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Woe I$ Broadway?

As investors retreat in a shaky economy, funding worries grow.

Equus_danielradcliffe_carolrosegg_2 Longtime Broadway producer Chase Mishkin would seem to have a sure thing in Equus, a revival of the Peter Shaffer classic that opens this month at New York’s Broadhurst Theatre. Not only does it feature a bankable cast—including Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, Tony Award winner Richard Griffiths, and Kate Mulgrew—but it enjoyed a successful run and rave reviews in London’s West End. Nevertheless, for the first time in 20 years, two of Mishkin’s otherwise loyal backers refused to invest in one of her productions. Although they cited personal reasons, she believes the economy has them on edge.

“Everybody is trying to figure out what happens next,” said Mishkin, whose credits include Passing Strange, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and The Beauty Queen of Leenane. “Investors hear about all the people who have lost money, gone bankrupt, lost houses, and all these disastrous situations; now they’re waiting to see what’s going to happen.... In some cases, they’re waiting for the next election.”

Broadway producers depend on investors, particularly for big-budget projects, and the hesitancy of backers can lead to canceled shows and lost jobs at any phase of production. But the problem seems to have become particularly acute lately. Recently two shows scheduled to open on Broadway in the fall—revivals of Godspell and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf—were postponed indefinitely due to the loss of key backers.

In a statement issued Aug. 19, Godspell producer Adam Epstein blamed the economy. “I am devastated that, due to the loss of a major investor in the harsh reality of a slowing economy, there were no other options at this time than to postpone,” he said. Godspell’s publicists declined to comment further.

Publicists for For Colored Girls, produced by Whoopi Goldberg and DreamTeam Entertainment Group, did not respond to Back Stage’s interview requests.

Another production, Nice Work if You Can Get It—a reworked version of the 1926 Gershwin musical Oh, Kay!—was postponed after a series of investor and producer withdrawals and the loss of its director, according to BroadwayWorld.com. The musical was to debut in Boston in a pre-Broadway engagement. A spokesman for the show declined to comment, and no official statement has been issued.

A Long-Running Concern

Although Broadway ticket sales have grown in the past decade, production costs have skyrocketed. According to the 2006-07 Broadway League economic report, total production expenditures increased by 12 percent in the last four years and by 29 percent across 10 years, though the number of shows produced, with rare exception, remained virtually constant, as did the primary cost elements: labor (salaries, payroll taxes, benefits, royalties), physical needs (scenery, props, costumes, lights, and sound), and advertising, which together account for 89 percent of the total. The result, said Mishkin, is that “15 years ago you could do a nonmusical for $1 million. Now we do a straight play and it’s a multimillion-dollar project with 25 producers.” The producer added that the Equus budget is $5 million.

But Broadway producer Randall L. Wreghitt (Grey Gardens, The Lieutenant of Inishmore) noted that fundraising is always difficult. “I don’t care what the climate is,” said Wreghitt, who is seeking investors for the musical Pure Country, scheduled to open in spring 2009. “Theatre is a risky investment even in the best of times.”

Wreghitt said that although his stable of investors has remained largely intact, some have been unwilling to invest as much in the last few years. He is hesitant to call the situation a widespread crisis, however, given that an investor’s interest in a show depends on a range of factors, from personal taste to private circumstances: “They can have any number of reasons to back out.”

 Nor are their choices always logical. Some backers prefer to invest in revivals, Mishkin said, even though original productions tend to run longer and can earn money from syndication and ancillary sales. Some revivals, such as Equus, may anticipate long runs, but many hire expensive stars who will appear only for a short time. According to Mishkin, revivals mostly focus on recouping their investment and making a little money.

Some investors, she added, are not even looking for big profits: “A lot of them are very wealthy and want to be a part of show business. Some of them are looking to do interesting things with their lives rather than make a ton of money.”

And although a celebrity cast is increasingly crucial in attracting investors, August: Osage County
hit Broadway with lesser-known actors from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Meanwhile, For Colored Girls and Nice Work if You Can Get It lost investors despite the casting of pop star India.Arie and Harry Connick Jr., respectively.

Just a Coincidence?

The postponement of three shows in two months has raised eyebrows among producers, according to Wreghitt. Another Broadway-bound production, a revival of Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon, was postponed due to the lack of a theatre space next spring. A spokesman for the show said the bigger musical houses will be filled by West Side Story and Guys and Dolls at that time.

“I’m just hoping that this is all a coincidence,” said Wreghitt. “It’s not the first time shows have been canceled, but I hope it’s not part of some ongoing trend. Losing a show is heartbreaking.”

--Halley Bondy
halley.bondy@backstage.com

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