The Washington State Lottery identifies the odds of winning its Lotto jackpot as one in 6.99 million. That’s one of 6.99 reasons why I never buy a lottery ticket. The odds of writing a play that will have a successful run on Broadway are probably in the same statistical stratosphere. Fortunately, getting to Broadway is not a reason that I grind it out at my desk every day.
In theatre circles the author of a straight play (non-musical) is advised to forget about Broadway. “Artistic merit is a minor consideration there anymore” and “it’s no longer the pinnacle of playwriting success” are views commonly heard. In this vein top TV comedy writer Ken Levine has blogged about how Broadway aspirations have waned for TV writers. Persevere locally and focus on craft, we are told. I’ve heard this counsel loud and clear, and I follow it.
Nonetheless, occasionally a glint of ambition twinkles in my eye and I can glimpse Broadway in the transcontinental distance. Recently I recalled the saw that you can’t make a living in the theatre but you can make a killing, and became curious about just how much money a playwright might earn today if she beat the staggering odds and actually had a hit on Broadway. (I also confess that my former career as a producer instilled me with a perverse affection for crunching numbers.)
So I did some arithmetic. I took as my case study Keith Huff’s two-character play, A Steady Rain, which enjoyed a limited 12-week run on Broadway in late 2009. Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig starred in that production. Keith Huff is a fine playwright from Chicago who, lacking the high profile of a Tom Stoppard or Neil Simon, was easier for me to identify with.
For my readers who are not in the theatre biz, playwrights essentially are paid on commission. Producers license the right to produce a play and agree to pay the author a percentage of the ticket sales. While this percentage can vary, it’s usually around 5%, so that’s the percentage I’ve used here.
I pulled the numbers for my analysis from Playbill which gets its numbers from The Broadway League (the trade association for the Broadway theatre industry). Huff’s play ran in the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater which has 1,080 seats.
Performances: 101 (5 preview, 96 regular)
Gross ticket sales revenue: $15,168,742
Percentage seats sold: 100%+ (thank you messieurs Jackman and Craig)
Average ticket price: $138.94 (ditto)
And, ta-da, the number please! For A Steady Rain the playwright’s gross earnings from his cut of ticket sales (before paying his agent 10%) was somewhere in the vicinity of $750,000. Not a bad payday for a profession whose default condition is poverty. $750,000 sounds to me like a good reason not to totally erase Broadway from one’s horizons.
Now before Broadway producers jump all over me for naiveté, ignorance and fostering delusion, let me say that I know every Broadway script licensing deal is tweaked differently, and there can be a big difference between what an author gets before a play recoups (earns back its initial investment) and post-recoupment. My example is a successful run that did recoup. I’ve intentionally oversimplified matters in the interest of clarity. Simplified doesn’t necessarily mean wrong, it just means simplified.
A writer’s Broadway income can go up or down according to other variables. Movie stars who slum on Broadway often get a gross royalty off the top, reducing the gross on which others’ royalties are calculated. (I recently blogged about how much stars earn on Broadway.) Producers will want around 40% of the playwright’s royalties on future productions, on the assumption that having a Broadway production enhances a script’s future earning potential. It’s also possible that a hit play could run longer than the 12 weeks of A Steady Rain, increasing the author’s income. A Steady Rain ran for only 12 weeks probably because Craig and Jackman were due on movie sets where they make their real money.
Also, before anyone concludes that riches befell Keith Huff overnight, note that he probably spent a year writing the play, followed by three years surviving development hell, and before this script he likely wrote half a dozen others that went absolutely nowhere. I’m making all this up. I don’t know Mr. Huff but my assumptions are reasonable.
So while local is the smart place for a playwright to focus, I’m not sure that we should entirely remove Broadway from our ambitions. The path of wisdom is no doubt one a friend in New York – a writer with an office literally on Broadway – recently shared with me: “Neither remove nor include Broadway in your ambitions. Simply write the best, truest plays that you can.”