Producing theatre in London vs New York: what’s the difference?

Reflections on a week of classes about producing on Broadway.

I was funded by Stage One to participate in a course on how to produce on and off Broadway in late September this year, alongside 12 other commercial producers. We travelled to New York for classes facilitated by Columbia University’s MFA producing tutors and professionals working in the New York theatre industry. In a busy week, we covered a lot: ticketing, commercial fundraising, tax, finance, legal and the relationship between the American not for profit theatre sector and commercial Broadway.

Producing a theatre show in the USA is about five to six times more expensive than producing a show in the UK. A straight play performing in the West End with around 10 actors and celebrity casting may have a budget of around 1.25–1.75 million pounds. On Broadway, to produce the same play, it would cost around 6 million dollars. Wages tend to be higher and therefore the labour essential for making a show happen such as actors, follow spot operators and wardrobe staff are more expensive. In part this is also because in New York, the unions are far stronger: Equity, the actors union, BECTU, the technician’s union and the Musicians Union all have far more leverage over producers than in the UK.

Many archaic union rules exist on Broadway. For example, some Broadway houses have a union minimum of in-house musicians the visiting producer needs to pay for when they hire the theatre to house their show, even if that show has no requirement for live music. This stretches back to times before digital sound systems where each theatre would have a house band that could play pretty much anything, covering most producer’s needs. Because of strong unionisation, rules like this still apply to producers working on Broadway today. Check out this incredible video below from Hamilton which shows the pit orchestra playing the Yorktown dance break from Hamilton.

Another key difference in producing in the USA as opposed to the UK is the lack of a governmental body funding the arts. In the UK, Arts Council England, an arm’s length funding body run by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport funds the overheads of many regional theatres and supports thousands of independent productions. We call this the ‘subsidised’ theatre sector in the UK. In the USA, the not- for- profit sector has a large stream of charitable giving from individuals, who are incentivised to give because any donation will be a reduction on their tax bill. The programming from not- for- profit theatres has an eye towards whatever will please the donor base, in the UK there is an eye towards what shows fit in with the Arts Council’s 10 year strategy. The impacts commercial producers who aspire to produce on the West End and Broadway — like me — because a commercial producer will often use a regional house or a not- for- profit theatre as a place to develop a production before taking it to the West End or Broadway. Unless of course you are the smash hit The Book Of Mormon which opened straight onto Broadway without any developmental productions in 2011 and it still running 11 years later.

The role of the commercial producer is roughly same across both sides of the Atlantic: it is the person or company, who develops, champions, productises, finances, and sells the show to an audience. However, in the USA, it’s more common to have multiple named co- producers on a project, who work with the lead producer(s) to raise investment into the show. Those who raise the most at- risk money get more favourable billing on the billing board and in the programme than those who come in later and therefore take less risk, as the production is further along in its development. It’s objectively riskier to put money in when the show is a script and a producer saying ‘this is the next big hit’ than it is to invest money when the show is already doing an out- of- town production in Chicago and already has good reviews before transferring to Broadway. In the UK, it’s more common for investors to be ‘silent’ and not credited, their identities only known to the lead producer. In the UK, it’s very common for the lead producer to also do the general management of their own show: administration, payroll, financial reporting, company management. In the USA, it’s far more common for a producer to outsource this to a general management company and take on more of a financier and business development only role. The pro of this of course being that the producer doesn’t get involved in the day — to — day of the production and is therefore can take on more of an executive role, the con being that a lack of familiarity with the mechanics of their own show can potentially lead to disconnection from the production.

The Stage One x Columbia University exchange was an insightful week and a lot of fun. We watched the Young Vic transfer of Death of A Salesman on Broadway for free, and networked at Sardis, a famous Broadway haunt. By the end of my trip out there, I began to miss the old architecture of London: there’s no Tudor buildings or Roman ruins in New York. I’ll be back though, next year, to work on my forthcoming Off Broadway show Dumbledore Is So Gay by Robert Holtom, for which I am originating producer and co- lead producer with Joseph Longthorne.

Stay tuned for more adventures…

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