“It’s been sort of standard at the National Theatre and the [Royal Shakespeare Company] and the Royal Court and the Donmar [Warehouse] for, oh God, a dozen years at least,” Borger said. “It’s perceived as a really healthy part of the theater ecology, because so much work from the not-for-profit sector does go into the commercial sector. It’s a way of them supporting not-for-profits.”
And in the United States, where funding for theater isn’t what it once was, commercial money is a resource to tap.
“In a world of changing funding patterns,” Borger said, “it’s something that’s now in the mix.”
At the ART, last season’s Broadway-bound production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” was a commercial collaboration, as is this season’s “Pippin,” which boasts a cast including Tony nominee Charlotte d’Amboise and Tony-winning Broadway favorite Andrea Martin. “Johnny Baseball,” from 2010, also involved a commercial producer, but it did not move to New York. John Tiffany’s upcoming staging of “The Glass Menagerie,” starring Cherry Jones and planned long before Tiffany won a 2012 Tony Award for directing the hit musical “Once,” has attracted commercial interest, though no deal is in place, Borger said. A workshop production of “Once” last year at the ART was supported with commercial money, too, she said.
Borger declined to disclose how much enhancement money commercial producers put into a given deal but estimated that it covers between 33 and 40 percent of the production’s budget. “It certainly changes what’s possible if we’re doing a large show,” she said. On “Porgy and Bess,” those extra dollars meant the ART could afford to hire — in addition to a voluminous cast headed by the show’s main draw, Broadway star Audra McDonald — 18 local musicians for the orchestra.
The ART’s operating budget, Borger said, hovers between $12 million and $14 million — on the higher end last season because “Porgy” brought not only enhancement but big box-office sales and donations. Borger would not say how much the ART has made from “Porgy” or any other commercial production but noted that the standard contract, which is negotiable, gives the originating theater a 1 percent royalty and 5 percent of any profits. In each of the past couple of years, she said, the ART has made between $100,000 and $200,000 from its commercial partnerships. “Sleep No More,” from the 2009-10 season, was not enhanced but has gone on to a successful commercial run in New York, and a cut of that is making its way back to Cambridge.
“The truth is,” said Michael Maso, the Huntington’s managing director, “we’re all approached all the time with commercial money, and most of the things that people send to us are just plays that we don’t want to do — either plays or musicals — and so we don’t do it. We have relationships with commercial producers when either they are the way that we can afford to do something that is just too big for our budget, or when they come attached to something, and we can help develop a piece, but we really care about the piece.”
“Captors,” last season’s drama about Adolf Eichmann, and “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps,” in 2007, both came to the Huntington with producers attached, Maso said. (“Captors” has not resurfaced in New York, while “The 39 Steps” went on to spend two years on Broadway.) “Marty,” which starred John C. Reilly in 2002, included “a substantial amount of money from commercial producers,” Maso said, and the musical “Pal Joey,” in 1992, “had significant support: not quite a million dollars but maybe $750,000.” Horton Foote’s “The Young Man From Atlanta,” in 1995, was another commercial collaboration, with what Maso said was “a small amount of enhancement.”
“The most commercially successful venture we’ve ever had with commercial producers is ‘39 Steps,’ ” he said. “Our return on that has been in excess of a hundred thousand dollars — but, you know, that’s still out of an annual budget of 13 million, so we’ve never had enormous motivation or benefit from it. The only theaters that really make money are the ones that have hit the jackpot with a major musical. And then it’s an enormous amount of money.”
One longstanding partnership involved August Wilson’s plays, which regional theaters including the Huntington would produce, sans enhancement, with the playwright’s commercial management team. Wilson’s later plays, “Gem of the Ocean” and “Radio Golf,” involved a different commercial producer, Landesman’s Jujamcyn Theaters, which provided “some compensation in exchange for physical production elements,” Maso said. But Wilson’s work was seldom a moneymaker.Continued...