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Episode Transcript

Last week on the show, we told you about an unusual new play on Broadway, called Stereophonic. It’s a long, intimate, funny — and totally gripping show about a co-ed rock band in the 1970s as they record an album that will turn out to be a huge hit. Stereophonic itself has turned out to be a huge hit. If you watched the Tony Awards the other night, you saw superstars like Alicia Keys and Jay-Z, Daniel Radcliffe, even Hillary Clinton, who co-produced a Broadway musical this season. But it was Stereophonic, the play with “a bunch of nobodies” — as one cast member said during the Tony Awards — that stole the show, winning five awards. Here’s the playwright David Adjmi, accepting his award for best play:

David ADJMI : This was a very hard journey to get this play up here. Michael Mekeel and Fran Offenhauser, who gave me a place to live for seven years so that I could write this play. It’s really hard to make a career in the arts. We need to fund the arts in America, it is the hallmark of a civilized society.

When I interviewed Adjmi a couple weeks ago, I asked him what it’s like to be at the vortex of a huge hit. He’s been writing plays for a couple decades, but this is his first show on Broadway. Here’s what he told us:

ADJMI: I feel like I’ve been in a car accident. We all feel that way. We’re just totally dislocated. It doesn’t feel good. It feels weirdly bad. 

Stephen DUBNER: I have a little bit of a hard time believing that. 

ADJMI: No, I know. Everyone does. Because you can’t take in what’s good or bad. You’re just taking in stimuli. You’re taking in the overstimulation, which you can’t take in, because it exceeds your capacity. I know it’s positive intellectually, but the way I’m processing it isn’t, like, joyous. There’s moments of joy, and then we just get dislocated again because we don’t know what’s happening. It’s too weird. When your status changes, everyone starts to act really weird. I don’t like it. 

Maybe David Adjmi is just an unusual person. Or maybe the people who create theater are an unusual people, tuned to a different frequency. Why else would someone try to make a living in an industry that is so financially precarious even in the best of times? And these have not been the best of times.

Sonia FRIEDMAN: I’d say our costs have gone up about 30 percent since the pandemic. 

So, today on Freakonomics Radio, will the success of Stereophonic help change this grim future?

John JOHNSON: It’s not that we’re waiting for the audiences to come back. It’s that the core audience entirely has shifted. 

Also, when you have a hot show, how do you think about raising ticket prices?

JOHNSON: You kind of play a game of chicken with yourself and with your audience.  

And we will give you some backstage gossip too.

Sarah PIDGEON: I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this.  

Yes, you’re allowed. We’ll hear all that, starting now

*      *      *

As I mentioned in our previous episode, this two-part look at Stereophonic spun out of another series that we’re making, about the economics of live theater. The fundamental problem here is that theater is a handmade thing, and it doesn’t get much more efficient even as you add technology, the way most industries do. Stereophonic is a relatively small show, with just seven on-stage performers, but they sit atop a pyramid of dozens of people who help put on the show every night: stage managers, wardrobe and props managers, lighting and sound technicians; the ushers in the theater. You even have to pay understudies — actors on standby, in case anyone from the cast gets sick. It would be one thing if you could scale up a show that becomes a hit — if you could sell five or ten thousand tickets a night, rather than the 770 that can fit into the Golden Theater, where Stereophonic is playing. The show is seen by roughly 6,000 people every week. David Adjmi, who wrote Stereophonic — he is not one of those 6,000.

ADJMI: Oh, I don’t watch it. I don’t see my shows because I can’t stand watching my own show in front of an audience. Sometimes I’ll have my assistant go as me. So I teach my assistant everything that I’m looking for, and all my sticking points. And then I say, “Okay, did that happen? Did that happen? Did that happen?” But I don’t like to watch it because I find it too intimate and excruciating.

DUBNER: Is it excruciating because it’s a thing that you made or it’s excruciating because it’s a thing that you made that is you, essentially?  

ADJMI: Both. But more the latter. And it’s excruciating because it’s live, and I can’t control it. But it’s me also. It is the most vulnerable thing in the world. I can’t even tell you. 

So if David Adjmi isn’t in the audience, who is? On Broadway right now, there are 35 shows running; last week, they collectively sold 300,000 tickets. Who are those people? Let’s ask someone who knows.

JOHNSON My name is John Johnson. I run a production company called Wagner Johnson Productions that is a producing company as well as a general management company. 

Johnson is one of the lead producers on Stereophonic. I asked him who is coming to the theater, post-pandemic.

JOHNSON: There used to be, and we used to call them, “carriage-trade” audiences, that came from the Upper West Side and Upper East Side that were women of a certain age, who would come down and see, you know, the new play from the National Theatre, or “Oh, Glenda Jackson’s in a play. I’m going to see that.”

But now?

