Rocco Landesman Answers Your Broadway Questions

Rocco Landesman

We recently solicited your questions for Broadway producer Rocco Landesman, and threw in a few of our own as well. Reading his answers below, you can see why he is considered not only one of Broadway’s best producers, but also one of the most astute. Thanks to Rocco, and to all of you for the questions.

Q: What will Broadway look like in 20 years?

A: This is a live, hand-made industry where the product is created new and live each night, just as it was 50 years ago. As such, in twenty years, it should look much as it does now — except that Nathan Lane will look notably older.

Q: What factors contribute to the high price of Broadway tickets? Theater rents? Union salaries? Audience expectations of an onstage spectacle? Are these costs increasing? Do rising costs lead to less risk-taking and more middle-of-the-road, lowest-common-denominator fare on Broadway?

A: The issue in our business is that we lack both an economy of scale and mechanization. We can’t make a million, or even a thousand copies of the same movie. As I wrote earlier, the product is handmade and repeated live each night. The sets and costumes are custom made. The actors have to be live. It is labor intensive to the Nth degree, and as those costs rise, so do ticket prices. There is really no productivity gain through the technology boom. Actors and stagehands keep getting more money, and the costs of marketing a show seem to keep going up exponentially. Then, of course, the higher the cost, the more risk averse the producer and investors become. So yes, there is inevitably some decline in venturesomeness. Better to stick with the tried and true, or the show with the widest possible audience.

Q: What’s the current trend in Broadway attendance? Why do people still go to the theater when it’s so much more expensive than other forms of entertainment?

A: Broadway attendance has been trending up. Attendance by New Yorkers has leveled off, but that has been more than made up for by tourists, both American and international. There are many more competing forms of entertainment, but there’s really no replacement for a live experience. It is really not replicable through any technology or alternate form of delivery.

Q: Tell us about the economics of hiring a star for a Broadway show versus a non-star. As much as stars draw box office, they also spike the budget and, I assume, limit a potentially long run. Is it worth it?

A: Some shows, especially plays, need a star in order to sell tickets. Of course, from the producers’ standpoint, it’s best when the show is the star. The Producers ran for more than three years after the departure of Lane and Matthew Broderick.

Q: Where do Broadway audiences come from (geographically)? What’s a surprising place that a lot of customers come from?

A: In general terms, the audience for plays is from New York and for musicals, after the first year or so, from outside New York. Which is one reason why musicals usually run much longer than plays.

Q: Assuming that the vast majority of Broadway customers come from out of town, why is there so much Broadway advertising in New York City – on buses, e.g.?

A: Because purchase decisions are often made after the customers arrive. And it would be impossible to advertise in 300 cities.

Q: What’s the state of Broadway ticket scalping, and what’s your position on it?

A: The problem for years has been that the only people who really score with a hit show have been the scalpers. When we instituted the $400 ticket for The Producers, we started to address this problem. In the new system, the price is printed on the ticket, and the money actually goes to the people responsible for the show — the investors, the creative team, etc. — instead of to the ticket brokers. We are in favor of a free market system where the market ultimately sets the price on premium tickets.

Q: You were the first producer to charge $100 for a single ticket, for The Producers. What was the impact and response?

A: It had no effect whatsoever on demand. We could have sold all the tickets we could print.

Q: How true to life is The Producers?

Max Bialystock was based on a real life producer that Mel Brooks knew personally. Current producers are not all crooks — at least, most of them aren’t.

Q: So much of Broadway seems to be derived from movies today (partly thanks to The Producers, which has done it better than anyone before or since). Is this a healthy trend? More broadly, will people still produce original plays and musicals in 5 or 10 years, or will originality be left to off- and off-off-Broadway? What message should playwrights take from this trend?

A: The creators of musicals are always looking for stories. Once upon a time, the stories were found in short stories, novels, plays, and other literary sources. Now, many of the stories are in movies. This is a natural and healthy migration, and the actual process [of creating Broadway shows] hasn’t changed.

Q: It seems that in the last few years, there have been a number of shows that exist primarily to showcase the music of one particular artist or band (e.g., Billy Joel, ABBA, Elvis). Is this a trend for the future as well? Should we expect to see “Madonna: The Musical” in the next five to ten years?

A: I truly hope not. But the success of Jersey Boys will probably extend the cycle of so-called jukebox musicals. Usually, if I like the music, I will like the musical, but there has been a wide spectrum of quality in these shows. Compare Good Vibrations with Smokey Joe’s Cafe or Jersey Boys.

Q: How well do these so-called jukebox musicals do when measured against traditional musicals?

A: Smokey Joe’s Cafe was the longest running review in history. I expect it will be surpassed by Jersey Boys. Generally, these shows are more successful financially because their costs are much lower. The casts are usually smaller and they don’t depend on stars or expensive scenery.

