There Really Is No Business Like Show Business
The time: January 2009
The place: Broadway
The event: A total of 14 productions (including three long-running Best Musical Tony winners, two shows with multiple Tony wins, three musicals by Tony-winning writers and/or directors, a high-profile revival of a play with Hollywood stars, the last original play by a recently departed playwright, two limited engagement holiday shows, one Chinese spectacle, and the triumphant return of Liza Minnelli) closed.
It’s Steven here from Penguins and Procrastination. Last summer, I worked at a well-respected, professional (or for those in the know, Equity) theatre upstate New York. In the lineup of shows were four popular musicals that can be brought up in everyday conversation. However, even with loyal patrons and repeat subscribers, the theatre had trouble filling the seats. With $4.00 gas prices and the urge to save money, regular theatergoers were not willing to make their annual trips to their favorite regional theatre or stay for the after-show cabarets. Similar situations have been seen across the nation, causing many regional theatres to shut their doors or be in danger of doing so.
These instances may be a serious wake-up call for any aspiring theatre professional, such as the one writing this blog post. And it is. The nation’s economic crisis has affected all industries, and it is no secret that Broadway and the theatre in general have been hit hard. What does this mean for someone like me who is taking his first steps into that elusive field called show business? A few things come to mind, and not all of them are scary.
In the midst of all the drama surrounding the economic state, I have found that New York City is never at a loss for theatre opportunities and auditions, and those auditions are teeming with talent. The theatre scene is just as competitive as ever. This is a good thing. Competition is a healthy aspect of show business. The quality of talent is not necessarily diminishing with the gloomy economy. Standards of talent have not decreased, which means that from an artistic point of view, the theatre continues to thrive.
It is a fact that in this economy, people still make a living by working in the theatre. It may true that actors have to accept gigs that pay less than they’re used to, but to be working in a show means a steady paycheck for the duration of that contract. Out-of-state theatre gigs and tours help people save money since they don’t have to worry about paying rent for however long the contract is (as long as they sublet their apartment or any similar alternative). Also, many theatre people have other jobs to help pay the bills. These jobs are flexible and don’t go out of style, whether it is working at a restaurant or offering services such as photography, web design, or music or dance expertise to fellow actors. Let’s be honest: someone working in the theatre probably knows what it’s like to have a smaller salary than someone working in corporate America, so a year of slightly less pay is manageable.
If the economy has scared anyone out of a career in show business, it hasn’t ended the life of the business itself. In fact, Broadway has adapted to the economic climate. Sure, intimate or experimental musicals such as 13, [title of show], and most recently The Story of My Life have all failed on the Great White Way, but there are only four empty houses on Broadway currently (that’s a low number of empty Broadway theatres). The focus of shows playing on Broadway has shifted to uplifting tales during economic hardship (like Mary Poppins, In the Heights, and the brilliant Billy Elliot) or family-friendly crowd pleasers (The Little Mermaid and Shrek). I realize that four of the five shows I just mentioned are based on movies, but this is a way the theatre has redefined itself to stay afloat. If this is not Broadway’s proudest trend, at least it has kept itself alive. (More screen-to-stage Broadway transfers coming up: Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 and the U2/Julie Taymor Spider-Man musical, with Sister Act, The First Wives Club, Ghost, The Addams Family, Catch Me If You Can, and Slumdog Millionaire in the works.) This isn’t the first time a gimmick put Broadway back on its feet. In the aftermath of 9/11, jukebox musicals helped bring people back to the theatre. One of the original jukebox musicals, Mamma Mia!, is still playing worldwide and was turned into one of the most successful movie musicals ever.
The times reflect and reshape every medium within the entertainment industry. The requirements of a theatre professional are always changing, economic crisis or not. Of course, it is wise to be a bit more conscious about money right now, but the theatre is far from dead. I’m currently working at a dinner theatre in Florida with actors who are happy to be employed and audiences who relish a good night at the theatre. I’m also returning to that suffering theatre I worked at last summer for one of their biggest seasons yet in terms of the caliber of their lineup of musicals. The economy has claimed some victims in the theatre world, but this is all part of the natural evolution of theatre itself. Broadway will survive, the theatre will prevail, and the show must go on.
Steven holds a BFA in Musical Theatre from Emerson College. Originally from Long Island, he is currently performing in Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre in Hudson, FL. He urges everyone to support the performing arts in any way possible, especially in schools. Check out his blog, Penguins and Procrastination.