By Kirk Woodward
[As my friend Kirk says, I’m “continually on the lookout for unusual aspects of the theatrical experience,” so when I heard that he and his wife had invested in a Broadway production, I asked if he’d consider writing about the experience of being a Broadway “angel.” Happily, he agreed and here’s the result: a description of what it’s like to be a small investor in a Broadway musical. This story even has a happy “ending” (it’s not really over, of course) because the show the Woodwards, veteran theater people but first-time angels, put their money into was Memphis, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical (as well as a few other categories) at the ceremony on 13 June, justifying the Woodwards’—and everyone else’s—commitment to the production. As the song says, “There’s no business like show business”! ~Rick]
As everyone knows, putting on a Broadway show is incredibly expensive. No matter how you try to contain costs, a Broadway musical will need several million dollars just to get it open, and once it’s playing in New York, it will continue to need pots of money in order to continue to run. Those operating costs are called the “nut,” and anything over the nut, if there is anything, goes toward paying off the show’s investors, hence the observation of my friend Dan Landon, house manager for one of the Shubert theaters, that “One dollar over the nut – it’s a hit!”
That saying is definitely true about a show in terms of how long it runs – under ordinary circumstances, as long as a show makes its nut it can stay on the boards. There are exceptions to this principle. Sometimes, for example, a producer wants to close a show even though it’s making money, perhaps in order to free a theater for a new (and presumably more profitable) show. But in general, as long as you meet your operating expenses, you can keep your show open.
Just because a show runs, however, doesn’t mean its original investors will make their money back. They may not, and of course they know it, or they ought to – most Broadway shows don’t turn out to be profitable, sometimes even at the end of a long run. Jekyll and Hyde is said to have lost its investment – in other words, not paid its investors back anything – even though it ran on Broadway for four years.
Nevertheless people keep investing in Broadway shows, on the principle, to borrow a remark from the playwright George Axelrod (who said it about playwrights), that on Broadway you can’t make a living, but you can make a killing. (Axelrod reversed the order.) I’ve met people who invested in Same Time, Next Year, and more recently in Jersey Boys. They are rolling in kale. And the odds of succeeding on Broadway may be better than the odds of winning the lottery . . . but not all that much better.
Decades ago a producer might put up his or her own money to bankroll a Broadway musical. (As Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II once wrote in the New York Times, "A great many producers 30 or 40 years ago used to invest their own money in their own shows. They all died broke.") Those days are gone forever. Nowadays producers are either corporations – the Shuberts, Disney – or massive lists of, basically, “angels” – people who put up money for a show. When a musical wins a Tony and the producers, a herd of them, come up to the stage to accept the award, most of those people didn’t do anything about producing the show at all, except to produce their wallets at the appointed time.
I write these words as a Broadway investor – a very small-scale investor, and, as you’ll see, not a terribly sensible one, but still . . . . To be precise, I didn’t actually invest in a Broadway show. Instead, I invested in a group of investors. The show is Memphis. It’s a fictionalized version of the beginning of the popularity of rock ’n’ roll, with a major theme of relations between the races. Memphis had four productions before it came to Broadway, at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts; at TheatreWorks in Mountain View, California; at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, California; and at the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle, Washington.
Obviously a show with so many productions had something to offer – many theaters won’t touch a play that’s not a premiere, but three theaters picked up this one, not counting Broadway. Another way to put the situation is that the show had “buzz,” which is the noise I heard in my ear when at a party I asked a friend who works for a ticket sales agency what shows were stirring up the most advance interest. “There’s Memphis,” he said without hesitation. “I hear it’s great.”
By coincidence, the next week another acquaintance of ours sent around an email asking if anyone was interested in investing in – you guessed it – Memphis. Serendipity! This was the first time my wife, Pat, and I had ever had a chance to invest in a Broadway show of any sort. We discussed the opportunity, and agreed to look at the materials for the show, which at that point was close to beginning previews in New York. The investor group, as I said, was actually a sub-investor, intending to buy a share in the show itself. We would buy, then, a piece of an investment. Our money would be used for an advertising reserve.
Among the many reasons I was interested in becoming a Broadway backer, two stand out. One, of course, was the possibility of making money. It would be lovely to have Broadway provide some disposable income. Another and, I suspect, more important reason was the feeling that we’d be participating in the Broadway world – in a Broadway adventure. For people like us who’ve worked in theater for years, being part of the Broadway community, even in a small way, is a powerful emotional lure.
Obviously due diligence requires careful research on the show, so obviously that’s not what I did. Well, I did to a certain extent – I went on the show’s website, for example, and listened to parts of the score, and I liked it. On the other hand, I didn’t read the script (I don’t remember if it was available), and I didn’t really consider the fact that Memphis had no “big names” or film stars in it. I don’t recommend my procedure to anyone as a best practice. My way of selecting a show to invest in didn’t differ that much from horse players who pick a winner based on its name, and perhaps a tip from the guy at the newsstand. Be warned.
