Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Matilda Just Recouped, and That's a Bad Thing

The revolting children of Broadway's Matilda are officially in the black, which should make saving for their college funds significantly easier.

Matilda recently announced it had officially recouped the entirety of its $16 million capitalization, meaning the production is finally in the black. Any money made over its weekly operating costs is pure profit at this point, a milestone only an estimated 1 in 4 Broadway productions reach. And while this is an excellent celebration for Matilda and its producers (who will hopefully put some of those profits into developing more new work), the implications for the greater Broadway community are a little more troubling.

You see, by pretty much every metric Matilda is an unqualified success. Critics (myself among them) loved the show, giving it across the board raves for its inventive staging, winsome performances, and clever writing that challenges rather than talks down to its family audience. The production is often sold out, and even on a bad week rarely dips below 80% capacity. It routinely brings in over $1 million in weekly grosses, and shows no signs of slowing down almost 2 years into its run. Come January, the only other show still running show from the 2012-2013 Broadway season will be Kinky Boots, the musical the beat Matilda in that year's Best Musical race (and in hindsight, Matilda is probably the more deserving show).

So why on earth did it take Matilda so long to turn a profit? Kinky Boots turned a profit over a year ago, no doubt bolstered by a summer of sell-out business following its Best Musical win. That season's Best Musical Revival, Pippin, also recouped around the same time, although to be fair its capitalization was only half of Matilda's. To be doubly fair, Pippin's weekly grosses were often far below Matilda's during the same timeframe.

The obvious answer for the delay is that Matilda, like a growing number of Broadway shows and especially new musicals, cost a lot of money to mount. The cast is large, especially when taking into account that many of the children's roles are doubled or even tripled. Add in the fact that the production is contractually obligated to hire child wranglers to supervise all these minors and you have another major expense. The set is rather intricate, and there are several special effects that are surely driving up the weekly running costs. A higher weekly nut (the industry term for a show's running costs) means less of the gross can go towards paying back investors, something that surely slowed the show's progress towards turning a profit.

However, the nearly 2 year saga of Matilda's inching towards profitability begs the questions: what is wrong with Broadway budgeting when even a hit takes so long to recoup? Did the show really *need* all 16 million of those dollars, or is a large chunk of that tied up in needless waste from redundant union contracts and unnecessarily costly production elements? The show's high price tag is especially disheartening when you learn that the production team actually cut certain expenses present in the London production in an effort to keep costs down, and the Broadway mounting still costs almost 4 times its West End counterpart (where theatre is much more heavily subsidized by the government).

This is ludicrous, and it is a problem that no one in the Broadway industry seems particularly keen on tackling. It is the main reason ticket prices continue to climb, making theatre an ever more elitist art form instead of the populist entertainment it used to be. The average person cannot afford a $135 ticket more than once or twice a year, if that. But when your show costs $16 million and you want to pay back your investors' money, you can understand why producers feel the need to charge that much. Which in turn begins a cycle where people want to see something that looks like it costs that much, which again raises prices, which continues ad naseum until you end up with an ungainly monstrosity so focused on the spectacle it becomes a creative nightmare (Spider-Man being the most high profile recent example).

This is not an easy problem to fix, and solving it will take a seismic change in the way the industry works. First and foremost, everyone should probably take a pay cut, something that will of course be horribly unpopular but is ultimately an investment in the future of the industry. No one will have any jobs if costs end up pricing theatre out of reach for all but the wealthy elite. The pay cut doesn't necessarily have to come from the salary if the unions would make some concessions in other areas; for instance, maybe the stagehand and musician unions take a long, hard look at how many people they require Broadway shows to hire. And as very few actors manage to qualify for Equity's healthcare but the universal payment amount to a major production expense, maybe producers could stop being required to pay into the system for actors who don't opt in.

Secondly, all designers and directors should really adopt a less is more approach. There are some eye-popping special effects in Matilda that are plot driven and need to be included, but there are also things like lasers which may look cool but don't particularly add much to the show other than running costs. In my experience, some of the most effective theatrical moments are the simplest, the ones that embrace stagecraft rather than trying to produce a literal representation of whatever they're meant to portray (something film is significantly better at, anyway). The Lion King is one of the most spectacle driven shows on Broadway, and the moment that most took my breath away was one of the simplest: a bright blue piece of fabric being pulled through an upstage hole, simply and elegantly conveying the drought that plagues the African savannah.

Now of course artists need to make money, and I'm not arguing that we suddenly start paying the most talented people in our industry nothing. And I'm certainly not against spectacle or lavish production elements when warranted, as they contribute to some of the magic of theatre. But being more selective about how productions spend their money is probably a good idea. There's no reason for a hit show like Matilda to take 2 years to turn a profit, especially in an age when the average length of a Broadway run is growing shorter. Many shows - even well received ones - can't count on running 2 years, so any budget that requires that much time to turn a profit isn't the most fiscally responsible. Addressing these issues will take a major shift in the way producers and unions think about Broadway budgets, and will take some self sacrifice on everyone's part in order to ensure the future health of the medium. But if no action is taken, Broadway will soon go the way of opera, catering to a small, elite minority rather than the masses. And that would be a true tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

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