Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Jacqueline Harriet
April 25th, 2017
In the ongoing discussions of what goes to Broadway and how it gets there, the role of the producer still remains somewhat of an enigma, stuck between the showmen (it was always men) of the golden age of Broadway and the person who writes the checks. Of course, neither of those poles really captures what a producer, in 2017, does. Alia Jones-Harvey, one half of Front Row Productions, straddles the line of having both theatre and business acumen (she’s one of the few female lead producers with an MBA). Previous productions include Eclipsed, the 2008 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the 2012 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, and she’s currently working on producing a musical with a book by Lynn Nottage. We recently sat down with her to discuss what it actually takes to bring a show to Broadway, working with investors, attracting new audiences, and more.
When you’re trying to bring a show to Broadway, what is a producer’s life like during that process?
You’re constantly chasing talent, investors that are committed to the production that you have in mind, and the theatre owners. And when all of those three things align, then you have a date when you are going to start production on Broadway. But in that process, it’s a constant cycle of, “Do I have talent for these dates? And do I have enough capital to put up the show? And are the theatre owners ready to commit to giving me a house?” My producing partner and I have gone through that now five times on Broadway. It doesn’t get any easier. It’s always this frenzy of trying to pull all of these pieces together to meet at the same place.
I was going to ask, how much of it is a chicken and the egg type situation?
All of it. The co-producers or investors are interested in the entire package: When are you opening, do you have a theatre, do you have your talent lined up? The talent’s interested in knowing when it’s happening, is the capital in place, and where is it happening. And so you’re juggling those three things until you get to a point where all of them meet. Right now, my producing partner and I are working on casting a production, so we’re talking about talent that could potentially work for a show that we’re interested in doing, and then once we have some idea of what talent might be available in that certain window of time, from there we would discuss with the theatre owners the options for theatres and, at the same time, start courting investors that might be interested in the show.
It seems like so much is determined by what theatres are available. How do you navigate that when trying to put something together?
On Broadway, it’s at the behest of the theatre owners that you do anything on Broadway. So you’re constantly updating them on your progress and making sure that they have enough information about what you’re trying to do, when you’re trying to do it, and determining their interest level in it. They will tell you if there’s a theatre available in the timing that you’re looking at. The Hudson Theatre just opened, so that created opportunity number 41 for a show on Broadway. Now there are 41 theatres. Many of them are filled with long-running musicals. So the opportunity to rotate into a theatre is smaller and smaller as more musicals fill in the space on Broadway. Of course, producers are constantly looking at the grosses to see where other shows are and to try to anticipate, but that’s a fool’s game because you don’t know what the theatre owners have in mind. So you’re at the behest of the theatre owners.
Stephen [Byrd] and I have been developing a musical for some time now and it’s been a long journey, but we’re very passionate about the project, so we continue on until it’s ready. It’s definitely a goal for us. I couldn’t imagine any producer on Broadway that wouldn’t have a long-running musical as their goal on Broadway. So that being said, developing a new musical is not a simple thing to do, and not something that can happen overnight, because you’re depending on the collaboration of so many artists to create it. And so that has a lot to do with what extends the amount of time that it takes to create a musical for Broadway. But we continue to look at plays and revivals. Musical revivals are much harder. Their budget might not be as big as a new musical, but it’s somewhere near the cost of a new musical, and with a musical revival, you’re looking at a shorter run, and you’re looking at needing some impetus for having a revival of a musical. So you’re looking at star casting, and that limits your time because the stars are only available for a certain amount of time. There are a lot of challenges when you look at revivals of musicals. Revivals of plays have been what we’ve done the most—our last play [Eclipsed] was our first new play. It’s exciting for us to reimagine classic works with non-traditional casting and to try to attract new audiences to see classic works that they may not be familiar with, but they might be familiar with a cast member. Maybe they’ve heard the title. For that reason, we’ve done a lot of those. And we’ve had some success with drawing audiences that don’t normally come to Broadway to see those shows.