JOHNSON: A new core audience has emerged in this season. It was emerging as we’ve gone through each season sequentially, post-pandemic. This season is the season of “Oh, it’s not that we’re waiting for the audiences to come back. It’s that the core audience entirely has shifted.” Because we do have many more successes in season three post-pandemic than we did the last two.  

DUBNER: Name some of those successes, in addition to Stereophonic.  

JOHNSON: You have Gutenberg! The Musical, which recouped in the fall. You have the production of Oh, Mary!, that was a huge hit Off-Broadway that then transferred. We were producers, lead producers on Danny and the Deep Blue Sea Off-Broadway, that starred Aubrey Plaza; that was a similar sort of success story. And then further on Broadway, we’re seeing Jeremy Strong in Enemy of the People, Sarah Paulson in Appropriate. Some would say, “Oh, well, Jeremy Strong was in Succession, of course it’s going to be a massive sell-out.” Sarah Paulson is a star as well. But this isn’t Daniel Craig, who I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. It’s not folks that are global superstars. If the core audience pre-pandemic was women ages late 50s into their 70s that were seeing shows six to eight times a year, that audience has shifted down dramatically to folks in their late 30s to their early 50s, who have binged every season of American Horror Story that Sarah Paulson’s in and now when she’s in a play, they’re going “Oh, she’s on stage now? I’m going.” The folks who binged Succession four times over are sitting there going, “Jeremy Strong’s in a play? I’m going to that. I don’t care how much it costs.” It’s event theater. Event theater has always been there, but I think the nature of who is part of that event theater now has shifted a little bit.  

DUBNER: The other thing I noticed about the Stereophonic audience — it was the first play I’ve ever been to on Broadway, play or musical, where the restroom line for the men’s was longer than the women’s at intermission. 

JOHNSON: Did you see The Lehman Trilogy two years ago? Because it was the same way at Lehman Trilogy.  

DUBNER: I did not.  

JOHNSON: But I agree, Stereophonic fits into that same generational shift as well, in terms of the new core audience. Because one would think, “Oh, it’s a story about a band in the late 70s. It’s dead-aimed towards a boomer audience.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we don’t have folks who are in that generation who come and see it. But the groundswell of support, the age range of it, you would think, “Oh, how is Gen Z going to tip into a play like this when most of these folks weren’t born even 20 years after the play?” But I think the nature of rock and roll, the nature of creating music, the nature of this bubble of a studio and the drama that that creates, is timeless.  

Tom PECINKA: I think the reason why, especially a lot of young people are coming to the theater in 2024, is that we forget — because I think we have collective PTSD — but we were locked in our houses for three and a half years. I think people want to be around each other. 

That is Tom Pecinka, the actor who plays Peter, the leader of the band in Stereophonic. The band is never named but they bear a firm resemblance to Fleetwood Mac. Peter and his girlfriend, Diana, are at the center of a lot of the show’s drama. The entire cast has remained intact since the show began last year Off-Broadway, at the non-profit theater Playwrights Horizons.

PECINKA: You know, Off-Broadway, it felt very fake it till you make it. You have to construct intimacy, you have to construct chemistry. I always say that on Broadway, if you had seen it off-Broadway, I think you’re going to see a much tighter-knit group. Sarah and I, we didn’t know each other at all.

PIDGEON: I’m Sarah Pidgeon, and I’m currently in Stereophonic playing Diana. We’ve done 50 performances, and if you count previews close to 70. We did 70-something performances at Playwrights, and 20-something previews. No one’s taken a show off yet.  

DUBNER: Are you kidding?  

PIDGEON: Not at all. At Playwrights, we canceled the first preview because I got sick, and then we canceled the fourth-to-last show because someone lost their voice. So we’ve only missed two. There’s sort of been this agreement that unless you’re deathly ill, you’ll be on the stage.

DUBNER: So you have a bunch of pissed-off understudies.

PIDGEON: I wouldn’t — I don’t know, you’d have to interview them.  

PECINKA: I mean, I think it just requires a different type of stamina.

DUBNER: Live theater has been declared dead or dying for years. We have TV, and film, and now we have an endless stream of entertainments and distractions — most of which require much less effort and coordination and investment than live theater. So what would be lost if live theater did disappear? 

PECINKA: I think a certain level of discipline, a certain level of technique, a certain level of lineage would be lost. Working as an actor in the theater, it requires different muscles than working in television and film. You have to do eight shows a week. It’s the first time I’m really doing that, and my body’s breaking down. That’s just not what happens when you work in front of a camera. You get to go nap in your trailer for four hours, until they call you to set, and you’re there for less than an hour, and you shoot four or five takes, and then you’re done.  

PIDGEON: In this job and how taxing it can be, eight shows a week, and then our show comes in a little over three hours, and there’s singing involved and screaming and laughing and smoking, and I don’t have much of a life. I have no existence, really, outside of the Golden Theatre on 45th Street. 

DUBNER: Your off day is Monday? 

PIDGEON: Monday. 

DUBNER: You have a Sunday matinee, then no Sunday night show, is that right?

PIDGEON: No Sunday night show. 

DUBNER: So what do you do between the time you’re done Sunday afternoon and then Tuesday evening’s show?

PIDGEON: I beat feet out of Midtown. Sometimes my mom comes into town, and we get a nice dinner somewhere, and I sort of blow off some steam. There’s just no time to do that when you get home at 11:00. Like, who wants to have dinner close to midnight? And then Monday is spent sleeping. I haven’t done laundry in a really long time. 

DUBNER: Do you eat healthy? 

PIDGEON: I love food. I like healthy food. But recently because of the schedule, I just find it quite difficult to find something that I want to eat before a three-hour show and sometimes two three-hour shows. So I’ve been getting these Kraft mac and cheese, microwavable, individual bowls, and then usually, I’m not looking at the microwave, so they spill all over the microwave, and I have to clean the microwave. But it is, like, carbs and a couple hundred calories. Like, get you through the show and not have this huge full stomach. I’ve ordered a lot of different types of soups during this run, because sometimes my voice is a little rough. 

Sarah Pidgeon and Tom Pecinka were both nominated for Tony Awards, but neither of them won. Stereophonic did win Best New Play, Best Direction, Best Scenic Design and Sound Design — and Will Brill, who plays the band’s bassist, Reg, won Best Featured Actor in a Play. It was Brill who, during his acceptance speech, called the Stereophonic crew “a bunch of nobodies.”

FRIEDMAN: I think awards are really important for the artists. I find them quite stressful, and I find them quite difficult because there are always thousands of people who’ve worked so hard, and they are not recognized. 

That is Sonia Friedman. She’s another lead producer of Stereophonic, and she is one of the most successful theatrical producers in the world.

FRIEDMAN: I watch these artists work really, really hard and try to find the beauty in what they’re doing. But they aren’t always kind to themselves in the process. We’re in a very, very, very difficult world. And what Stereophonic, if nothing else, reminds me, is that whilst we’re making art, we must also do everything we can to be kind to one another.  

DUBNER: Is Stereophonic to some degree a metaphor for what you and your colleagues do all day, every day? I mean, one great thing about the theater — or any of the performing arts — but that is also a challenge, is you need to do it live, and do it well, every time, because last night’s performance might have been great, but that’s not what tonight’s audience is seeing. 

FRIEDMAN: I think what it is, is just very honest about how we make work. And that what an audience will see isn’t always the mechanics of how messy it can be, and how relationships can be really, really fractious offstage. And then they come on stage and nobody would ever know. I could tell you so many secrets about chaotic relationships that happen in the wings, and then they come on stage —  

DUBNER: Well, let’s have a couple. 

FRIEDMAN: And I’m not going to give you any, but that’s the illusion of theater, and that’s the magic of theater. There’s this invisible, magic line between the wings and on the stage and they are two completely separate worlds. You step over that line, and that’s where the magic happens, right in front of you. And then you step behind that line, and it’s not always as magic. 

Coming up: we step behind that line.

*      *      *

Sonia Friedman has been producing theater in London, New York, and elsewhere for more than 30 years. Her shows have won dozens upon dozens of major awards; the other night, her shows won nine Tony Awards: five for Stereophonic and four for the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. She’s had several other shows on Broadway this season, including a new drama called Patriots, about the rise of Vladimir Putin. She has also produced the long-running Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the very long-running Book of Mormon.

FRIEDMAN: Normally I’m producing upwards of 12, 15 shows across the world.  

And what is Friedman’s advice for a would-be producer?

FRIEDMAN: You should be, as a producer, as interested in the business side of it. One of the reasons why I’ve had longevity in the industry is that I’m as fascinated and interested with the numbers. I will do all my own budgets. Before I set out to do a show, I’ll be the one that sits behind a computer, and literally bashes it out. I need to understand where the show needs to sit in terms of what scale theater, and what the whole model of it needs to be in order to make it viable. 

DUBNER: Does it happen now and again that there’s a show that you’re dying to produce, but you just can’t make it work financially in the theaters that are available to you? 


DUBNER: How often?  

FRIEDMAN: It’s becoming more often now, because everything’s getting more expensive.  

DUBNER: In London as in New York? 

FRIEDMAN: London is still a better economic model than New York. But we’re creeping up. I mean, we’ve gone up 21 percent, our costs, since Covid. 

DUBNER: But New York’s probably 40 or something? 

FRIEDMAN: New York is about — it’s hard to put an actual figure on it, but I’d say our costs have gone up about 30 percent since the pandemic. 

DUBNER: And why is London’s economic model for theater better than New York’s? 

FRIEDMAN: When I first started producing in New York, taking into account the exchange rate, New York was about three times more expensive than London. It’s now about five times. The play that would cost me 1.5 million in London will now have to be capitalized between $7 and $8 million in New York. And because of the weak pound, that’s really, really expensive for us. And the difference, why?  

