What is Broadway? — Always Patsy Cline , Jaz Dorsey , Ted Swindley , What is Broadway — AAPEX

Thursday, April 11, 2013

What is Broadway?

 "Just like Oz, there's a dark side to the whole Broadway gestalt 
and we poor regional folk, well - we're the flying monkeys."

What is Broadway?

For any American child of the theatre, Broadway is Oz (complete with Ruby Slippers, wicked witches and flying monkeys (think SPIDERMAN) ). All it takes is the right tornado to get you there.

Broadway was actually the first thing I learned about. From about the age of four, my baby sitter was a collection of soundtracks from the great Broadway musicals of the era. By the age of eight, I could sing every one of those shows word for word, song for song, beginning to end, and, at the age of 10, I sat down and played the entire score of THE SOUND OF MUSIC by ear, which quite frankly horrified my father; what kind of a boy-child does that?

I can also testify that learning Broadway's songbook is a kick ass vocabulary builder and the oh so perfect fusion of music and language makes it impossible not to connect with the words.

When I started my acting career in Asheville, NC at 13, my favorite collection of books at the library was the annual Best Plays of Broadway series. Broadway and Broadway's best playwrights were my language mentors.

Then, honestly, I didn't give Broadway another thought until I had to drop out of the graduate dramaturgy program at VCU in 1980, at the age of 27, and head back down to Atlanta to preserve Tara - i.e. my grandmother's home at 99 Peachtree Battle Avenue - when multiple disasters struck on the family health front. That's when I learned something about Broadway that I didn't much care for; outside of New York City, Broadway is used as both a crutch and a weapon by the people of the American theatre. Broadway doesn't care and I don't blame Broadway, but, just like Oz, there's a dark side to the whole Broadway gestalt and we poor regional folk, well - we're the flying monkeys.

I got so sick of hearing "If you were any good, you'd be in New York" that one day I sat down and wrote a song called MANHATTAN BLUES. That turned into my first musical, DESTINY CALLS COLLECT, which is about an Atlanta debutante/actress named Tallulah Buckhead (based on my wonderful friend Bea Swanson.) Fed up with the suppressive attitude on the home front, Tallulah takes off for New York City, gives a spontaneous audition in Sardi's, and gets cast in the Broadway production of a new time-share operetta by Stephen Soundsystem - which closes the night of dress rehearsal. Doesn't matter. Tallulah comes home with a Broadway credit and gets cast in EVERYTHING.

Then, in 1986, my grandmother died and I got this wonderful thing call an inheritance. The temptation was too intense - I grabbed two of my Atlanta acting buddies and a nifty little script called LUNACY by a fellow named Joe Reese and the next thing you know, we were over Sardi's doing a reading of the play. For the purpose of psychological clarification, I billed this as ONE NIGHT ON BROADWAY.

The next year I was back at The Dramatists Guild with another reading - this time a biographical musical about Offenbach (he wrote the Can Can - and a lot more cool stuff that y'all would enjoy.) This time we had a cast of 20 NYC actors and a full musical score, and somehow I managed to pull this together by long distance telephone from Atlanta, just coming up the day of the reading. That's when I learned about the true genius of Broadway, be it on, off or off-off: If you have the right script and get it to the right people in NYC, the best thing you can do is get out of their way and let them "do what they do' as we say down here in the hood.

Then, in 1990 and much to my surprise, I landed a job in NYC as the production manager of a national educational touring theatre company that sent bi-lingual French and Spanish classics out to high schools across the U.S. In the scheme of things, I was so far down the food chain that there wasn't any food left, but I wasn't really there to work. I was there to learn about Broadway - from a distance.

And now what I learned was this: Broadway is not an art form - it's a contract. Specifically, if I remember correctly, a contract that pertains to a production which is mounted in a theatre in New York City (i.e. Manhattan) which has 1,500.00 seats or more. So even if your show goes up on Times Square but the theatre has only 1,499 and a half seats, that ain't Broadway, babe.

In fact, the gap between the myth of Broadway and the business of Broadway is about twice the size of the Grand Canyon. Even people who have worked on Broadway harbor fantasies of that "backer" coming to your reading, workshop or showcase and sitting down to write a check for $250,000.00 right there. Which brings me to the next thing I learned about Broadway only in the last few years - in order to raise money for a Broadway production, you must first file a document with the SEC (that's the Securities and Exchange Commission). The cost to prepare and file that document, if I understand correctly, is $75,000.00 If you take money from an investor with the understanding that you are raising money for a Broadway production and you have not filed that $75,000.00 document, YOU ARE COMMITTING FRAUD. Just FYI. Which is why, all things being equal, I am perfectly happy to "do what I do" off off Broadway. The Long Road to Broadway Broadway: Day Dream - or Nightmare? I never really anticipated getting close enough to Broadway to feel the actual undercurrents, but now my good friend and occasional employer Ted Swindley is preparing for the Broadway production of his signature play, ALWAYS...PATSY CLINE, and now I'm really learning about Broadway from a kind of second hand first hand experience. 

The first thing you need to know is, no matter what goes on in this process, do not - let me repeat - DO NOT talk about it. Why? Because it isn't real until you've nailed the theatre and locked down the dates with a serious monetary commitment. 

The second thing is that, to reach a contract, you have to negotiate several dozen other contracts, everyone of which calls for attorneys who have to be paid. To me, it sounds like you would have to sell out for at least a year to pay the lawyers you have to pay to deal with the lawyers that the other parties pay to talk to your lawyers. This is no fun ride - in fact it's a torture chamber in a house of mirrors on a roller coaster. 

Speaking of contracts, the one animal that is indispensable once you manage to stagger on to the Great White Way is the General Manager. The GM is someone who understands the contracts, knows the contracts and keeps up with the contracts so that everything operates in machine like fashion with regard unions, vendor, ticket sellers and reservation administration. As to what the GM does and has to do, all I can say is, do not try this at home. 

Fortunately ALWAYS...PATSY CLINE is a small show, but if you're Broadway production calls for a chorus line, then there's the laundry. I once saw a production of DIE FLEDERMAUS that involved so many pairs of tights that I went into a coma.

But in the end, it's all worth it - I guess. As for me, I think I'll stick to new play readings. But you can bet there'll be a Nashville road trip to Broadway when Patsy opens. Just as soon as they get a theatre and an opening date. 

But you know, maybe I shouldn't talk about it. Yet. 

Jaz Dorsey 
The Nashville Dramaturgy Project

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