When you’re developing and pitching a project, how do you balance the practical side of things, like theaters being open and talent being available, with also trying to make sure pieces are timely and match up with the cultural moment?
I don’t know that you can. It happens, but the musicals that might seem appropriate for the time that they’re opening have been in the works for years. So it’s just the stars aligning if it feels like, “Oh, this musical is perfect for this timing.” Like Dear Evan Hansen, which might seem like, “Oh, it’s perfect for this timing,” took the producer and the creators of the show, I think I read over seven years to develop that show. So is it that the time was right or is it that the show was right? It’s right in this time because the show is good, because they spent the time developing the show.
Let’s talk about investors. How do you start those relationships, maintain those relationships, find the people who are interested?
It’s a lot of networking, reaching out to people that you know and asking them if they know other people. Networking inside the Broadway community, networking in other communities, networking with people that are theatre lovers who may not have considered an investment in Broadway. We’ve had a lot of first-time Broadway investors invest in our shows, which has been good and it’s given them exposure to this other opportunity that they didn’t have any part of before. It’s a lot of networking, a lot of events, a lot of researching people. And then interacting with investors. The structure of the investment opportunity in a Broadway show sets up opportunities for interaction with the investors. Generally when an investor makes an investment in Broadway, they will have opening night tickets, they’ll have house seats throughout the run of the show that they can reserve and purchase at any point, there may be events with the cast members, or celebrations, or other opportunities to network with the investors. And then, of course, updating the investors regularly on the progress of the show, even having investors give their feedback on how things are going, or ideas for marketing of shows is a valuable element of that communication between the producers and the investors.
From the outside, I would guess that many people who invest in Broadway shows are not necessarily doing it for the financial gains. Do you find that to be true? When courting people does it become less about the economics and more about other things?
Yes. Sometimes it’s very clearly the subject matter. If a play or a musical has content that really resonates with the investors, they want to invest in it for that reason alone. Other times, it is around the excitement of putting up the production. And in some cases, for us, it’s because of our mission and our mandate to create these opportunities for non-traditional casting and to attract audiences that have not traditionally been interested in seeing Broadway shows.
When you’re finding what projects you’re interested in, do you find that you’re usually drawn towards material or do you find that you’re drawn towards individual artists that you want to work with?
It usually starts with the material, and then we build on the artists that we would want to work with. And that was reversed with Eclipsed, because we had been talking with Lupita Nyong’o’s team about what she would be interested in doing on Broadway after we presented her with a few ideas of our own, and she said this is what she wanted to do. And so that scenario was the opposite of the way that it usually is.
As a producer, how do you balance being in charge and the person shepherding the project with also letting everyone do their job?
Stephen and I both think of ourselves as somewhat creative producers. We have a vision for where we want to see a production before we even start approaching directors to talk to them about the production, but once we come to a meeting of the minds with a director, then the director helms the creative side and we helm the business side, and that’s the line of demarcation. I wouldn’t be asking a costume designer to do something. I would be going through the director and asking the director what they thought of this idea, or any notes or feedback I would provide would always go through that chain, starting with the director. Because it can become somewhat disruptive if designers or the actors are getting feedback from all of these different directions when there’s a director who is trying to manage all of this into one cohesive vision.
How do you balance that on the business side in terms of working with the marketing and PR teams?
We’re very hands-on. We are the decision point for marketing, advertising, public relations, and that’s facilitated through meetings on a weekly basis, and in some cases, biweekly. But generally, when the show’s getting up, it’s on a weekly basis with the marketing team and the advertising team and the public relations team to talk through all of the ideas and make decisions about which direction we’re going in.
You’re the first person that we’ve talked to that has a background in business. How do you feel like that’s helped you in producing for Broadway?
I think that it’s a fairly straightforward business model, and it’s something that we can communicate to investors pretty clearly. And it’s much more transparent than other entertainment vehicles, which is what makes it so attractive. And then having a handle on the sales numbers, having a handle on the P and L [profit and loss] and the balance sheet that we’re looking at for the shows that we put up, and being able to have that conversation with our general manager, being able to have the conversations with our accountants. And ultimately, being able to put together marketing plans, being able to make decisions looking at an overall strategy, I think have been helpful. Every producer that I’ve met on Broadway is coming with a completely different set of skills, and that’s a part of what makes Broadway exciting. And there’s no one way to get there. There’s no one set of skills that seem to be the dominant, “Oh, this is the answer. If you do this, you’ll be a great Broadway producer.” There are a number of skillsets that have proved to be successful.
Do you ever find the business model frustrating? It seems, at least from the outside, like it’s a very static business model and it hasn’t necessarily been responsive to changes in the world or changes in technology, and it’s still just, you make money by selling tickets.
It is frustrating. All the producers meet every two years for a biennial to actually discuss all of this and try to figure out how to move forward into the new world. I’m always vacillating back and forth because I think there’s an element of the experience on Broadway that is comforting. It’s somewhat comforting for people to go into a space where they know that they have to turn off their cell phone and have a communal experience. And to try to change that or upset that chemistry of that interaction between an audience and the actors onstage is a difficult thing to try to do. It’s a formula that’s existed for thousands of years, and it seems like it’s still working.
There are lots of areas on the outside that we have conversations about constantly because it’s recognized, I think, by everyone in the industry that now for anyone that’s purchasing tickets to a show of any kind, the experience happens way before you get to the door of the theatre. The experience happens when you’re getting the word of mouth on Facebook from all your friends, and then when you actually make that exciting decision to hit the button and purchase that ticket. And at that point, what’s being communicated to you? And from that point on, what do you learn or hear about the show or what entices you to see the show, and then by the time you get to the door, you’re at the point of that experience. So as producers and theatre owners, every conversation that we’ve had has been [about] how we can improve that experience from the point of, “I know I want to see this show,” to, “I’m at the door, getting scanned in to go sit at my seat and see it.”
Is it hard to balance different demographic needs of the people who are coming for their family vacation and buying tickets months and months in advance versus younger people who want it to be more like maybe going to a movie?
Absolutely. And I think that what online [sales] have allowed us to do to a certain extent is tailor the message for different audiences that are coming for different reasons—that are coming in groups, coming on dates, coming as a part of a school trip. So online [sales] have been able to help that somewhat. Group sales is a large part of that, tailoring the message so that different groups understand what their options are. Oftentimes, when we have groups come to see a show, they want to know what restaurants are in the area, what hotels are in the area, what’s the best transportation mode to get to and from the theatre. But then there’s another audience of the culturalist New Yorkers who are very savvy about moving around. They just want to ensure they have a great night at the theatre.
If there were one thing you could change about the business model that you think would either make it so much easier or so much more cost effective, what would it be?
If I knew my dates a year in advance, if everything aligned a year in advance, that would be very helpful for planning, selling tickets in a way that’s more cost effective, getting word of mouth out that a show is coming. I’ve seen the success of shows that are developed in a way where there’s a groundswell of interest in them before they even get to Broadway, and I think that that is a model that we should all be following. I think I’ve seen enough of the pitfalls of just opening a show on Broadway without a runway of interest in it.
When you’re talking about those groundswells of interest, they seem organic, but my guess would be that nothing happens organically and it’s a lot of effort by a lot of people going into making it seem like people are just excited about this thing. Is that correct?
Yes, absolutely. There is a lot of effort that goes into that. Even the thinking about how to discreetly announce things and place things so that they’re not perceived as being boisterous, or over-the-top, or preparing a certain audience. There’s always conversations about underground marketing that goes on in our meetings, and figuring out ways to be above the line or below the line with our messaging. And there’s a lot of competition in the messaging that you’re trying to get across. Particularly for people that enjoy theatre, they’re going to be bombarded by lots of different messaging all the time. So it’s definitely a delicate balance of not bombarding people with banner advertising, but having a conversation. What we find is that people that are really interested in the shows do a lot of research around who the people are in the shows and what the shows are about. That has a lot to do with the perception of Broadway and it being expensive, even though I would say that it’s not more expensive than a lot of other forms of entertainment that would be considered somewhat comparable. But there’s a perception there, so people spend more time with making that decision, and once they’ve made that decision they want to know as much as possible leading up to it.
