Producers encounter problems licensing a Broadway theater, especially when so many are dominated by long-running productions, because theater owners don’t just rent space, they also have a financial interest in a show’s success.
“Owners get a percentage of the box-office receipts, and if they think a show isn’t going to make money, you aren’t going to get that theater, even if you have the money,” says Woodie King Jr., who in 1970 founded the New Federal Theater on New York’s Lower East Side.
King says young black playwrights and producers no longer have mentors and champions like the late Joseph Papp, who helped Ntoshake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf transition from King’s New Federal Theater to Papp’s own Public Theater to Broadway’s Booth Theater. “I was 33 when I produced For Colored Girls, written by a 25-year-old Shange. One person put up all the money to bring the show to Broadway,” says King, who also produced and directed the play Checkmates with Denzel Washington on Broadway in 1988.
As producer at the Public Theater (1993-2004), George C. Wolfe moved Topdog/Underdog to Broadway. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Suzan-Lori Parks was her first to appear on the Great White Way. “I was interested in taking shows to Broadway that in theory didn’t belong there and proving that they did belong,” says Wolfe. “So, let me take this tap dancing show centered around young black men to Broadway, which was Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk.” He notes that at the Public he had the advantage and the artistic vision to “bring to Broadway plays and musicals that didn’t necessarily adhere to a prescribed commercialized vision of what a Broadway show was supposed to be.” Wolfe also directed and wrote the 1992 Broadway musical Jelly’s Last Jam.
There is growing investor interest in Broadway, where box-office revenues reached a record $1.1 billion during the 2010–2011 season. Attendance was up more than 5% compared with the previous season, when overall attendance was down more than 2%. From Fela! to Fences, several productions featuring a black cast were nominated for a record number of Tony Awards.