Q: If Jujamcyn scores a big advance sale, how do you invest the money?

A: In certificates of deposit.

Q: If you weren’t a successful producer and had nothing to do with the entertainment industry, and you had a daughter in high school, would you encourage her to pursue a career on Broadway?

A: I once asked my wife how she would feel if one of our three sons turned out to be gay. She thought for a while, and answered that she didn’t think she’d have a problem with it, but she would be upset if one of them decided to become an actor. It is a very tough life, one in which you have little control over your own career.

Q: What benchmarks do you use to judge the success of a show?

A: Critical response and financial reward.

Q: Do you lose more sleep when you first started producing than you do now?

A: Yes. At first, everything was life and death, because that’s true at the beginning of a career. My whole career stems from the success of my first show, Big River. After you’ve had a few hits, everything is not at stake with each show. So I still worry, but I don’t lose sleep.

Q: When were you a professional gambler? What kind of gambling did you do?

A: Horse racing. I never bet in casinos.

Q: Do you feel that Broadway is better off after going through a “Disneyfication”?

A: I don’t accept the term “Disneyfication.” They are producers like everyone else, with their own taste and point of view. The more the merrier.

Q: How do you “break in” as a director or performer? How do you then balance family, children, auditions, rehearsals, etc.?

A: I can’t really help on this one. It’s very hard, and you have to be incredibly determined — to be incapable of not doing it. There is no real work/life balancing — the profession tends to be all-consuming.

Q: How is your relationship with your backstage crew post-strike, and how much do you rely on them?

A: Our stagehands are highly skilled, which is why we never tried to run shows without them during the strike. My relationships — in many cases, friendships — with the stagehands I work with was good before the strike, and continues to be good after it. We each did what we felt we had to do.

Q: What is Jerzy Kosinski doing?

A: You’ll have to ask God. Or maybe the other guy.

Q: What was the purpose behind the $20 million strike fund that the producers have been accumulating over the last 4 years? Presumably, it was established to keep the shows running during a strike — which didn’t happen.

A: If all of the producers’ requests had been granted during the IATSE negotiations, resulting in lowering expenses for the producers, would ticket prices have been reduced? They would have stabilized. That in itself is progress.


Kurt

P.S. Did anyone understand the question "What is Jerzy Kosinski doing?" After all, he's been dead at least 10 years, and had nothing to do with Broadway (as far as I know).

Kurt

Prices may not reflect value, as value is in the eye of the beholder. However, a beholder who pays $100 or even $500 for a ticket believes it's worth it -- otherwise they wouldn't pay. Broadway producers, who are merely businessmen, will raise ticket prices to whatever level the market will support.

It's only natural that they will maximize their profits when they have a hit show, but it's also necessary, because how else could they afford their losses from flops? As tourists are willing to pay more than New Yorkers, Broadway has become more oriented towards tourists; personally, I don't like this, but it doesn't make the producers greedy or evil.

Barry

The question regarding Jerzy Kosinski stopped me cold. It was one of three things: glib, stupid or offensive. Kosinski was an acclaimed, controversial and award-winning writer. His name should not be used as a punchline.

Rob

I would spend a lot of money to see a live via/video presentation of a Broadway show if it was available. The MET did this, but I think a Broadway Musical would generate a lot more income than the Met. So maybe there is some way to bring the economy of scale into play.

Even if I went to see a show in this manner, I would still pay to see it when I was in New York, just as I would still see a show on Broadway after I had seen the road show. Neither is a substitute for going to a live show on Broadway.

We were in NYC during the strike, an irritating experience, to say the least.

Greg

Is it me, or did he not directly answer the final question regarding the 20 million dollar producer's fund? It seems all he said is what would have happened if the producers got what they wanted during the negotiations. I would like to know what it was for!

Ron Voz

For someone who couldn't answer the question about performers "breaking in" while balancing family and children, Mr. Landesman surely fooled me. His answer, in my opinion, is on the mark. Speaking as someone who has been aspiring to be an aspiring actor for the past three years, I can honestly, and sadly, say that there aren't enough hours in a day to be both a parent and performer. So sad I love them both.

David A. Spitzley

I believe that the last Q and the last A actually each contain one question and the subsequent answer, or in other words that the last two questions each got squished into a single entry rather than a paired Q and A. The question mark in each separates the question and the associated answer. That explains the apparent failure to answer the last Q.

Andrew J. Lease

I truly believe that the "Disneyfication" has had such an enormous inpact on the Broadway community from the get go in '94 with Beauty and the Beast. I mean, when The Lion King won the Tony for best show in '98, other shows had to find another way to survive due to the popularity of the Lion King. Take The Scarlet Pimpernel scandal for instance. When Cablevision bought out the show in late '98, it was the beginning of downsizing on Broadway. The whole show was revamped and a new cast was brought in save Douglas Sills. They did the old show at night and practiced the new version during the day. This was all caused by the "Disneyfication" of Broadway.