You mentioned before about wanting to bring new audiences to Broadway. How do you think that is best done?
Well, for us it’s been reaching out to communities that have not been targeted by traditional Broadway advertising, and we’ve had some success with that, because there are so many people that even right here in New York City don’t get the advertising, they don’t get the messaging, because a lot of the messaging and advertising for the Broadway shows is specifically targeted at people that have been to see a show in the last two or three years. So then that narrows the field down to such a small number of people. There’s a wide arena of other potential theatergoers, and so for us it’s been being creative about reaching out to organizations, to affinity groups, to religious groups, to churches, to schools that might not be targeted by all of the Broadway shows.
It seems like most of the conversations around new audiences always focuses on ticket price, which is obviously an issue.
But that’s not the only thing.
Do you feel the ticket price conversation happens in place of having a larger conversation about audiences who do have the money but just aren’t targeted?
I’ve had the argument over the last year or so that we’re stuck in this idea that all African-Americans are going to receive the messaging the same way. Or we can reach all of the African-American market this way, and we can reach all of the Asian market this way, and we can reach all of the Latino market this way. And I’m really trying to get away from approaching segmentation in that way. I’m trying to get away from approaching segmentation in terms of race or ethnicity. I think it has a lot more to do with affinity. I think it has a lot more to do with experiences. So all of the military, for instance, are a market. But that has nothing to do with race or age, and having a conversation about how you reach the people in the military is very different from how I reach the African-American audience, or how I reach the Latino audience. Or how do we reach fans of this actor, as opposed to how do we reach the African-American audience. Because it’s not a homogeneous group. And I think that we’ve been trying to reach groups that are not homogeneous. They don’t have a defined pattern of activity. They’re all very diverse.
Have you found that people have been receptive to that? Or has it been an uphill climb?
It’s an uphill climb. On Eclipsed, we brought on some boutique marketing agencies to support us in reaching out to groups that had not been targeted by Broadway, and they were very successful. So I think it’s an uphill climb because advertising is set up to operate one way, and we often have to find marketing agencies that are not just focused on Broadway to try to reach some of the groups that we think we’re not reaching.
And going back to what you were saying before, the prices actually are in line with a lot of other activities in the city that people do.
Yeah, I have certainly seen younger people who get very like, “Oh no, I don’t want to pay money for a show,” but they’ll pay the same price on a meal. So it’s not that they don’t have it, it’s just how they’re prioritizing.
Yeah, I have a hard time getting out of a restaurant in New York City without paying fifty dollars a head if we’re drinking. If we’re eating and drinking, it’s going to be more.
How does that perception start to change of seeing theatre as a prestige thing to spend money on, in the same way that people are like, “Oh, I really want to go to that restaurant that I read about?”
If you can figure that one out, there’s a lot of money in your future. But I think putting it in those terms and having people realize that. But for the most part, I think that we’ve all recognized that people that have a habit of going to theatre find a way to get to theatre. If you’re standing in a line at 10am to get the $10 rush tickets for the show, or you’re on TodayTix trying to find last-minute great seats at a reasonable price point for a show, I think that once people have a habit of going to the theatre, they make a way to go. And it’s not necessarily about seeing all the shows, but it’s definitely seeing more than one in a season.
For young people who are interested in going into producing, it seems like one of the things that people get the most freaked out by is the money side of it. Not only in terms of being responsible for the money, but also in the sense of, “Oh, I need to find investors.” What advice would you give for somebody who wants to go into producing but maybe isn’t coming from a financial background where they can ask their parents’ friends for money?
