Decades before he took on the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts, Broadway producer Rocco Landesman approached his friend Robert Brustein about doing a musical at Brustein's artistic home, the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. Brustein liked the idea, and the show, "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," opened there in 1984. It would go on to run for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway, win seven Tony Awards, including the coveted best musical, and earn the ART well over $300,000 for having premiered the piece.
Whether or not that show's high-profile success enticed other nonprofits toward Broadway, as a new report suggests, collaborations between regional theaters and commercial producers have proliferated in the years since then — and Boston's biggest producing theaters have certainly been a part of that. At the ART, think "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," "Johnny Baseball," this December's revival of "Pippin," and, potentially, February's "The Glass Menagerie." At the Huntington Theater Company, think "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps," "Captors," "Pal Joey," and a series of plays by August Wilson.
Slated to be published Monday, the report from the Emerson College-based Center for the Theater Commons chronicles a gathering last November of some of the biggest names in American theater, including Brustein and Landesman, and raises pointed questions about what those partnerships — and a gaze increasingly directed toward Broadway — mean for the mission of nonprofit theaters.
"If there was a recurring theme to the . . . discussion, it was that the nonprofit theater appears to have lost sight of its values and raison d'être," says the report, titled "In the Intersection: Partnerships in the New Play Sector." While "commercial partnerships were not perceived to be the cause of this erosion of ideals, necessarily," it says, there is a concern that the collaborations — which frequently involve so-called enhancement money, paid by the commercial producers to cover production costs at the regional theater — "have the potential to create a legal and moral slippery slope for nonprofits."
"There's an uneasiness about the relationship between not-for-profit and commercial theater," Polly Carl, the director of the Center for the Theater Commons, said in a recent interview. The research center opened at Emerson this year, aiming to shake things up in the American theater, asking questions about its methods and its values.
"There are no purists at the table. I don't think anybody is saying, 'Commercial is evil and not-for-profit is good.' Nobody believes that," Carl said. In fact, she added, there is value in the two sectors working together. But there is also a sense that the nonprofit theater in recent years "has lost its way in its overemphasis on definitions of success that are very particular to taking shows to New York, not necessarily serving communities."
As Brustein reminded his two dozen fellow participants in the meeting last year, held at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., this country's nonprofit theaters were founded as alternatives to its for-profit theater, with different objectives and ideals.
"We didn't join together to do the same things to please the largest number, to bring in the greatest amount of money, and the greatest subscribers," he told them. "[A]s a nonprofit theater, most of us did these things because nobody else would do them! We did Robert Wilson, we did Andrei Serban. . . . Because Broadway wasn't going to do them! And they needed a voice! They needed an outlet. They needed a stage."
Avant-garde theater artists aren't the only ones looking for an outlet. Nowadays, when commercial producers need a stage, they frequently approach nonprofit theaters. Major regional companies like the Huntington and the ART can mount a show for a fraction of the price of a production on Broadway, where nearly everything costs more, and help in the development of the piece, not least by putting it in front of an audience.
"I think it probably happens more than people are aware of," said ART producer and interim managing director Diane Borger, ticking off a partial list of nonprofit companies across the country that sometimes team up with commercial producers: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, South Coast Repertory, the Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. She also pointed to nonprofit-commercial collaborations in London, where she worked for three decades before coming to Cambridge.
"It's been sort of standard at the National Theatre and the [Royal Shakespeare Company] and the Royal Court and the Donmar [Warehouse] for, oh God, a dozen years at least," Borger said. "It's perceived as a really healthy part of the theater ecology, because so much work from the not-for-profit sector does go into the commercial sector. It's a way of them supporting not-for-profits."
And in the United States, where funding for theater isn't what it once was, commercial money is a resource to tap.
"In a world of changing funding patterns," Borger said, "it's something that's now in the mix."
At the ART, last season's Broadway-bound production of "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" was a commercial collaboration, as is this season's "Pippin," which boasts a cast including Tony nominee Charlotte d'Amboise and Tony-winning Broadway favorite Andrea Martin. "Johnny Baseball," from 2010, also involved a commercial producer, but it did not move to New York. John Tiffany's upcoming staging of "The Glass Menagerie," starring Cherry Jones and planned long before Tiffany won a 2012 Tony Award for directing the hit musical "Once," has attracted commercial interest, though no deal is in place, Borger said. A workshop production of "Once" last year at the ART was supported with commercial money, too, she said.
Borger declined to disclose how much enhancement money commercial producers put into a given deal but estimated that it covers between 33 and 40 percent of the production's budget. "It certainly changes what's possible if we're doing a large show," she said. On "Porgy and Bess," those extra dollars meant the ART could afford to hire — in addition to a voluminous cast headed by the show's main draw, Broadway star Audra McDonald — 18 local musicians for the orchestra.