Robert James Monk

It always amazes me to hear producers (like baseball owners) talk about pressures that raise ticket prices. Mr. Landesman explained high ticket prices fully when he commented earlier in the interview: "We could have sold all the ($100) tickets we could print." If expenses went down, they'd just pocket more money. That's basic economics.

Chris

Producers was the first to charge $100 per tick? Hmmm, I don't think so. I recall it was the epic staging of Dicken's Nicholas Nickelby, seen back in the early 80's. Hottest tick in NY while it ran.'Course, it was a two-part show, so maybe that puts it in a different category. But $100 sticker shock did not originate with The Producers. The $400-500 VIP tick (or whatever the astronomical cost was) - that, I recall, was The Producer's contribution to Broadway economics. Now, of course, touring concerts featuring major pop and rock stars are way past 100/200 per tick and heading into the stratosphere of pricing absurdity.

It will never get cheaper, folks. Prices have become fictions - much like the $100+ designer t-shirt found in some high end department stores. They may as well attach a copy of Moby Dick in the place of the price tag, because the price of the item is pure fiction, reflecting the genuine value of nothing in particular.

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Aaron

I'm a bit surprised that people still associate the cost of a good in a market as competitive as theater with the cost of production.

PJ

Does Mr. Landesman really think Broadway will look substantially the same in 20 years? 20 years ago it was a vastly different industry, and 20 years before that it was yet another story. In the past half decade the broadway theater has descended steadily from a central, viable part of our national culture (where admission cost two or three times the price of a movie) to a specialized, rarefied tourist attraction (where admission is now at LEAST 9 times that of a movie ticket.) In another 20 years, who knows what the broadway world will look like, but it sure won't be "the same" as it is now.

mr D

Once again a producer blames the stagehands middle class folk just trying to feed thier families. shame on you rocco!!!!!!!

Dean Barrett, Thailand

"Is a lively, contentious, reflective theater beyond our reach, our imaginations? Are the powers who reign over this theater of the bottom line aware that there are some really interesting -- even entertaining -- things to talk about on the stage and that they ought to be encouraged? Even if at times they require more than two or four people in the cast? A new 'Crucible' could not be produced on Broadway today, nor a 'Death of a Salesman,' either. Nor, for that matter, a 'Streetcar.' Too many people. Is this situation satisfactory for what purports to be the main stage of the richest country in human history?" Arthur Miller - The New York Times

"In the end - and it must always come down to this, no matter what other failings a theatre may have - in the end a public will get what it deserves, and no better." Edward Albee, - "Which Theatre is the Absurd One?"

I wish Mr. Landsman had at some point sat down with Arthur Miller and Edward Albee and debated what to do about the long, slow decline in the "reflective" theater on Broadway.

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BSL

The question regarding Jerzy Kosinski stopped me cold. I don't know why it was asked. But it came across as glib, stupid and insensitive. He was an award-winning writer who committed suicide in 1991.
He deserves to be treateed with respect and not as a punchline.

oscar werner

re Kosinski: Mr Landesman famously interviewed the writer for the Paris Review. . .

John P

RE the Arthur Miller quote that a new Crucible will never be produced today: the great voices of American theatre have always been prone to absolutist predictions, as when Hal Prince predicted in the 70's that no show would ever run as long as Fiddler on the Roof did, because costs had spiralled too much. To quote another famous someone: Nobody knows nothin'.

And for those saying that Crucible's 19 actors being too many people for a producer to mount in a show today, I direct your attention to the Imperial Theatre, where the 13 member cast of August: Osage County is going strong, and where recently a cast of thousands trod the boards in Coram Boy. Thoughtful voices--both writers and producers--will always be a part of Broadway.

Alex Vaughn

The comments he makes about Broadway attendance and the cost of using stars are really interesting. A lot of what he says is similar to a blog by another New York Producer named Ken Davenport (which is how I found this article). www.theproducersperspective.com

jens mcvoy

It is VERY disingenuous (and frankly, a little boring) for Mr.Landesman to again cite labor costs, both stagehand and actor costs, as the main contributing factors to high ticket prices, and indirectly, to the stagehand strike. 100 years ago, labor represented between 7 and 9 percent of a total show capitalization. Today the number is exactly the same.
So if labor isn't costing producers more percentage-wise to show costs and rising ticket prices, investigate some of the other areas that ARE increasing their costs and look to them, and stop taking cheap shots at the working people who make all of Broadway happen.
I'd like to know how much Mr.Landesman is paid for his efforts, and whether he counts his earnings, and the earnings of other producers, as expenses contributing to the rising costs of tickets.

Ms.L

Don't blame actors, stagehands or Unions for the high cost of doing business on Broadway. What about all the Creatives and the high royalties they get, directly off the top.