiment aside.)

    Is exclusivity theater’s glass ceiling or its golden egg?

  3. ClaireDePlume said

    Ya know Digglahhh, if Shakespeare had thought the same, he would never have bothered to write a single line. In fact, why does any artist from any genre bother to share art with the world at all…?

    Your point is “sort of valid”. If people aren’t patrons of the theatre, then why should those who are, patronize the masses from perceived high horses?

    Along similar lines, I once had a very lively discussion with a school librarian. When asked why there were no classics upon the shelves of a grade school library, her reply was, “Because the children don’t read classics”. My retort was, “If there is no literature available to these children, then HOW can they read it all?” She did not reply.

    Whether there’s a glass ceiling or a golden egg is not quite the focal point. Maybe money drives the economy, but art exists for art’s sake. If hip hop & pornography are produced for the masses, then why not concerts and musicals and plays? And why not make it available to all via ways that are accessible to the mainstream?

  4. No, Digg, let’s debate it now!

    It’s interesting that Claire mentions Shakespeare; his plays, like opera, were the Titanics and Phantoms of their day — the popular entertainment, that is. The distinction, in other words, is a bit spurious. Women shop at Filene’s to get designer clothes at big-box prices. Do you think Anne Klein wouldn’t sell out at Kohl’s, if the price were right?

    “Romeo and Juliet” and “Shakespeare In Love” are as popular among the young as the hidden Shakespeare in “10 Things I Hate About You.” “Pride & Prejudice” found a young audience, as did that wonderful adaptation of Austen, “Clueless.” (An excellent translation of movie to television that I forgot about.)

    Finally, as to glass ceiling or golden egg, the $400 orchestra seat would still be an elitist prize, there just might be a few more people bidding for it.

  5. digglahhh said

    I think we have to be wary of conflating the artist’s passion and desire to simply create and share art, with the social/cultural function/behavior of the respective arts as institutions.

    Is Romeo and Juliet really popular among the young, the movie? That movie was terrible. The gals probably like it because of Leo, and the guys probably watch it because they like the girls. I saw it in the movies at 16 in the process of trying to get laid (did not succeed, btw.) Kids’ll grow out of that… actually, most won’t!

    The audience may be there, but grab that audience, the institution has to relinquish exclusive possession of the art, and the prestige and elitism that comes with it. They may very well be content with cutting off their nose to spite their face.

    And, yes, stores like Marshall’s, Century 21, etc. offer glamor made accessible. But, I don’t think the designers are proud of it. What winds up there are the items their intended clients deem unworthy (for the most part). They’d rather their items not wind up in these big boxes, I presume. It sullies their reps.

    Every time I watch Project Runway (originally upon your endorsement, Meta) and I hear Michael Kors spout some nonsense, I think about how much Michael Kors stuff there is at my local Marshall’s…

  6. rudolphbentonchp said

    Quibble: “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra” was first published as a serial in 1909-1910.

    (It’s seeped into so many weird corners of pop culture [webcomics, for example] that I finally got round to reading [a translation of] the original. Pretty cheesy stuff, as you might expect.)

  7. ClaireDePlume said

    Rudolph,

    Apparently Andrew Lloyd Weber liked it enough to take his cheese to market, and the little piggies did too. “If you build it, they will come.”

  8. ClaireDePlume said

    correction: Andrew Lloyd Webber. (Weber was his lesser known brother.)

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