The Happy Hawkers

Broadway’s end-of-season, from early May through early June, roughly coincides with pro basketball’s post-season, a period when the makers of both events promote, promote, promote like crazy right up to the big finale, the nationally televised shootout – in the case of the NBA, between two clubs; in the case of Broadway (this year, anyway), between franchise players Ragtime and The Lion King.

Sure, other musicals and plays were vying for the Tony awards that were handed out June 7. But it was The Lion King and Ragtime that broke through the Broadway barrier this season into the larger cultural consciousness. Or, more accurately, they were the shows that spent millions breaking through the barrier. And therein lies the real story of the season: The face-off between these two musicals rendered the other Tony contenders all but invisible. Moreover, they made Broadway producing and theatergoing more expensive, and the little guys virtually obsolete; witness the quick demise of two comparatively intimate musicals – Side Show and Triumph of Love – embraced by critics but just squashed by the Lion King/Ragtime juggernaut. The compulsion to spend huge sums of money promoting hugely expensive spectacles has altered the business and the art of Broadway forever.

For this state of affairs the producers have no one to blame but themselves. Over the past two decades, the commercial theater has grown into a billion-dollar-plus industry heavily dependent on tours, meaning the audience for Broadway-caliber shows was no longer confined to Broadway’s traditional mix of to-the-manner-born theatergoers along with the tourist and expense-account trade. It was only a matter of time before someone realized the product – Broadway – could be bigger than any single play or musical. A few years ago, Broadway’s fractious trade association, the League of American Theatres and Producers, hired Jed Bernstein, a seasoned marketing executive with a soft spot for musicals. Taking its cue from NBA commissioner David Stern’s smashing transformation of basketball from sports sideshow to living-room hegemony, the league told Bernstein to get out there and sell Broadway. After hearing from the standard battery of statisticians, numbers crunchers, chart-makers, audience profilers, and the like, the league came up with the thuddingly uncatchy catchphrase “Live Broadway” (not exactly “I love this game!”) and began signing up big names like Continental Airlines and First USA Bank for promotional tie-ins. Suddenly, the favored buzzword on Broadway was branding (even if most producers remained skeptical about selling a concept instead of their show).

For years, the Tonys, rather like Broadway itself, had been definitively local. But producers, desperate for national exposure, became TV’s willing handmaidens, and the promotional value of the Tony telecast had to be protected at any cost. (CBS insists the Tonys cram everything into two prime-time hours? No problem! Rosie O’Donnell wants billing as producer? Done!) To some extent it’s all paid off: Broadway attendance this season gained more than a million customers over ‘96?’97, and the box office stands at $546.4 million, compared with $477.8 million last year, according to Variety. The growth extends well beyond Times Square, which is one reason behemoths like Disney recently began paying attention.

The Lion King was put up by Disney in the restored New Amsterdam Theater, once home to the Ziegfeld Follies and now the first of Disney’s Broadway venues. The company scored brownie points for hiring Julie Taymor, a brilliant director with no commercial experience, to bring The Lion King to Broadway. But the musical itself had already been seen by millions of people; it’s one of the most profitable movies of all time. The name recognition was established long before the curtain first rose at the New Amsterdam. Four years ago, Beauty and the Beast proved that the Disney machine could turn even a leaden mediocrity into box-office gold. The Mouse planted its largest retail shop right next to the New Amsterdam, and they share more arteries than the singing Siamese twins in Side Show. The store becomes a kind of black hole sucking in winded parents attached to the arms of children launched from the house after the show. In this Disney bazaar, you can buy everything from $5 Mickey Mouse pens to $5,000 so-called animation art.

Across from the New Amsterdam is Ragtime’s home, the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. The lobby of the Ford Center is given over almost entirely to a Ragtime boutique where you can buy mugs, T-shirts, hats, teddy bears, CDs, and the like. The folks selling these goods are in your face the moment you pass through the portals, and they’re all over you as you make your way down the aisle after intermission, pushing bottled water as you try to reclaim your seat.

On the streets where we live, it’s hard to evade The Lion King and Ragtime. Their logos are plastered on taxicabs and billboards; their cast albums are prominently displayed at Tower Records and HMV. Each takes in more than $800,000 a week at the box office, and in a business where discounting is the norm, their per-ticket prices are among the highest. Determined to ensure a long life for these shows, Disney and Livent have made branding – their own branding, that is – a huge part of their business strategy. They don’t give a fig about “Live Broadway.”

In a world of $200 million movies, these developments seem merely inevitable. Over a decade ago, British producer Cameron Mackintosh – whose shows include Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, and Miss Saigon – went head-to-head with the Broadway Establishment over everything from ticket sales to merchandising. His model, of course, might as well have been Disney, creators of the original tentacular entertainment megadelivery system. Instead of hawking stars like Michael Crawford and Colm Wilkinson, Mackintosh sold images – the Phantom’s mask, Cossette waving the Tricolor, that damned helicopter – that need no contracts renewed every six months. The result? Collectively, Cats, Phantom, Les Miz, and Miss Saigon have been on Broadway for 44 years.

Of course, Phantom and Les Miz cost so much to mount that they had to run for years, and they had to run everywhere, not just in New York and London, to repay their backers. They needed to develop the kind of product loyalty that makers of detergent and toothpaste create: Not only must the Phantom your cousin saw in Detroit be as good as the one you saw on Broadway, but the one on Broadway in 1998 had better be as good as the one that opened in 1988. Sort of like French fries at McDonald’s.

This will be remembered as the season Broadway went corporate in a big way, when independent producers threatened with extinction formed alliances to raise capital, exploit markets – and sell lotsa stuff. Forget about art. Thus Dodger Productions, once a free-form collective that worked out of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and brought you The Who’s Tommy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and last year’s Tony winner, Titanic, hooked up with Joop van den Ende, whose Amsterdam-based Endemol Entertainment is one of Europe’s biggest TV and theater producers. And Jujamcyn Theaters, the smallest of Broadway’s three theater-owning chains and a frequent Dodger partner, linked up with Houston-based Pace Theatrical Group, a major touring outfit that has also been developing its own new shows (like Jekyll & Hyde, a loser of a musical with everyone but the audience). The venerable Shubert Organization looks prescient, having a longstanding co-producing deal with ABC – whose parent, of course, is Disney.

Though Disney and Livent had produced on Broadway before, this year it was in their own theaters – and on their own terms. All attention is focused on them, and on what they come up with in Act Two, but in truth, their arrival closes a chapter in Broadway history. It’s no longer enough to produce the shows, sell the tickets, promote the tours, and, if you’re lucky, walk off with a Tony or two. Just as the NBA, about to open its own huge Fifth Avenue store, is now as much about merchandising as about sport, every Broadway theater has become a minimart selling things for wearing, and eating, and listening to. You’d better have a name brand to pitch, and lots of things to sell along with that show unfolding onstage. On such stuff, these days at least, Broadway dreams are made.

The Happy Hawkers