he Sept. 30 resignation announcement of Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, the trade association for commercial theatre, represents an opportunity to reassess the dynamic between producers and artists—between the Broadway and non-Broadway worlds.
Bernstein, who departs next June after serving in his post since 1995, has unquestionably enhanced the once-moribund Broadway brand. According to League statistics, gross income for 1994 stood at $385.6 million; in 2004 it was $748.9 million. Attendance, too, has jumped: 8.6 million in 1994; 11.3 million in 2004. High-profile events now fixed on our calendars—Broadway on Broadway, Stars in the Alley, Broadway Under the Stars, Kids' Night on Broadway—were developed on Bernstein's watch. Couple those with a slew of promotional efforts—the Broadway Ticket Center, the toll-free 1-888-Broadway, the Broadway Open House tours—and what was once mockingly called the Fabulous Invalid is now a global destination point.
As the League weighs its options for Bernstein's successor, now is also a good time to reconsider approaches that didn't work so well for the industry. Consider the Touring Broadway Awards, introduced in 2001, which are distributed annually to road shows. In the awards' first two years, prizes were presented in 12 categories, including best actor and actress in a musical and play. Actors' Equity Association opposed the awards, objecting to union and nonunion tours competing equally. Even after the League reluctantly agreed that only union tours would contend, Equity actively discouraged its membership from participating, and acting categories remain absent from the honors today.
But that dustup was nothing compared to the League's taste for brinkmanship. In March 2003, talks failed between the League and the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802, leading to a four-day walkout costing millions, as actors and stagehands struck in solidarity. Equity and the League were at loggerheads over a new four-year Production Contract in 2004; had a strike not been narrowly averted, Local 802 would likely have repaid the actors' favor.
Arguably Bernstein's best and worst moment came after Sept. 11, 2001. In his capacity as League president, he went to bat for Broadway after terrorist attacks brought the commercial theatre to an economic precipice: Advance sales plummeted, productions closed, and no one knew what would follow. Seemingly overnight, Bernstein helped forge a $2.5 million program, Spend Your Regards to Broadway, involving the purchase of 50,000 tickets using New York City funds—essentially, a subsidy. Soon, glitzy Times Square photo-ops chock-full of stage stars were trumpeting the industry as rebounding, scarred but united.
In truth—and as Back Stage reported in December 2001—Broadway's woes paled beside those of the city's nonprofit theatres, which were "gasping for breath in a kind of fiscal no man's land" as the city's Department of Cultural Affairs froze needed disbursements and audiences stayed home. While the world watched Mayor Rudolph Giuliani exude statesmanship, the nonprofit industry watched in horror as Broadway merely took care of its own at a moment when artists and producers of all stripes should have stood as one. How sad when Norma Munn, chair of the New York City Arts Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group, said, "I'm really tired of the city of New York, through the mayor's office, ignoring the nonprofit community and propping up Broadway…. Basically, if you're not one of 'them,' you don't count."
The nonprofit theatre industry counts, and we call on the League's next president to acknowledge this. Indeed, Broadway depends largely on the nonprofit theatre for new product, whether discovered from within the ranks of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway or, as is often the case, from the nation's network of regional nonprofits. Broadway would be dark to a large extent without the work these groups develop, often under great fiscal strain. For examples, just trace how The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Jersey Boys, Avenue Q, The Light in the Piazza, Doubt, Souvenir, Well, A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, and Rent, to name a few, arrived on the resurgent Great White Way. If the League's next president were to make this acknowledgement—and strike a less pugnacious, more conciliatory tone—everyone in American theatre would benefit.