"It was much harder to raise money last year," says Daryl Roth, a producer on Broadway's Fela! and A Little Night Music on Broadway as well as the Off-Broadway hit Love, Loss and What I Wore. "Back then, a lot of people said, 'I'm going to go back to fundraising in six months.' But I don't feel that as much now."
Another producer with an optimistic outlook is Kevin McCollum, who is behind the current Broadway revivals of Ragtime (which will close January 10 after a seven-week run) and West Side Story, as well as the long-running Avenue Q which moved earlier this year to Off-Broadway's New World Stages. "The funding for theater is still there, even in an economic downturn," he says. "The bottom line is if you do something that captures the public imagination, it will get produced."
McCollum adds that despite Broadway's higher production costs, it can still be easier to raise money for a show headed to Broadway, even with costs sometimes exceeding $10 million, than one going Off-Broadway. "Off-Broadway just doesn't have as much visibility," he says.
While producer Ken Davenport has found success Off-Broadway with such shows as Altar Boyz and The Awesome '80s Prom, he notes that Broadway producers -- including himself -- have gravitated towards star-driven projects, such as A Steady Rain with Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig. "There have been big strategy changes for a lot of producers over the last year, including myself," he notes. "People were looking to shore up their risk, so they went for shows that they knew consumers would have to see. I knew last season that Blithe Spirit with Angela Lansbury would be an event. And Will Ferrell on Broadway for eight weeks; that's something that doesn't happen very often."
Producers are hoping for more of the same: Among the big-ticket names coming to Broadway in 2010 are Kristin Chenoweth (Promises, Promises), Kelsey Grammer (La Cage Aux Folles), Scarlett Johansson (A View from the Bridge), Megan Mullally (Lips Together, Teeth Apart), Nathan Lane (The Addams Family), and Denzel Washington (Fences).
Still, not every star brings in the crowds. For example, producer Chase Mishkin lost money on Equus despite the presence of Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, and Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen weren't big enough draws to overcome the poor reviews of Impressionism. As Mishkin notes, consumers are being choosier about which shows to see or how much they spend on tickets. "People don't have the money they used to," she says.
That's true of the producing community as well, but all the producers interviewed emphasize that most investors are using discretionary funds to take a chance on a show. "People who invest in theater already have shelter and food. No one's putting the college tuition into Broadway," says McCollum.
Indeed, Davenport says that he works to convince his investors that theater belongs in the category of "alternative investments" and that they should diversify the types of shows they back. Moreover, he stresses they should look to the long haul. "This is not a one-inning game. You have to commit to playing again and again," he says.
Roth certainly falls into that category, since she's one of the most active producers in the business. She notes that her two-decade track record and knowledge of her investors -- for example, she matched an African art aficionado with Fela! -- have helped her scour up production funds. But what she really brings to the table is passion. "In the end, you are investing in something that has a soul."