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Steven Adler Discusses the Cost of Broadway

Written by Trenton Ward

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Steven Adler has written an insightful book on the business of show business, and it is a great read for anyone who loves theatre and wants to understand the unique world of Broadway. His book On Broadway examines the various forces at play on the Great White Way today.

Subtitled Art and Commerce on the Great White Way, the book looks at trends and factors that have shaped contemporary Broadway, from the evolution of the relationship between commercial and not-for-profit theatres, to the advent of corporate producers, to the challenges faced by each constituent group involved in the making of Broadway theatre.

The author put in twenty-six years as an equity stage manager on Broadway productions such as Big River and the revival of Camelot with Richard Harris, and the original Off-Broadway production of Forbidden Broadway. Adler is currently Professor of Theatre and Provost at Earl Warren College, University of California, San Diego.

Adler’s impetus to write the book started when he was very young. “I grew up in Brooklyn, and I viewed Broadway, perhaps somewhat romantically, as the pinnacle of theatrical achievement. But in college—I attended SUNY Buffalo as an undergraduate—I was swept up in the passions of the experimental theatre movement of the early 1970s, and soon adopted the opposite perspective, that Broadway was a faded anachronism, and that true artistic expression was occurring Off- and Off-Off Broadway, and in regional theatres. There was more than a kernel of truth in this at the time. But artistic trends evolve, and people change, and by the time I called my first cue as a stage manager on a Broadway show—the 1981 revival of Camelot with Richard Harris at the Winter Garden—I was once again in the thrall of Broadway. Its pull is powerful and its traditions are strong.”

By the time Adler left New York in 1987 to create a graduate program in stage management at UC San Diego, back in Manhattan the theatre district was already experiencing the first wave of radical changes that would result in the reinvention of the neighborhood and the theatre performed there. “After writing my first book, about the Royal Shakespeare Company, I realized that I very much wanted to focus on the artistic, cultural, and economic forces that shape Broadway, because in the intervening years since I moved west the shape of how theatre is produced on Broadway—and Broadway’s relationship to the rest of American theatre—had changed profoundly. And as a stage manager, I have had the best seat in the house to see how productions come together from the artistic and business ends.”

Adler feels it is important for actors, directors, and writers to learn the business of show business: “I think that it can be only beneficial for all theatre practitioners to have a working understanding of the forces that create the world in which they work. The people whom I interviewed for this book were all quite successful in their chosen fields, and each of them was quite savvy about the issues at play.

“Producers and general managers will perforce have the most global view of all the interrelated components of the process, but actors, writers, directors, designers, and other artists were very knowledgeable as well. Broadway, the touring circuit, regional theatres, Off- and Off-Off Broadway, summer stock, and other venues are much more connected now, in ways that didn’t exist a few decades ago. It’s important, I feel, for all of us who live in theatre to educate ourselves about how things work, and why. The more we know, the better able we are to make educated, informed decisions about our careers and our futures.”

Adler believes the “Fabulous Invalid” (as Broadway has often been nicknamed by naysayers who keep predicting its supposedly inevitable demise), still has a lot of life left in it.

“Broadway has developed a larger-than-life iconography over the last century. It is part of our national cultural heritage, something that is distinctly American. It has managed to synthesize so many elements of our cultural landscape, and while only occasionally daring in subject matter or form, it caters to our notion of abundance. It has always relied on spectacle, on size, on star power, and on the creation and perpetuation of its own legends and mythology.

“It takes so long to produce a show, from genesis to opening, that Broadway is always behind the cultural times, at least in recent decades when our other media stream by so rapidly. But still, Broadway adapts. Its resilience, albeit aided in no small way by New York State and city governments, in the aftermath of September 11th, speaks volumes about Broadway’s staying power. People love big shows, they adore sentimentality, they clamor for the kind of escapism that Broadway has always provided.”

The author gives the following advice for anyone who wants to become a Broadway producer: “My advice would be to get the best lawyer money can buy! Seriously, there are many avenues to pursuing this. A lot of the artists whom I interviewed concurred that one of the most deleterious changes on Broadway today is that a number of current producers didn’t grow up in theatre, working their way through the ranks. And while it may not be necessary to start as a gofer for a general manager and hope that some day you’ll be the next Cameron Mackintosh, the most successful lead producers, the ones who really take the creative reins, have indeed earned their stripes in the trenches and have a well-developed aesthetic coupled with a sure understanding of the business side.

“I will note that many of the successful producers of recent years, including both Mackintosh and Hal Prince, worked as stage managers, and as I noted earlier, stage managing affords you a great education on all the components of production from the trenches in the theatre and not the office. There are a few top-notch graduate programs in theatre management and administration, at Yale and Columbia to name two, but any serious graduate training would need to be augmented by some strong practical work in the theatre and not just in the office.

Would Adler himself ever consider trying to produce a Broadway play or musical? Not likely. “I have personally never had a desire to produce. I get clammy playing nickel-dime-quarter poker with my friends, so the notion of raising and overseeing a ten-million dollar budget would be beyond my stress threshold.”

On Broadway: Art and Commerce on the Great White Way is published by Southern Illinois University Press. For more information, visit their website at (copy and paste into your browser) http://www.siu.edu/~siupress/titles/f04_titles/adler_broadway.htm.


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