Nevertheless I persuaded Pat that we should make the investment, and we sent in a certain amount of money we weren’t sure we had. Pat made it clear that the responsibility for this decision, about as financially sound an idea as investing in a treasure hunt, lay entirely on my shoulders. But the die was cast, and we sent in our check, joining a mighty throng – the musical’s poster lists thirty-seven producers, both individual and corporate, and that doesn’t even begin to include sub-contributors like us.
We began to receive encouraging emails from our investment coordinator, and finally – glory be – an invitation to both Opening Night and the subsequent cast party. We’ve both been to opening nights before, but never to a Broadway cast party. This was beginning to look good.
The show opened, after previews, at the Shubert Theater on October 19, 2009. We didn’t hire a limo to take us to opening night – we’d spent enough money on the show already – but we did get there early and wandered around, feeling very connected. The show was excellent and well received, as it should have been, considering how many seats must have been filled by investors like ourselves. At intermission I talked with a few people connected with the show, including its producers in Seattle. Nowadays, even though newspaper and TV reviews typically appear following opening night, those reviewers actually see a show at an earlier preview performance rather than at the official opening, so there was no worry about how this particular performance had gone. But it did go well.
Then off to the cast party, at the Hard Rock Café on 42nd Street. You undoubtedly have images of Broadway cast parties, with the breathless entrance of the person who’s snagged the first copy of the New York Times. Alas, there must have been eight hundred people at this cast party, all screaming at the tops of their lungs over a background of rock music, and that breathless entrance wouldn’t have been noticed if the person were carrying a stack of copies of the paper a mile high. That, my friends, is a lot of producers.
We milled around a while, trying not to be suffocated while we looked, fruitlessly, for the table assigned to our investment group, whose name we weren’t sure of anyway. Finally, hunting for breathing room, we located a clearing which happened to be near the press area, and saw the only celebrities we identified the entire evening – the entire lineup of Bon Jovi, whose keyboard player, David Bryan, had written the score (lyrics with Joe DiPietro). The band looked relaxed and happy, and they posed for numerous pictures. We watched this cheerful spectacle for a while, and then we went home.
The next morning we had the excitement of bringing in the New York Times from the lawn and reading our review – and damn it, it wasn’t good at all. We were, what’s the word for it, crushed. Also we felt a lot poorer than we had the night before, our wallets a great deal lighter. I look at several papers in the course of the day, and the other reviews I read were quite good. But the Times is terribly important to the success of a Broadway show, and all in all, October 20, 2009, was not a happy day. In addition, adding insult to injury, several days later my favorite magazine, The New Yorker, didn’t like the show much either.
Well, theater is a matter of continuing ups and downs. A few days later we got a package in the mail, containing the following: a Memphis souvenir worth displaying on the family room mantle; a poster of the show signed by the whole cast; and a letter explaining that, while the Times hadn’t liked the show much, most of the rest of the reviews were terrific, and that a well thought-out and creative advertising campaign (that’s where our money went, remember!) would eliminate the effect of the review in a short time, and the show seemed likely to have an excellent run.
That was almost exactly eight months ago as I write this account, and since that day I haven’t heard a word about how our money is doing, except that for income tax purposes I received a form of about eight pages, which I passed on to our preparer without my understanding a word of it, except that it definitely didn’t say we’d made any money yet.
But there was, of course, one more event worth mentioning. The Tony Awards were presented on Sunday night, June 13, 2010. The Times, true to its nature, had seemed to us to try its hardest to promote Fela for Best Musical, but there are limits even to the power of the Grey Lady. My wife and I were barely even paying attention to the Tony broadcast when the winner was announced. I heard a scream from the next room – that was Pat - and ran in to see on TV – yes – a crowd of producers on stage, yelling like soccer fans and bouncing up and down while their designated spokesperson reported how delighted they all were.
So were we. I was happy, of course, because since I was mostly responsible for our decision to invest in the first place, now we had official ratification that the decision had been a good one. I was also happy because both Pat and I have worked in theater for years, and now we had a Tony! Truly the Lord works in mysterious ways.
I suppose the last paragraph of this piece shouldn’t be written until, months or years or decades from now, we receive a final accounting on our investment. There will be a national tour of Memphis in 2011, I’ve read, and after a while the rights to the show will be made available to amateur groups, who should have quite a good time with it. But in a way, all that is just bookkeeping. We became Broadway investors! We helped a show reach Broadway and stay there, at least for a while! We invested in a show we were proud of! And we got a piece of a Tony Award, even if we’re the only ones who know about it. All in all, not a bad eight months. Theater can always surprise you.