Intern with a producer. Join the Broadway League as an associate member. Start to network with producers and get more comfortable. I wouldn’t say just jump into producing without a comfort level with what an operating agreement looks like, with what a budget looks like, and understanding every single line of a budget and being able to answer questions about a budget. Because when you’re approaching an investor and you don’t have that knowledge, then it’s somewhat questionable as to why you want them to put their money into something that you don’t understand. So I think that’s critical. Take an internship either with a producer or with a general management office, and the general management office gives you a broader picture than being in one producing office because you might be able to see what’s happening with multiple shows. And then the Broadway League is your opportunity to meet a lot of the producers that are on Broadway, and talk to them and hear some of the challenges that they’re facing and talk through some of the concerns as far as interaction with the theatre owners, the unions, what a season looks like, how to develop new audiences. So that’s what I would say. I would definitely say intern, intern, intern.
You’re one of not that many female producers. When you first started, did you feel like you ever had to think about how you presented yourself in a room in terms of talking to investors or talking to theatre owners?
I think the Broadway community has been quite receptive, and there are a few younger producers now that are a part of the group that I see at Broadway League events. The times where I’m somewhat put off is when I am immediately assumed to be the assistant. I get that in email, where people are emailing me to ask if my producing partner and I will take meetings, and they’re really asking if my producing partner will take a meeting with them. And then I have to explain to them that we’re partners and I’m not the assistant. So those are the times where I feel like, as a woman, I’m perceived one way as opposed to the other. And there are enough women that are producing on Broadway that that shouldn’t even be a question. That shouldn’t be the initial thought in someone’s mind, because there are so many great women that are producing on Broadway. That glass ceiling has long been broken. So it’s time to move on to bigger and better things.
Do you feel like people still make assumptions about what types of shows you produce or should be producing?
Yes. The agents, the playwrights, other producers. Yes. Yes. Yes. We have a certain mandate. We are interested in non-traditional casting. We are interested in bringing new audiences into the theatre. But we’ve invested in some shows like Paramour because it was a new approach to Broadway. We invested in Romeo and Juliet because it was the first interracial casting of Romeo and Juliet on Broadway. We brought Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire to Broadway because they were pushing the envelope, because they were the first time that classic works by Tennessee Williams had been presented on Broadway with an all African-American or a multi-ethnic casting. So we are trying to push the envelope. But I think that because we’re black producers, oftentimes the assumption is that we’d only be interested in black productions. And that’s not the case. We’re interested in non-traditional casting, we’re interested in innovative approaches to Broadway, we’re interested in being on the forefront of expanding the idea of Broadway and expanding access to Broadway for audiences. We’re always pushing back to say, “No, we’re interested in more than just one kind of play or musical.”
What do you think can be done to make things more equal for women working on Broadway?
I think being conscious of it is the first step. And it’s moments like this. It was moments like Fun Home, and it’s moments like last season where we had Liesl Tommy as a director on an all-female production, and it’s moments like this, with Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel, where it becomes pretty obvious that there’s a major deficit and it needs to be a focus area. So as we look at work going forward, it’s something to consider. Why is it that there’s so many more male directors on Broadway, why is it that there’s so many more male playwrights, when women are buying all the tickets? I think that we wanted equality to all happen very quickly, and it hasn’t, so now we’re pounding the table. But I think that’s good. I didn’t live during the time when it was unheard of and unthinkable that women would be in any of these positions, so I’m lucky in that sense. But now it’s up to us to keep pushing the envelope to ensure that there is a point where we reach some equilibrium. The fact that it took so long for Paula Vogel to have a Broadway debut and for Lynn Nottage to have a Broadway debut is kind of unbelievable. But I recognize why that happens, just in the creative stew that goes into putting together a Broadway season. I don’t know that [gender] has been the focus. But now I think that it is becoming more of a focus, because every season there’s a narrative about the women that are on Broadway. And I think that that’s an important part of how we move things forward, how we make that change. All levels of Broadway, all of the rooms where it’s happening, should have women in them. So I think as consumers—and women are the consumers—they have the power to vote with their pocketbooks, as well.