Combing Over the Broadway Transfer Of the Public’s ‘Hair’

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Interesting piece in the New York Times last week on the Public Theater’s new agreement they’re using to help transfer their production of Hair — which appeared this summer in Central Park — to Broadway. To sum it up: the piece discusses the Public’s hits and misses with Broadway transfers, and the great risks associated with either (A) selling the rights to the show (thus potentially compromising the artistic integrity of it) or (B) producing the show with their own cash, which is a huge risk for a nonprofit to take.

Patricia Cohen provides some great insights into the difficulty in transferring a show from Off Broadway to Broadway, and especially ones like the Public’s, which lack a subscription base to work off of (like the Roundabout Theater Company, who have a Broadway theater space, or Atlantic Theater Company, who made the revival of David Mamet’s Speed-The-Plow — directed by Atlantic’s artistic director Neil Pepe — part of their subscribers’ season). The answer to the problem is (C) partnering with a commercial producer.

Broadway’s relationship with nonprofits is a strange one. There’s that old, dumb-yet-astute saying: there are four letters in ‘show’ and eight in ‘business’, though, and at the end of the day, money’s the endgame, even for a theatre like the public, which strives for great artistic leaps and bounds: it still has to have money to keep the heart beating. The Public’s new agreement supposedly gives them complete artistic control over their productions — which might even mean marketing, as well — but they don’t disclose how much money the Public is putting into the show (against commercial producers’ investments).

It’s a commercial producer’s job to conserve, spend, and make money. Nonprofits without in-the-trenches experience in marketing a Broadway show — an entirely different ballgame from Off-Broadway (especially without the subscription base benefit) — would probably be wise to let a commercial producer have a heavy hand in calls that will help extend the longevity of a show on Broadway, something they have experience in doing. This includes, but isn’t limited to: marketing, advertising, (some) casting, and keeping a conservative lid on the show’s budgets.

Nonprofits would be wise to listen to the money guys, especially as they sometimes have egregious amounts of corporately underwritten cash to spend without having to worry (like a commercial production would) about recouping said money (they just hit donors up for more). A Bloomberg report last month noted how much some nonprofit theater artistic directors make, and the numbers are pretty insane. Remember, folks: we’re going into an economic depression. How much money for the arts — on the side of underwriters or consumers — is there going to be in a few months?

All this being said, a few things haven’t been spoken for on the transfer of Hair: (1) they already lost Jonathan Groff, star of this summer’s production of the show, (2) part of the fire the show this summer caught was its ending: an “audience on the stage” dance party, something easy to pull off at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, but slightly harder (read: nearly impossible) to do in a Broadway house due to safety regulations, fire hazards, union contracts, among other factors, and (3) sexual-awakening coming of age shows haven’t done so well lately (Spring Awakening won the Tony last year, is about to close in short order).

The question then becomes: how many balding baby boomers (har har, get it, Hair?) reminiscing about their acid days can you cater to before you run out of steam on a production costing upwards of six million dollars? The producers of Hair are about to find out, but if any show can do it, it’s one that helped revolutionize the pop impact of Broadway — once a trendsetter, always — in what everyone can agree was a pretty masterful production to begin with. A successful Broadway show is about capturing lightening in a bottle night after night, and if they can conjure up some of the same magic of both the original stage production and this summer’s revival, Broadway — and America at large — could find itself with a full head of this show soon enough.