There’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of every day
There’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
And tomorrow’s just a dream away

Walking into the darkened New World Stages for TEDxBroadway, I half expected to see a sign saying “Presented by General Electric,” or at least a robot welcoming me to the great big world of tomorrow. After all, this niche TED talk was billed as an imagining of Broadway in 20 years. If Walt Disney were in charge of the daylong event, there would have been intricate models of Times Square—circa 2022—complete with flying cars, jet packs, and a monorail.

Alas, there were no glamorous peeks into a sterile Times Square, save for a brief joke from organizer Ken Davenport, rather the day was full of theatrical industry types waxing poetic on the future of Broadway. Much was made of the current state of affairs—Broadway has seen steady grosses over the past decade, despite economic downturn and tourism lulls—with a hint of urgency when considering the current demographics funneling money into live stage productions. As organizer and Situation Interactive leader Damian Bazadona pointed out, around 83% of Broadway’s audiences are white with average household incomes of $250,000.

While there often tends to be a sense of skepticism when speaking of Broadway’s future, TEDxBroadway was more about thinking positive, and brainstorming for the sake of live theater. Bazadona rattled off a list of needs for the viability of Broadway: incredible original productions, full theaters with diverse audiences, a wider platform to share our greater purpose, and less risk from external factors. “Broadway needs to become an idea factory,” he proclaimed, equating this industry to another—Silicon Valley.

It’s Bazadona’s hope for less risk from external factors that rings closest to the truth for Broadway’s sustainability, and ultimate growth. Theatrics aside, it all boils down to business, not art—money remains the bottom line. Yes, creative types need to continue being creative. Customer service must bounce back from the often-lackluster approach current front-of-house staff take when dealing with New York’s tourists. And marketers must work hard to cultivate new audiences. But the lasting lesson to come out of TEDxBroadway, and the idea most akin to a world of tomorrow, is the necessity for re-thinking the insular mentality most theater owners and producers have when thinking of the live entertainment industry.

Collective thinking is the future of Broadway. No longer can a producer pray for the failure of another production, merely to snag an open theater for their latest work. Billy Elliot might have just shuttered—Nice Work If You Can Get It producer Scott Landis was reportedly sniffing around Times Square, hopeful a show would flop in time for his Matthew Broderick vehicle to plop down for the winter in a warm house—but Elton John’s musical lesson in solidarity must not disappear into the Playbill vault.

Joseph Craig, an entertainment-marketing expert, proved the most provocative on the matter of collective thinking. “We want [tourists] to say ‘and see a show’ when planning their New York trips,” he said, fixating on the need for tourists to look at Broadway as a “must do” attraction. His greatest advice: “worry about how to get people to Broadway in general, not to an individual show.” I half expected to hear the TEDxBroadway audience, made up mostly of business insiders, to roll in the aisles at this blasphemous talk. Why would the Nederlanders want to help a Shubert show fill its seats?

Like it or not, everyone with a theater between 40th Street and 54th Street works in the theatrical industry, emphasis on the latter term—industry. Broadway is only as strong as its weakest link. Tourists are not looking at the minutiae of theatrical ownership and producer credits. Tourists come to Broadway to see a show. They bring their children to see a show. And, hopefully, those children will return to see a show. Business economics 101: Brand Loyalty. Broadway is the brand in question.

Barry Kahn, a dynamic pricing expert, added fodder to argument towards collective thinking, aiming his sights on a universal box-office experience. “What if all Broadway theaters worked out of the same box office?” he asked. Without touching on the precarious situation of box-office union red tape, Broadway as an industry could only benefit from a single point-of-sale. I still find myself irritated over the split between Ticketmaster and Telecharge offerings. In 2012, why must I toggle between two fundamentally different systems when trying to see what shows have open inventory on a Thursday night?

And, from a tourist’s perspective, why do we not hear about touring productions while waiting for a Broadway show to start? Would it not behoove the entire theatrical industry to alert patrons to relevant touring shows while the potential ticket buyers are ripe for arts marketing? I should be able to walk out of Jersey Boys and immediately be pointed to a customer service representative that can tell me about other jukebox musicals playing in my hometown. Movie theaters do this by way of coming attractions. Broadway does it by, what exactly?

There’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
Just a dream away

TEDxBroadway planted the seed for a great big dream to blossom in the theatrical industry’s mind. However, the dream is merely a start. It is now up to every person in attendance to see that dream through to reality. It’s time to drop the theatrics of narrow-mindedness, and open up to a collective future. That’s the only way Broadway will be standing on two strong legs in 20 years.

  • February 2, 2012