DUBNER: I mean, it sounds implausible for two things that are so similar in such seemingly-similar places to be so — 

FRIEDMAN: It does. Because it’s exactly the same show. It’s the same set, same group of actors on the stage.  

DUBNER: So what’s driving it? 

FRIEDMAN: Absolutely everything is more expensive over here.  

DUBNER: What’s the biggest difference? Is it the real estate, the renting of the theater?  

FRIEDMAN: The unions, number one. Look, I’m not anti-union. That’s just a fact. 

DUBNER: How many unions would be typically involved in a Broadway show?  

FRIEDMAN: I’m going to say a number, and then I might have to come back and correct it. I think it’s about 17 unions. 

There are actually 13 unions — for instance, IATSE Local 751, which represents box office treasurers, and Theatrical Wardrobe Union Local 764, which represents wardrobe workers and the guardians who supervise child actors.

FRIEDMAN: So that’s, you know, the unions. Yes, the real estate, it is more expensive here. It just is. The advertising is very, very expensive. The shops that build the sets have become much more expensive since Covid because of the supply chain issue. Hires of lighting, sound, all of the video equipment. The deals for the star actors —  they know their power, they know their worth. Everything is more expensive. And it’s much, much harder, therefore, to take creative risk here in New York. And which is why Stereophonic is beautiful and wonderful — but it’s an outlier. It’s not the norm. 

DUBNER: Do you think it bodes well for the future?

FRIEDMAN: Look, I think every season you have to have something like a Stereophonic, where you can prove that you can do shows on Broadway, and they can have a financial model that can withstand the costs of New York. 

So how do you “withstand the costs of New York”? By selling as many tickets as you can at as high a price as the market will allow. The average price of a Broadway ticket is around $125, but premium seats can sell for multiples of that. And it’s up to people like John Johnson to set those prices.

JOHNSON: There’s definitely a little bit of feel to it, as opposed to the ticketing companies for concerts or sporting events in terms of the algorithm. But that’s because they’re dealing with 25,000 seats in an arena, or 50,000 seats in a baseball stadium, or 80,000 seats in a football stadium. Here, we have 800 seats a night. Or in terms of Stereophonic, specifically, 770 seats a night.

DUBNER: And I guess it’s always tricky when you’re selling an asset that’s so perishable? 

JOHNSON: For sure. We will have premium pricing now that ranges anywhere from $249 on a Wednesday matinee all the way to $349 on a Friday or Saturday night.

DUBNER: So Stereophonic grossed nearly $800,000 last week, which is a really good number, but it’s still not nearly among the leaders in grossing. I’m sure some of that is size of house, maybe some of it is ticket price, I don’t know. How do you look at this as an asset that you’re trying to properly price and extract the right amount of return on? 

JOHNSON: We priced the show to move early on because we knew that, while it was a white-hot ticket at Playwrights Horizons, the only way that we can get it back is that if the houses are full, that the word of mouth can continue to spread, and how do we jump-start that? And we jump-start that by saying, “We’re just going to price the show to move.” We had preview pricing that was $40, $80, $120 to start, for the month of April. But you have to catch up to it, because now we can get $229 for them. You kind of play a game of chicken with yourself and with your audience. For something like Stereophonic, because it’s an unknown title — obviously it’s getting more well-known — but two, it does not have a major mega-star in it. It has a group of incredible rising stars, but they’re not household names. The way that we get there is by getting people in the door, and really building to that moment. Additionally, we have about 30 to 50 Tony voters in the show each night, and those are comp tickets. We have tons of press who also are seeing the show for free, for that New York Times feature that’s coming or that TV booker for Live with Kelly and Mark or Jimmy Fallon.  

DUBNER: Or that pesky podcast.  

JOHNSON: Or that pesky podcast, exactly.  

DUBNER: How often do you reevaluate your ticket pricing and strategy — is it a daily thing, a weekly thing? 

JOHNSON: I would say a couple times a week. You see how the show sells, you see where it goes. We’re not going so out of control of sitting there on a Sunday morning, pulling levers and twisting knobs there. It’s usually like a Monday, Wednesday, Friday type thing. 

DUBNER: So, Stereophonic was originally booked into the Golden Theatre for a relatively short run but you’ve already extended that a couple times — now at least until early 2025. Could you envision this show playing on Broadway for years and years? 

JOHNSON: I mean, in my wildest dreams, sure. The surprises are what keeps every person that you probably talked to on this podcast coming back. Because, as much as yes, it’s hard, and yes, it’s expensive, when something like that hits, it makes everyone just go, “Yes, this is why we do what we do.” We just keep saying over and over again, when will it slow down, when will the sales slow down? When will it sort of stop? And it just has not yet. We are going to scale, we’re going to have a London production. We’re going to have a first-class national tour, etc.