The ART's operating budget, Borger said, hovers between $12 million and $14 million — on the higher end last season because "Porgy" brought not only enhancement but big box-office sales and donations. Borger would not say how much the ART has made from "Porgy" or any other commercial production but noted that the standard contract, which is negotiable, gives the originating theater a 1 percent royalty and 5 percent of any profits. In each of the past couple of years, she said, the ART has made between $100,000 and $200,000 from its commercial partnerships. "Sleep No More," from the 2009-10 season, was not enhanced but has gone on to a successful commercial run in New York, and a cut of that is making its way back to Cambridge.
"The truth is," said Michael Maso, the Huntington's managing director, "we're all approached all the time with commercial money, and most of the things that people send to us are just plays that we don't want to do — either plays or musicals — and so we don't do it. We have relationships with commercial producers when either they are the way that we can afford to do something that is just too big for our budget, or when they come attached to something, and we can help develop a piece, but we really care about the piece."
"Captors," last season's drama about Adolf Eichmann, and "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps," in 2007, both came to the Huntington with producers attached, Maso said. ("Captors" has not resurfaced in New York, while "The 39 Steps" went on to spend two years on Broadway.) "Marty," which starred John C. Reilly in 2002, included "a substantial amount of money from commercial producers," Maso said, and the musical "Pal Joey," in 1992, "had significant support: not quite a million dollars but maybe $750,000." Horton Foote's "The Young Man From Atlanta," in 1995, was another commercial collaboration, with what Maso said was "a small amount of enhancement."
"The most commercially successful venture we've ever had with commercial producers is '39 Steps,' " he said. "Our return on that has been in excess of a hundred thousand dollars — but, you know, that's still out of an annual budget of 13 million, so we've never had enormous motivation or benefit from it. The only theaters that really make money are the ones that have hit the jackpot with a major musical. And then it's an enormous amount of money."
One longstanding partnership involved August Wilson's plays, which regional theaters including the Huntington would produce, sans enhancement, with the playwright's commercial management team. Wilson's later plays, "Gem of the Ocean" and "Radio Golf," involved a different commercial producer, Landesman's Jujamcyn Theaters, which provided "some compensation in exchange for physical production elements," Maso said. But Wilson's work was seldom a moneymaker.
"I think every now and then, a check from the television version of 'The Piano Lesson' comes in for a couple of hundred dollars," Maso said.
While some decision-making may be shared with the commercial partner on a given project, both Maso and Borger said that their theaters have ultimate control over the regional production. But control emerges as a contentious issue in the report, which notes that one would-be attendee at the meeting — Michael Ritchie, the former Williamstown Theatre Festival producer now heading Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles — had to cancel because a starry "Funny Girl" revival, undercapitalized by a commercial partner, had just dropped out of his season.
Such risks, La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley told his peers, are inherent to nonprofit-commercial collaborations. "One of the downsides to that partnership is that whatever promise you've made to your audience as a theater is not completely within your control anymore," he said.
As the report makes clear, there is significant worry in some quarters that a Broadway-bound production at a regional theater does not have the same connection with that regional theater or its audience that a production without a commercial future would have.
Robert J. Orchard, Emerson's executive director for the arts and executive director of ArtsEmerson, sounded a similar theme in an interview, though he emphasized that he was not trying to tell anyone else how to work. Having founded the ART with Brustein, he spent more than two decades as the ART's managing director before becoming its executive director, and said he has never taken enhancement money. When New York rather than the local production is the end goal, he said, making the work feels "less organic" than when it's "created from scratch and totally within the resources of the organization."
"It feels as if it's passing through," Orchard said. "Its sights are beyond you; [it's] not really being done for the local community. It's being done with an eye towards another community. You have a different relationship to the work. And there's a spiritual thing to that that's hard to articulate that does have some effect, I think, on organizations."
While some ART productions in his years there did attract commercial interest, and the theater had an ownership stake in shows that went on to Broadway — including " 'night, Mother" in 1983, "A Moon for the Misbegotten" in 1984, and "Mastergate" in 1989 — it "had nothing to do with the shepherding of the project into a commercial realm," Orchard said.
"I think our perspective was in part because we had a resident company," he said, "and we weren't in the business of moving our resident company out of Cambridge."
Once common in regional theater, resident companies "have all collapsed and disintegrated," Brustein told his colleagues at the meeting in Washington. The ART no longer has one, though some former members sometimes perform there.
David Dower, director of artistic programs at ArtsEmerson and founder of the Center for the Theater Commons, said in an interview that Broadway-bound productions can create an "imbalance of power" that puts regional theaters at a disadvantage in their relationship with artists, too. When artists become focused on the commercial future of the play, he said, they place less importance on the earlier part of the process.
"We're at the beginning of something in the nonprofit production that has been designed to have a much bigger life," Dower said, "and the artists and the commercial producer are focused on the much bigger life. And the not-for-profit institution that's sitting there . . . has a very difficult time."
Carl, for one, would like nonprofits to examine their actions — to ask themselves what the right amount of commercial activity is for their organization and what value they're bringing to their community.
"It's easy to make a case that you're promoting your mission," she said. "It's easy to say, 'Oh, we're making good theater for our community because this many people came.' But I think the means and the end are really at issue for the American theater right now. What means are you willing to employ to get to those ends? That's the real question at hand here."
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes