The Business of Broadway: An Honest Perspective from a Broadway Legend

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Damian Bazadona and Manny Azenberg talking to an audience

What I believe the Broadway industry needs now more than ever is a big dose of honesty. Coming out of the pandemic, the Broadway industry is left with a significant set of new challenges and opportunities to address — right in front of us.

This industry has been so good to me and I, like many, care deeply about its future. But there is no time for gaslighting.

In my 20+ years working in the Broadway industry, I have never met someone so genuinely honest, caring and knowledgeable of the Broadway industry than the legendary Manny Azenberg. So, to be able to sit down and have an unfiltered interview on what’s the best Broadway can be at this past year’s TEDxBroadway, was truly a career highlight.

Manny Azenberg has produced 65 plays and musicals on Broadway since 1966. He has garnered 25 Tony Award nominations and nine Tony Awards. In 2012, he won the Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. Most importantly, his incredible passion for the industry we all love so much and his concern for our future both needs (and deserves) the space to be heard loud and clear.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation at TEDxBroadway 2022.

How Healthy Are We?

How healthy is the Broadway business? Depending on who you ask, you’ll likely get a different answer because like many industries, your health directly correlates as to where you sit in the ecosystem. The reality of the Broadway business pre-pandemic was that — by the numbers — things seemed to be very strong with 85%+ attendance capacity and record breaking grosses. But with every set of data points, a little context can shed some new perspectives on what health actually looks like.

Manny said, “I don’t find it tragic but rather sad that something so good is being eroded” speaking of the current state of the Broadway industry. I asked him to elaborate.

Statistically speaking, Manny’s point is clear — with less theatres comes less shows, and by the basic laws of supply and demand, the price is only going to go one way over time — up. On one hand, people paying higher prices means the value in people’s minds (and their priorities) of the Broadway experience has never been higher. That’s a good thing! On the other hand, we need to think about the knock on effects of the long-term trajectory of the supply and demand market force of rising prices — namely, that the audience make-up will be to that of the highest bidder.

For me, the question really comes down to what our collective definition of what success looks like on Broadway?

Financial success?

Artistic success?

An audience reflective of the community it resides in?

If in our hearts we say “all three” — which I believe most of the caring folks in this industry believe —we have to make sure we are looking at our actions to reflect this vision. I think in our best of days, we actually do a lot towards this “all three” vision — but are we doing enough? I suppose that’s the question because if Manny is right in that we are “chasing away” the theatre-going local audiences and the artists by the current economic structure, the idea of success runs the risk of having a one-track mind — dollar signs.

What’s Fair?

What a gigantic question. Manny said, “We have an economic structure that lost its way with the fundamental question of what is fair.” He had a pretty straight forward point of view that drew large support from the audience.

If I put a mixed group of 100 industry professionals — producers, artists, stagehands — in the room and ask them to define what they think “fairness” looks like in the economics of Broadway, I would imagine the definitions would be quite varied. Let’s face it — we’ve been taught at a very young age the saying “life isn’t fair” and we can all point to real-life examples in our daily lives that reinforce this reality. But I believe our deepest instincts — our human instincts — can lead us to our better angels in finding a more agreed upon sense of fairness in how we collectively do business.

Manny gave some real-life guidance on what fairness may look like drawing on a story from his past work.

One could only wish that all they needed was one print ad in the New York Times! Even so, success and failure are real — so are the ways we choose to share the impact.

Our Criteria for Quality

When we turned the conversation to what is on stage, Manny shared a deep concern over a shared criteria of quality. “We don’t have an agreed upon criteria for quality. The value of aesthetics and taste have been devalued.” I asked him to elaborate.

I’m a marketing guy and not as tapped into the conversations about the creative forces that drive Broadway. But when Manny went through the list of artists that have performed on Broadway but never returned, I am getting more and more worried about the impact social media has had on the entirety of the artists experience. From inside the creative process to the relentless feedback on social media, I have deep admiration for the artists that put themselves out to the world. Reading a review of your performance is one thing — swimming in real-time response and criticism in an unforgiving, relentless social media landscape is something else. Is the cost to their mental health and professional career worth it? If I’m Meryl Streep or any of the names Manny cited, I can’t help but feel money is just one part of the equation.

And here’s that other part of the equation that Manny so eloquently explains.

The key word is meaningful. And while many of the established artists may not have returned, there are so many amazing talented people here right now — specifically here for the “meaning.” This is at the heart of Manny’s point that if we aren’t producing and supporting work rooted in meaning — rather aimed exclusively at financial gain — we run the risk of chasing the artists away.

The Future Fix

The entire reason Manny agreed to sit down and discuss so openly his feelings on this industry was to connect with the next generation of leaders and express that some kind of action is necessary. His point is a real one — we must try to make the change we want and the only way that change will come is by those that are the leaders of the future to impact it.

Here was his message to the younger generation in the audience.

While we can only hope that Lin Manuel Miranda and Meryl Streep collectively lobby government intervention, in the meantime, all of my mind goes to one direction — to create a seat at the negotiating table for the theatregoer. Through this incredible experience of spending time with Manny both before and during the interview, no matter what your point of view is on his views, the market forces of supply and demand on a limited supply business will trample any hope we have at having a more diverse audience. An audience reflective of the surrounding communities where this beautiful art form and its beautiful artists and professionals actually live.

I can’t shake the feeling that we need to move from a WIN — WIN negotiation mindset, to a WIN — WIN — WIN negotiation mindset… with the additional WIN for the theatregoer in every negotiation. That whatever actions we take as an industry, we need to consider its impact on all stakeholders — including the ticket buyers.

If we don’t, the future Manny’s from the Bronx, will be bringing their talents elsewhere which will be a big loss for our industry.

So what can we do about it? Let’s agree on one thing — let’s do something.

Manny’s parting thought in our interview is certainly a swing to discuss.

In my 20+ years in this industry, I’m blessed to know many brave producers, investors, artists that champion original works and that champion the livelihood of the industry. These are the courageous ones that take works from new artists and say “let’s do this” knowing the unlikely odds of financial success.

Everyone has a different opinion about the future of Broadway based on their association with the industry and their position of power. I like to think all are worthy of talking about — I would just like to hope that we move from talk to sustainable action.

Thank you Manny for being you.

Your honesty and care for this industry is a ray of sunshine for the generations that aim to follow in your footsteps.

If you’d like to read more about Manny’s experience in the theatre, check out the fabulous book “Stories Dad Told Me: Manny Azenberg’s Adventures in Life and the Theatre” by his daughter, Jessica Azenberg.

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