DUBNER: There’s going to be a film, I understand?  

JOHNSON: There’s lots of interest in the film. 

DUBNER: And would an initial investment in the theatrical production get me a piece of that, or no?

JOHNSON: Doesn’t get you the right to invest in it. They have the right but not the obligation to invest in London. They have the right but not the obligation to invest in the national tour. But there’s a firewall there for any movie. 

DUBNER: The standard number you see is that only around 20 percent of Broadway shows recoup even their original investment. Based on people I’ve been speaking with, and based on some personal exposure, I wouldn’t be surprised if 20 percent is actually overstating it. But whatever the case, most Broadway shows lose a lot of money for their investors. Does it even make sense to call it “investing”?  Should I think of it instead as essentially a way of supporting the arts with a small chance that I’ll actually get some money back?

JOHNSON: “Commercial philanthropy” is what some people like to call it.  

DUBNER: When I first heard that phrase, or that idea, I thought, “Yeah, it’s unfortunately true.” But then I think, “What’s unfortunate about it?”, right? I mean, people spend all kinds of money on all kinds of things. It’s kind of like buying a lottery ticket, I guess, is the way I think of it now.   

JOHNSON: The odds are probably a little bit better than a lottery ticket. It’s on par with most restaurants. I like to use a gambling analogy, like a blackjack table or — but I’ll use your lottery one as well. A hit begets more hits as it scales up. And so as you’re coming back to buy that lottery ticket, your odds of winning again are pretty impossible. If you have a good run at a blackjack table and then you go back the next day, and be like, “I’m really good at blackjack,” but it’s like, no, you just went on a run. Whereas, in the instance of any of these mega-hit musicals that then scale, you’re walking back to a table that you know you’re going to be getting 21 over and over again, because as it scales, it’s going to continue to do that. There are tons of cliche sayings in the theater. You know, “You can make a killing or you can get killed.” Anybody who was around in the ‘80s, like, people would talk about, “Oh, my Cats investment returned 5,000 percent.” That makes the stock market or any hedge fund manager kind of blow their mind. 

So on the rare occasion that a show does return 5,000 percent — how is that money divvied up? For instance, do the non-household names in Stereophonic get any back end?

*      *      *

The new hit Broadway play Stereophonic is about a band getting famous as they’re in the studio making their second record, and how their relationships ebb and flow, and sometimes crater, as they are beset by the fame. That’s very much the case for Diana and Peter, as played by Sarah Pidgeon and Tom Pecinka.

PECINKA: So many plays are described as slice of life, but I think our play really is a slice of life. You’re coming into it in the middle of something and you’re leaving it in the middle of something. It’s more of a comma, as opposed to a period. We know that these people will live on. We know that their careers will change, or end, or something.  

DUBNER: Where do you think Diana is five years after the play ends? 

PIDGEON: I think she writes a solo album. I think it’s good, but I think she always feels like it would have been better if she did it with Peter. 

DUBNER: What’s Peter doing five years after? 

PIDGEON: I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this. I think at one point it was said that Grover goes on to become one of the world’s greatest producers, and Peter sleeps on his couch for a bit. 

At least the actor playing Peter won’t be sleeping on couches any time soon. Tom Pecinka has been performing his whole life; he did musicals all through high school, and eventually went to Yale Drama School. He’s kept busy ever since — some stage work, some TV and film — but career success has taken a while. Stereophonic is a big boost for him.

PECINKA: I’m doing interviews for the first time. I’m doing photo shoots for the first time. I’m doing all this stuff. It’s so novel to me. Everything. Is it everything I’ve ever wanted? Like, on paper? Yeah, for sure. But experiencing it is a very different story. We had a big press day when the Tony nominations came out, just going from interview to interview to interview. I was so exhausted by the end of it, and I went back to the hotel room where my girlfriend and my dog were staying. I just drew a circle with my finger in the air, and I said, “This is real life. That is something else.” And I will participate in that for my business. And it’s fun. But I’m so glad that this stuff is starting to happen for me at 36, and not 21. Because I think it’s so easy to lose your head, and blur the lines between what is real life and what is, I don’t know, something else.  

DUBNER: When real rock stars come to see the show — I know Ronnie Wood is coming soon, or just came, between Rolling Stones shows — have you met with them afterwards?  

PECINKA: No! And this is like a P.S.A. to all the famous people that come to the show: Please say hello. No one comes back. I have a guest book and there’s one signature in it. Ellen Burstyn, she’s the only person in my guest book. And I’d love to fill it up.  

As the producer John Johnson told us, neither Tom Pecinka nor any of the other cast members of Stereophonic are household names. Only one of them, Will Brill, had ever been in a Broadway show. But: they are now responsible for helping create a hit that may earn its producers and investors a very good return. Traditionally, only big stars have had profit-sharing deals on Broadway. But lately — thanks to the broader economic discussions around income inequality — there has been a movement toward broadening this practice. So I asked John Johnson if or how the cast members of Stereophonic may share in the show’s financial upside.

