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Tony-Winning Producer Talks Business of Broadway

Broadway producer and three-time Tony Award winner Bonnie Comley, MA ’94, spoke to a group of Emerson College students on Tuesday about how to break into the theater business, what goes into the production of a Broadway musical, and what a production credit means.

Comley, a member of the Emerson Board of Overseers, presented “Finding Your Spotlight: Getting a Job on Broadway from a Producer’s Perspective” as part of this year’s Industry Insiders Conference, a series of panels by Overseers, all of whom are accomplished in their fields. Comley later gave a talk on her new theater streaming service, BroadwayHD.

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No one should expect to land a job on Broadway directly out of Emerson, Comley said.

“Out of the gate, it doesn’t happen,” she said. “There’s a body of work that goes behind pretty much everybody you see on Broadway.”

Comley, who studied Mass Communication at Emerson and started out in television doing entertainment reporting, recommended that students start off in regional theater and off-Broadway productions, and then come back with armed with good reviews.

A play costs about $4 million to produce, and a musical runs about $15 million, Comley said, so producers will tend to hire known quantities over newcomers, no matter how talented.

“It’s very hard for me [as a producer] to risk $15 million for you [if] your resume is just Emerson [or any institution],” Comley said.

Comley talked about the power of the Broadway League, the trade association of more than 700 producers, theater owners, presenters, and general managers that formed about 80 years ago to protect and promote the “brand” of Broadway. Broadway in New York is defined as 40 theaters in the immediate Times Square area, each with at least 500 seats and each agreeing to controlled ticket prices.

It doesn’t sound like it should work, Comley said—those 40 theaters are all competing with each other for audiences—but the association has managed to grow Broadway theater into a $2 billion industry, including hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops that serve theatergoers.

“By banding together and creating this high-end, luxury brand, what they’ve managed to do is they now have people coming to New York…specifically to see a Broadway show,” Comley said. “Let’s think about how amazing that is.”

Commercial producers are increasingly trying to find ways to partner with nonprofit theater companies to their mutual benefit, she said.

A commercial producer might donate “enhancement money” to a nonprofit to fund its show, Comley said. If the show does well and sells tickets, it will often move to a Broadway theater, where the commercial producer will split the money with the nonprofit.

“We get a show that’s already up and capitalized, and we all make money in the end,” Comley said.

Jordan Gross ’17, a Musical Theatre major, asked about the difference between a producer and an investor.

Comley said that in a modern production, there are typically between one and four “lead producers” who found and optioned the show, put together a budget, and raised money. There is a much larger number of “co-producers” who may be lead producers on other shows or work elsewhere in the theater and bring skills to the enterprise, as well as money, she said. Or, a co-producer may just write a check and/or raise a certain amount of money to invest in the show.

Plays and musicals are always risky investments, Comley said, so lead producers started sweetening the deal for outside investors by offering production credits on Playbills, and, if the play’s a success, possibly a Tony.

Gross, who said he’s eyeing a career in musical theater as either an actor or a producer, said he appreciated Comley’s honesty.

“It definitely changed my perspective [on theater]…as a business, how much money is involved in the funding and actual development time,” Gross said.

Genta Retkoceri, a second-year graduate student in Theatre Education, also said she was amazed at how big a business Broadway is.

“I knew it was a very big business, but now I understand [we’re] talking about…billions of dollars…it can be compared to football,” she said. “That impressed me.”

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