Marquee Marks

“There’s no profit like nonprofit!” Shubert Alley denizens will recognize that truism as a favorite coinage of Gerald Schoenfeld, who, as chairman of the Shubert Organization, rents out seventeen Broadway theaters and has also been known on occasion to produce the shows that run in them.

You’d think he has enough to worry about, what with Disney staking out 42nd Street and ramped-up global alliances such as the SFX-Universal Studios-Barry and Fran Weissler partnership that finally got Seussical out of the starting gate last week. But when Schoenfeld says “There’s no profit like nonprofit,” he’s talking about the increasing – and, some producers vehemently argue, unfair – incursion of nonprofit productions in Broadway’s rough-and-tumble commercial bazaar.

For many years, that incursion was at least limited to shows that had to rent one of Schoenfeld’s or his competitors’ theaters. But even that’s been changing. The country’s two biggest publicly subsidized producers – Lincoln Center Theater and the Roundabout Theatre Company – are already eligible for Tony Awards, the heroin of the Broadway establishment. But last summer, the Roundabout, whose chilling revival of Cabaret has dropped nearly $3 million into its coffers, opened its own Broadway palace on 42nd Street, significantly swelling its presence in the neighborhood.

And two weeks ago, the Manhattan Theatre Club announced plans to join the fray. The Biltmore Theatre – a fine Broadway house reduced in recent decades by vandalism and neglect to an eyesore on West 47th Street – will be restored and turned into an $18 million, 623-seat main stage for the company, whose past Broadway triumphs include Ain’t Misbehavin’, Crimes of the Heart, and Love! Valour! Compassion!.

MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow and executive producer Barry Grove have been at it through 25 years of lean times and flush. This is one of the flush ones, and it demonstrates Schoenfeld’s dictum perfectly. In October, MTC transferred two new American plays – Charles Busch’s The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife and David Auburn’s Proof – to Broadway theaters, where they’re each taking in a remarkable $350,000 per week at the box office. A third MTC show, A Class Act, a musical based on the work of composer-lyricist Ed Kleban, moves into Schoenfeld’s Ambassador Theatre in February.

The debate over what is the proper province of the nonprofit theater vs. the commercial theater long ago was drowned out by the irresistible din of the Broadway box office.

Two years ago, things looked considerably grimmer for Meadow and Grove. In June 1998, having announced plans to produce Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi – in which thirteen gay men re-enact the life of Jesus, complete with offstage suggestions of apostolic hanky-panky – MTC abruptly canceled the production. Though Meadow and Grove cited security fears in the wake of violent threats from religious fanatics, the theater community reacted furiously, claiming they’d caved to pressure. Then, just as abruptly, MTC reinstated the play, which opened that fall amid noisy protests. Life went on and the play pretty much disappeared.

Meadow sees Corpus Christi not as an ordeal but rather as an indication of MTC’s long-haul commitment to artists, not box office. But she adds that it was one of those maturing experiences that gave MTC “the wherewithal to handle everything we’re handling now.” Like moving three shows to Broadway in one season and renovating the Biltmore.

It’s the Biltmore situation that offers insiders the most delicious irony.

In 1967, Joe Papp took a long jump off the high-diving board by opening his new Public Theater not with the Bard but with Hair. Everyone – his aides-de-camp at the Public, his older audience, nearly all the critics – thought he’d lost his mind. But the Age of Aquarius dawned, and a palpable hit was born. So strong was Papp’s aversion to the commercial theater, however, that he turned down the opportunity to produce an uptown transfer. Eventually he sold the rights to an unknown entrepreneur named Michael Butler, who made the show a national sensation – by moving Hair to the Biltmore Theatre.

Papp, of course, never made that mistake again. In fact, he turned the Public into a great cauldron of work, much of it later finding homes on Broadway, and with him as producer. You’ll remember many of them: Two Gentlemen of Verona, That Championship Season, The Pirates of Penzance, and, of course, A Chorus Line, which earned the Public more than $40 million.

Broadway Producers are of two minds about nonprofits in their midst. On the one hand, those who do it the old-fashioned way – insane costs, high rent, short rehearsals – aren’t thrilled, especially in the late spring. How’d you feel, come time for the Tony nominations, if your $11 million Seussathon, with its army of high-priced talent, had to compete with, say, the Roundabout’s revival of Follies, produced for a third of that cost because of the company’s nonprofit status? On the other hand, six of the nine shows that have opened on Broadway this season owe their lives to nonprofit theaters, where development costs are so much lower.

The truth is, the debate over what is the proper province of the nonprofit theater vs. the commercial theater long ago was drowned out by the irresistible din of the Broadway box office. It may have been a shotgun wedding between dysfunctional families, but the marriage is a keeper.

Marquee Marks