JOHNSON: Yeah, we structure a lot of our deals, regardless of whether the person is a household name or not, with an upside potential. Because I think in general, when everyone is along for the ride and everyone is cut in, it makes the experience for all sort of spiritually better.  

DUBNER: When you say, “upside potential,” you mean if the show does well, the performers start to get a piece of the action? 

JOHNSON: Correct. And the specific nature of this show, being an ensemble piece and being this band, literally, who have grown together, it just felt right. I’ve done tons of shows that have had singular A-list stars that you pay a handsome amount of money. And it’s a 14- or 16-week run because that’s what stars like to do, because then they’re off to their next TV show or their next movie.

PECINKA: So I get paid $5,000 a week. 

That’s Tom Pecinka.

PECINKA: But I see $2,000-something of that because of taxes and because of, you know, 20 percent goes to my representation. I’m also paying other people as well. I think people don’t realize, on Broadway, when you’re especially running a Tony campaign, you’re hiring a publicist. 

DUBNER: You are — not the show?

PECINKA: The show has a publicist. But I also elected to hire my personal publicist. A stylist, someone who grooms me. If it’s a Tony event and I’m a Tony nominee, the producers will give me a certain amount of money to spend on those things. 

DUBNER: But you’re still spending a lot out of pocket. 

PECINKA: Spending a lot of money. The profit-sharing — I don’t know exactly what it is. 

DUBNER: Was it negotiated collectively, with all of you? 

PECINKA: Yes, we negotiated collectively for everything. 

DUBNER: Was that a union-driven negotiation, or no?  

PECINKA: No. We got together as a cast. We put our points down, what was negotiable, what was non-negotiable. Then we went to our agents and managers with that, and then they got together collectively and then they went to the producers.  

DUBNER: At what point was this? Was this before the transfer to Broadway?  

PECINKA: Yeah, this was when we were negotiating the Broadway contract.  

DUBNER: What were you getting paid at Playwrights per week?  

PECINKA: $1,200, I think.  

DUBNER: So, to some kid who’s listening to you, and saying, “Oh yeah, I’d like to have a hit like that, and an interesting character like that, and a life like that” —  how would you advise them about the actual career prospects of paying rent and living and maybe having a family and so on?  

PECINKA: You know, that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot because my girlfriend and I, we’re having those discussions. She’s getting to an age, I’m getting to an age where it’s like, “Okay, we live together, are we going to have a kid? Are we going to get married? Like, what’s the deal?” I want those things, for sure. But, you know, I got to get a series. Even if you’re in a hit on Broadway, it’s hard. Unfortunately, if you just want to be a theater artist, you have to live a certain lifestyle. I don’t want to live that lifestyle. I want to live a different lifestyle. I want to have a house. I want to be able to put my kids through college. I want to be able to do all of that. Buy my dog really fancy dog food because she’s really stingy about eating kibble. After this show, I want to get, like, on an HBO series, where I’m on 10 episodes or 13 episodes and I’m making tens of thousands of dollars per episode so I can afford the life that I’ve decided and I’m not ashamed of wanting.

DUBNER: Do you think most people who come to New York and buy one or two Broadway tickets, do you think they assume that the average performer is making a lot more money than the average performer actually is?  

PECINKA: Probably. I also think it depends on who you are, right? I’ve heard crazy stories of Hugh Jackman making, I don’t know, $1 million a week or something, or getting a certain cut of the box office. I’m not ragging on Hugh Jackman, he’s great. But also, again, lifestyle — he has a lifestyle, and he can’t just take a year out of his life and do Broadway and not get paid $1 million a week. 

Hugh Jackman did recently star in a Broadway revival of The Music Man. For more than a year, he did eight shows a week. His salary was never made public, but $1 million a week would seem high; industry people we’ve spoken with put the likely figure at around $300,000, although that was likely augmented by a share of the box office. But for most people working on Broadway, the economics are tough. I went back to Stereophonic producer John Johnson:

DUBNER: If you read the newspapers and even the trades about the economics of producing live theater these days, the last, let’s call it five years, especially, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that live theater is basically dying. It’s too expensive to produce. The audiences are not the same, or are not returning. There are too many countervailing forces. Unions have too much leverage. The theater owners have too much leverage. There are many, many, many other media options that audiences are taking advantage of. You sound, John, like the first person I’ve spoken with who doesn’t exude that kind of death rattle. 

