Response to Terry Teachout's "Trying To Get on Broadway? Don't Write a Play"
Wall Street Journal, "Sightings", April 9, 2015

Derek Miller

How many straight plays now open on Broadway?

Claim: A total of 108 plays opened in the five seasons preceding the current one.

Response: My count for the 2009 through 2013 seasons (June 1, 2009 to May 31, 2014), based on data from the Internet Broadway Database, is slightly different from Teachout's, though not drastically so. I show 122 productions IBDB calls "Plays."

How many are new?

Claim: Fifty-six of them were new and the rest revivals---an average of 11 new plays per season. That number, however, has been inching inexorably downward for a half-century. (By way of comparison, 25 new plays by American writers opened on Broadway in the 1964-65 season.)

Response: Again, slightly different numbers. I count 76 original plays, for an average of 15 each season. And, yes, those numbers are significantly lower than they were in the 1950s and 1960s (about half as many). But, the percentage of plays (that is, percent of Brodway shows that are not musicals) in each season has shown no clear trend since the mid-1990s. In a 50-year time window, the early 1960s are actually the peak of non-musical plays on Broadway, with around 75 percent of all new shows each season being plays. (Note: I think it's important to distinguish between absolute number of plays, which Teachout uses, and the percent of shows that are plays as opposed to musicals. The latter number I find more useful, as the point here is, I believe, that plays are crowded out of Broadway. That crowding out is always relative to the number of possible slots for a show, which is significantly lower than in the 1960s.) But to return to Teachout's claim, the data suggest that no "inexorably downward" trend has existed in 20 years. Rather, we're at a plateau and have been since the early 1990s. In other words, we live in the era of Disney-fied Broadway, in which around 35 percent of a season's new shows are original plays. Parsing all this by author nationality is not possible with my current dataset, so I'll leave that aside. However, William Goldman's The Season, which discusses the 1967-68 Broadway season, notes a dearth of new American plays on Braodway. The 1964-65 season that Teachout cites thus seems more of a fluke than the norm, even fifty years ago.

How long do they run?

Claim: The average run of those 108 plays was 68 performances each---in other words, less than two months. New plays, by contrast, ran for an average of 88 performances, a bit healthier but not enough so to recoup their investments.

Response: Grosses are far more important here to clearly determine how good an investment a play is. If I had to guess (and I wish I could more easily run some numbers on this), more plays than musicals recoup their investments on Broadway. Plays are cheaper and more efficient. Even shows that don't make Teachout's long-run list (see below) such as All the Way recouped their investment. By comparison, a long-running show such as Spider-Man lost piles of money.

In the absence of better data, let's deal with number of performances. One should note that the trend line for average number of performances does not match that for number (or, rather, percent) of plays. The percent of Broadway shows that were non-musicals peaked, as noted above, in the 1960s. However, the longest average runs for Broadway plays appears in the 1980s, an era also well below the 1960s in terms of the presence of plays on Broadway (though still higher than the present moment). My numbers again do not match Teachout's, but the trend (based on a five-year average) reveals a rise in the average number of performances through the late 1980s, with a general decline in the years following (with another peak in the early 2000s). To take the 1947 season that Teachout cites in his introduction, the average play then ran only 88 performances. Not exactly a wild difference from today's numbers. A Streetcar Named Desire's success (over 800 performances), which Teachout cites, was highly unusual at the time. In fact, that season was somewhat spectacular for plays, as it produced another long-running hit: the since-forgotten World War II comedy, Mister Roberts by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan. In other words, Teachout suggests that no one produces plays on Broadway these days because they don't last long enough, on average, to recoup their investments. But we must distinguish that argument from the preceding two points about the relative dearth of plays on Broadway overall, because the best period for recouping a play's investment (if we estimate that value based on the average number of performances) was not the peak period for the relative presence of plays on Broadway.

How well do the most successful plays do?

Claim: You may not know it, but "August: Osage County" was the last serious drama by an American playwright to become a multiyear hit. Since 2010, the only straight play of any kind to have run on Broadway for more than a year was the Lincoln Center Theater transfer of the London production of "War Horse," a sentimental antiwar puppet pageant that stayed open for 20 months. Just five other new plays---and no revivals---have run for more than six months. The most successful of them, "Peter and the Starcatcher," was a children's play that ran for nine months. Three were serious dramas by established authors, Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities" (seven months), David Ives's "Venus in Fur" (seven months) and David Mamet's "Race" (eight months). Finally, Eric Simonson's "Lombardi," a bioplay about the football coach Vince Lombardi, ran for seven months.

Response: This all sounds appalling until you look at the list of original American musicals from the same period. Here are the original American musicals since 2010 that ran for more than a year:

That's it. Ten shows, among which I count three jukebox musicals, four film adaptations, one comic book musical, and two original, American musicals: The Book of Mormon and A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (the latter also a film adaptation, but not of a particularly well-known property). Their "seriousness," even within the comparatively light boundaries of the musical play, is not obvious to me. Compared to this collection of rehashed properties, the list of plays looks practically brilliant (though Ives' piece is an adaptation, and "Peter and the Starcatcher" is a version of "Peter Pan"). And expanding my list to include musicals that ran at least seven months adds exactly one new show: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which is a Broadway revival of a fifteen-year-old Off-Broadway show.

Now, Teachout's point is that Broadway has become increasingly inhospitable to original American plays. Pointing out the simultaneous failure of most musicals does not negate that argument. My counterpoint is this: showing off a list of the past half-decade's longest running plays as evidence of how difficult the Broadway environment is for playwrights ignores how difficult Broadway is for any show. Most shows don't last six months, particularly not original American shows. Genre (the "serious drama" that seems to be Teachout's focus) has nothing to do with it: Broadway shows continue to fail at stunning rates, artistically and commercially.

But here's the real kicker: it's always been like this. Here are the original plays from the 1943 through the 1947 seasons that ran longer than six months:

31 out of about 350 in the five-year period, so a better rate of success (by this measure) than in the current climate. But it's not a list of unmitigated brilliance, is it? There are some brilliant plays on there, undoubtedly. And some brilliant playwrights represented by fair to middling work. And a not unrespectable number of spirited, charming plays. But there's a lot of completely unmemorable chaff in that field of wheat, too. Moreover, at that time, Broadway was almost the only place you could stage your show if you were or wanted to be a major professional playwright. Today, most playwrights write first for non-commercial theaters, where the best work is born. (Even Letts' play came from Steppenwolf in Chicago.)

Terry Teachout is, of course, the greatest critical advocate that such theaters have in the national press, which is why his remarks puzzle me: who cares if Broadway doesn't produce great new American plays? Broadway is and always has been simply one facet (though the largest financially) of theater in America. We are fortunate to live at a moment when so many other venues (with great turmoil and stress and severe financial constraints) can nourish new American work. There are many problems in the American theater today; a lack of great new plays on Broadway doesn't make my list for three reasons: (1) the relative presence of non-musical plays on Broadway has been stable since Disney-fication in the 1990s; (2) Broadway has always been and continues to be an inhospitable environment for most work; (3) there are many venues for new American theater that do much better at introducing such work to the culture than Broadway can or would.

In short, Broadway is not an increasingly bad place for new American plays; rather, it's always been like this. And I'm not sure why Teachout thinks that matters.