Theater News

Broadway by the Numbers

How a production gets from numbers in a budget to the Great White Way.

Any show, whether it's Broadway, off-Broadway, touring, or international, adheres to a budget that accounts right down to the tiniest item or sometimes the most unexpected. Some shows have incredible costumes or complicated sets. The barricade in Les Misérables, for instance, is essential to the show, while other productions can utilize very basic props in accordance to a simpler plot. But this season it's been widely recognized that dogs have emerged as the new characters to love on Broadway, appearing in A Christmas Story, Bullets Over Broadway, Of Mice and Men, and Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, among others. This could lead to some interesting budget line items related to their care and maintenance. A twist like that may lead to a double take by some people, but not Mark D'Ambrosi. D'Ambrosi is a partner in the Theater, Media and Entertainment Group at Marks Paneth LLP, one of the top accounting service providers for theatrical productions.

"You have to laugh the first time you see paid bills for cases of vodka or condoms as line items," D'Ambrosi remarks. "But vodka when mixed with water is very effective as a costume deodorizer."

The unfazed D'Ambrosi has been providing his number-crunching services to the theater industry since college, when this accounting major was asked to help with the bookkeeping on a production for which he auditioned, but was not cast. Thus began what would launch him into a successful career combining his two loves: accounting and theater. And while computerization has helped simplify the work, D'Ambrosi began his career with fourteen-column paper and basic calculators, and his experience throughout the technological revolution has made him one of the best in the (show) business. Clearly he has learned some Broadway secrets along the way.

And what about those condoms? Should Trojan be advertising to theater producers?

"Condoms are for the sound department to keep the microphones waterproof," D'Ambrosi laughs. "As for dogs, animal trainer Bill Berloni tends to be the budgeted dog wrangler in theater, and that includes their care." (Berloni was recently recognized by the Tony Awards for rescuing shelter dogs and successfully training them to bond with lead actors in many beloved shows).

But while audiences take note of the fantastic period costumes in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, or the star-level principal casting of A Raisin in the Sun, someone like D'Ambrosi is attuned to every specific detail appearing before him onstage. "Watching a show with a budget in mind, I'm always astounded by what we can do and create. Think about the helicopter in Miss Saigon."

Knowing that, structuring a budget seems like a massive undertaking for any show. It's daunting to think about where the producers begin to plan it out and where they start. The small items? The cast? With the most complicated set piece, like that helicopter in Miss Saigon? Every single thing an audience views or experiences started out as no more than a line item with a dollar amount attached to it on a very long list.

"A general manager is hired to sit down with the producer and they go through the script. How many actors are needed, how many crew…there can be several readings before even getting into a physical budget."

This seems to shed light on how shows can exist in the developmental process for years before seeing a stage. But also over the years perhaps budgets have increased exponentially from, say, a show in the nineties, like Crazy For You, which utilized props such as washboards, tire pumps, and metal trays, to the over-the-top theatrics of current immersive theater productions like Queen of the Night.

"That is all related to the director's vision. If someone is going to direct more minimalist versus more extravagant, that dictates the budget. Queen of the Night will absolutely have a much more storied list than something like Stomp, but it's all in how a director chooses to create their vision of the show."

With the director's vision firmly in place, several readings accomplished and numbers put into play, there can be times when even the budget isn't immune to a significant alteration — especially when a movie star comes calling.

"A budget can drastically change if a star performer is unexpectedly joining a cast," says D'Ambrosi. "Then, based on newly projected box-office numbers, many things can change. But in reality, budgets — once formulated — stay fairly constant with minor revising. By the time we get into it, fundraising has already begun by the producers, so things are basically set."

If these budgets are such an essential part of what has brought forth all the fantastic performances in theater this season, and in seasons past, doing things "by the numbers" might be where the creativity lies after all. And, a word to all accounting majors out there: Even if you aren't cast in that production, it doesn't mean you won't end up on Broadway.