JOHNSON: Yeah, it’s a little dramatic. When I started in the business, my first boss was a legendary producer by the name of Liz McCann. She had worked in the theater for almost 60 years. She used to talk about the late ‘70s, the time period of which, you know, the same thing was being said. New York was told to drop dead. The Bronx was burning. Crime was up, the theaters were being torn down. That was a way worse time than what we’re talking about now. And yet at the same time, what came out of that afterwards was in the ’80s, a massive boom. It was the British Invasion — it was Lloyd Webber, it was Cameron Mackintosh coming in with these massive shows. That’s what came out of that period of the late ’70s. The other example I like to give is, the financial crash. What we went through in late 2008, 2009, 2010 — I think way worse than what we’re dealing with now from a standpoint of fundraising drying up, shows having to close prematurely. Fourteen shows closed at the top of 2009, right after the crash. It was almost worse than the pandemic because everyone stayed home and saved money. Where at least now, what they want to see is different, but if they do really want to see something, whether it be Daniel Radcliffe in Merrily We Roll Along or Sarah Paulson or Jeremy Strong, they will pay for it. Is it challenging? Yes. Are we dealing with costs going up? Yes. Are we dealing with not being able to figure out how to get the audiences to the shows and how to entice them in a world where you can’t just take ads on television anymore because no one’s watching traditional television?  

DUBNER: How is Stereophonic being marketed and sold differently now than it might have been 20 years ago?

JOHNSON: Oh, it’s almost entirely all digital now. It’s all mobile. It’s all through Meta — it’s all through Instagram, Facebook. We do still take the traditional behavioral banner ads that follow you around the internet. We still do some prints, but not a ton. We have dabbled into television, but we’re taking specific ads. We’re not taking giant flights with multiple spots on Good Morning America or the Today Show, which was always your bread and butter. Because, again, the audience that you were going for, that demographic that was coming six to eight times a year from the suburbs, were the same folks who were, you know, get the kids off to school and then turn on the Today Show and watch the commercials kind of roll by and go, “Oh, that show, I’ve heard of that, I need to go see that.” Now it’s all in your hand.  

DUBNER: How do the costs of a digital-first marketing and advertising campaign compare to the old school, and what’s the R.O.I. compared to the old school?  

JOHNSON: The R.O.I. is much easier to figure out because you can actually track people. Our zip code reporting is way more sophisticated now than it was before, whereas you had to blanket the market with something and then you didn’t see a direct correlation. Now it’s less things, but you can still see how your wraps jump due to specific things of press, like a C.B.S. Sunday Morning piece, or if your stars are on Morning Joe. There are fewer things that give you that pop, but at least you know, “If I’m on Morning Joe, then we’re going to have a good day at the box office.”

There are other ways in which the theater industry intersects with the larger entertainment ecosystem. Here, again, is the producer Sonia Friedman.

FRIEDMAN: If you look across Broadway and the West End over the last 50 years, a lot of the new shows have come from studios — Universal, FOX, MGM. And Netflix are going to be no different in that respect.

Friedman has already worked with Netflix twice. The first was turning a Netflix property — Stranger Things — into a live theatrical show, in London.

FRIEDMAN: With Stranger Things, actually we went to them. It was a very, very specific challenge about, can you put sci-fi on stage? It’s an actually surprisingly emotional story about a little kid who’s metaphorically and literally got a monster growing inside of him. And how does he beat this monster? It’s a very, very simple yet universal tale we’re telling. But we also wanted to see whether we could go for it, technically, go for it in the most extraordinary way. Netflix loved the idea and they became our partner on it.

DUBNER: And theater for them is relatively cheap — I mean, considering their scale. 

FRIEDMAN: I would have thought so. But you know, it’s all relative to me. When Stranger Things comes to Broadway, they will be our partners. And I have to make sure that the financial model still makes sense.  

So that’s one way for Netflix to be involved in live theater. But there’s another way. Consider Sonia Friedman’s recent production of the play Patriots, on Broadway. It was written for the stage by Peter Morgan, best-known for creating the Netflix series The Crown; and Netflix is a big investor in the Broadway show.

FRIEDMAN: With Patriots, that was absolutely driven by Pete Morgan. And Netflix wanted to support the Patriots journey. I think they’re going to make it into a film or something, but I can say no more beyond that.  

DUBNER: Would you like to be involved in turning Stereophonic into a film or series?  

FRIEDMAN: Of course. I think it would be a fantastic series. 

DUBNER: I’ve heard a little talk about you producing more T.V., film. Would you like to be a full-blown producer in that realm?  

FRIEDMAN: I would do it, but I don’t want it to be what I do, because I love theater. Every single night, who knows what’s going to happen? Seeing the audience, just feeling and hearing. When I make TV —  I’ve done a few. It’s pretty exciting, but then it’s done. It’s always slightly anticlimactic when it comes out on telly and you go, Oh that’s it. You sit there at home on your own, you know, with a box of popcorn. And then you look at Twitter and go, okay, so that’s happened. Where’s the adrenaline? Where’s that extraordinary cortisol hit that you get with theater, which is you literally walk in and my heart beats faster and it’s terrifying and it’s wonderful. I mean, particularly with shows which have a lot of technical challenges — is it going to go wrong tonight? Are we going to get through it? When I have nine, ten shows running at any one time, I will not be able to go to sleep in London until the curtain’s at least gone up in New York, just so I know that’s happened. And then I’ll usually wake up in the middle of the night just to check that they’ve gone okay. And that’s how I’ve lived my life for 20 years, and then we had the pandemic. And I think that everything came into stark relief, as we all know, for the world.

