It was a simple speech, yet, like the author's impressive body of work in the theatre, somehow destined to take on a life of its own:
"My name is Stephen Sondheim I am here to urge you to support the theatre district zoning proposal and the Broadway Initiative, to help ensure the future for theatre "
With this plea to protect theatre's cultural health, the Pulitzer Award-winning composer and lyricist accomplished two things.
First, he went on record before the New York City Planning Commission last Wed., May 6, to support the plan to rezone the theatre subdistrict. Equally significant, however, was the fact that Sondheim urged the Planning Commission to support the Broadway Initiative itself.
By doing so, the noted composer and lyricist pulled focus on the story behind the story: The Broadway Initiative, while still scrambling to formalize and establish itself, has become effective and, to that degree, historically relevant.
"This is historic," agreed Broadway Initiative Coordinator Anne Zimmerman as she described the organization's recent headway. "It's not just a momentary flash-in-the-pan. I've been in this business for 20 years, in management and on the union side, urging and pleading with people to talk to each other. It's happening now and the fact that people are still talking despite their differences is a sign of such great hope and maturity for the industry."
The Broadway Initiatives Working Group, started in 1994, mapped out its strategy and led to the establishment of the Broadway Initiative, a coalition of theatre interests and the City of New York. Though the industry groups comprising Broadway Initiative were traditionally considered an uneven choir, they came together, according to Broadway Initiative literature, to "tackle an array of grave challenges to Broadway's continued viability." Even before filing for 501-C3 status last fall, the Broadway Initiative had started work.
The first order of business was to commission an objective study, by Bain & Co., of Boston, to determine the essential steps necessary to address the future of the theatre industry.
The Bain Report, commissioned in the summer of 1997, led to the Broadway Initiative's keystone program--the proposed rezoning of the theatre subdistrict. Rezoning would allow for the sale and transfer of theatre air rights, new covenants (between theatre owners and the city) to protect the use of theatres as theatrical venues, certain incentives to build new theatres, and dedicated funding streams for the Broadway Initiative.
The rezoning proposal is being considered by community and city groups as part of the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP). The plan is opposed by many residents in Clinton and Hell's Kitchen who object to development scenarios that they fear would disrupt their neighborhoods.
Politics, As Usual
Nonetheless, many expect the rezoning plan to pass, once it is revised in favor of the residents' objections. In fact, the future for rezoning improved substantially after Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields voted to approve it on the condition that key resident issues were satisfactorily addressed. Field's vote, a surprising turn of events, signalled a sea change for the Broadway Initiative--suddenly, the Broadway Initiative's influence and relevance had risen to a level where a city politician was willing to go out on a limb in order to support the group's premier effort.
"Accommodation should be made [for the residents of Clinton and Hell's Kitchen]," explained Zimmerman. "I think we can come up with something that the community can live with, something that is also good for the theatre. But the 'as-of-right' issue [meaning a developer's right to exploit transferred development rights (TDR) without a separate public review] is key to the practicality of the rezoning proposal. If the final, approved plan is not practical, we will have gone through a lot of sturm und drang for nothing.
"Everything we're working for is useless if we cannot preserve the theatres. We need to use this opportunity to establish a practical plan. If there's a special permit process on top of this, which can add up to a year to a developer's schedule, that's problematic."
New Productions, New Audiences
The Broadway Initiative will hold a private, closed meeting on Wed., May 20, to review two committee proposals. The first, production financing, will outline plans to support new productions as well as the transfer of Off-and Off-Off-Broadway productions to Broadway. The second proposal, funding programs to develop new audiences, establishes guidelines for that purpose. Both programs will be a major focus for the Broadway Initiative. Zimmerman said, "The committees have been working very hard and I think these [guidelines] are ready for the group to act on.