DUBNER: And you had just opened Leopoldstadt, the Tom Stoppard play, in the West End.  

FRIEDMAN: Just opened Leopoldstadt, exactly, about three or four days beforehand. I had another 17 shows across the world. It was obviously sort of shocking. And I — frankly, as I talk about it now, I still can’t quite believe it happened to us all. And I got quite heavily involved in the lobbying.

DUBNER: Yeah, I read that you lobbied the U.K. government for Covid-relief funding for the theater sector. 

FRIEDMAN: Very much so, yes. It was a moment where I had to actually figure out what theater meant to the world. Why theater? Why culture? Why arts, when we were going through this absolute crisis? The very model for us, which was bringing a group of people together in a closed space indoors, sharing an experience — that whole idea was under threat. But in those dark hours, it became quite clear to me that theater will never, ever, ever, ever die. It’s absolutely essential for our mental health and our ability to communicate with one another, our ability to have empathy. We do something beautiful and unique, which is we allow people to come together, share an experience, go on a journey, think about the world in a slightly different way and in the majority of cases, feel a little bit better about the world. And then, you know, I put on my political lobbying hat, we also feed the economy. We also feed the ecosystem around the towns and the cities, and we feed the bars and the restaurants and we create employment. We are more than just a luxury. You know, we’re at the center of every policy. And I’m talking to the Labor Party at the moment in the U.K. about all of this. Because they get it, they get it.

DUBNER: And they’ll soon be in power.  

FRIEDMAN: Oh, I expect so. And in America and in the U.K., the fact that theater and artists have to still fight for their relevance, the fact that we still have to fight for the right for children to see shows, to read plays, to study art, to study music in schools — it’s so short-sighted because almost every great person who walks the planet has had some experience as they grow up of being in a school show, being in a school play, or going to watch one, and it can change their lives.

On that note — the changing of a life — I went back to David Adjmi. He had been writing plays for a couple decades in relative obscurity until Stereophonic, which itself took 11 years to write.

ADJMI: The whole thing was written very freely and very experimentally and — I didn’t know what the structure would be early on. I just had these scenes, and I didn’t know how they’d go together or what they would be. I don’t know, I just follow my intuitions when I’m working. So much of it is non-rational. It’s just me kind of like tracking these characters and saying, let’s see how far I can push this.  

DUBNER: It seems to me that the way you’re describing writing is — and maybe this is just because the way I think about writing, having been a writer my whole life — is that, you know, this is how you write. You look for ideas, you find a whole lot. Most of them are terrible. You throw them away, and then you sit with them and you let the unconscious come in. And then you keep doing research and thinking and talking to people. But then what you try to create is an original thing. Whereas much of the theater that I’ve been seeing over the past year, especially, in pursuit of this series that we’re working on, feels — what’s a non-pejorative way — constructed? I understand there’s a big market for that, probably a much bigger market for that than there is for your kind of writing. But can you just offer a sort of defense of your kind of writing for the stage? I mean, we’re used to that kind of writing in literature, but I feel like most people who think of theater don’t think of a show that’s as, not just thoughtful, but, like, intense. It’s an intense piece of work. It’s also fun and funny and weird. But why is there not more of this?  

ADJMI: I don’t know, I mean, I love Goethe and German romanticism.

DUBNER: I can hear all the commercial producers’ ears dropping down. Oh, never mind.  

ADJMI: And Strindberg and stuff like that, O’Neill. I mean the great plays, the great capital G, great plays are very, very freaking intense plays. They go to the bottom. And I think most playwrights don’t have the courage to do it, or they don’t have it in their genetic material. They don’t have it in them. And I always did, and I always felt like a weirdo. Because in the end, that stuff is really scary. And it does scare away theaters. People don’t always want to feel too much. They want to go home and have their dinner after a show. They don’t want to be ripped open. And I do think the function of art is to discomfit the comforted. And so that’s what I’m going to do. 

Thanks to David Adjmi, along with all the performers and producers of Stereophonic who spoke with us. As I mentioned, we are working on a broader series about the economics of live theater; that’ll probably come out sometime in the fall or winter. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your feedback on these Stereophonic episodes — and, what you’d like to learn about in that later series. Our address is Also, feel free to tell your friends and family to listen to Freakonomics Radio — that is a great way to support the podcasts you love.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Augusta Chapman, Dalvin Aboagye, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Sarah Lilley, Theo Jacobs, and Zack Lapinski. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; our composer is Luis Guerra. Additional music in this episode by Will Butler, Justin Craig, and the cast of Stereophonic.

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