EXCLUSIVE: Amidst Broadway’s endless intermission, Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin has a message for the trade association’s members: Pay your dues.
Membership renewal invoices sent last month have become a sore point for cash-strapped producers in the multi-billion-dollar theater business, which remains shuttered in response to Covid-19. For $4,050 a year, full members are invited to lunches, conferences and the roughly three dozen Broadway productions that typically open each season, in order to vote in the Tony Awards. (That’s more than $14,000 worth of tickets, assuming $200 per premium seat for each member and a guest.)
But with all shows closed indefinitely and producers without earned income, the value of League membership is less obvious or affordable.
“I can’t believe they are asking for money when the entire live entertainment industry is shut down for the foreseeable future,” a young independent producer with several Broadway credits said. “I am furious about it.”
Several producers called the dues demand tone-deaf, as related organizations end unpaid internships and take other steps to be less elitist. The deadline for dues is Thursday, although the League is offering the option to pay in installments. It has more than 700 members, according to its website.
The financial dispute is just one of many roiling Broadway as the industry marks more than six months of darkened houses. Full members of the League include career producers who worked their way up in the industry; and co-producers, sometimes called “money producers,” who with varying degrees of wealth and theater experience are able to raise or invest $500,000 in a play or $1 million in a musical, give or take, in the previous three seasons.
Full members also include general managers and theater owners from New York and out of town. (There’s overlap among the various groups.) Associate members, who don’t get to vote in the Tonys, pay $2,700 annually.
Membership dues make up 60 percent of the League’s revenue, according to its 2018-19 tax return. (As a tax-exempt organization, its return is publicly available.) That revenue has been severely eroded by the absence of weekly dues assessed on running shows, including touring productions, all of which shuttered in mid-March. Weekly dues are in addition to annual dues.
Some producers told Broadway Journal that the League’s response to the crisis has been more reactive than proactive. It approved refunds to ticket holders piecemeal, in March, April, May and June, initially saying the shutdown would last just a month, as wishful thinking translated into poor customer service.
Broadway also suffered the indignity of being excluded from a high-profile, roughly 120-person advisory committee formed in April to advise Gov. Andrew Cuomo on reopening the state. St. Martin, who declined an interview request for this story, later said that she’s in touch with its two leaders.
In March, the League reached a settlement with 14 unions, for Broadway productions to pay roughly three weeks of salary and benefits to resolve potential claims arising from the closing of shows. But some producers are dismayed that St. Martin told Broadway News that there is no willingness to “break the financial model” to bring production costs closer to those on the West End, which could hasten Broadway’s return and recovery.
Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, said last week that he would seek concessions from unions before resuming performances. (To the consternation of the Met Opera’s orchestra and others, Gelb also canceled performances at the Met — the nation’s biggest performing arts company and an anchor of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts — through the 2020-2021 season.)
“Gelb is saying, ‘we have to figure out how to survive,'” the young Broadway producer said. “That’s not happening at the League.”
A person close to the League’s board of governors said there are wide-ranging discussions with unions. “It would be wildly inappropriate and counterproductive to have those conversations in public,” this person said.
The League has created 40 new task forces involving 200 members to work on reopening Broadway, St. Martin wrote in a letter accompanying renewal invoices in August. (A month later, the tally was up to 42 task forces involving 350 members, according to the Washington Post.) Half of the committees are focused on labor and work rules.
A former Loews Hotels executive, St. Martin has led the League since 2006. Her most recent compensation was $569,000, including benefits, according to the organization’s tax return. As of August 2019, the League had $17 million in cash. In the first half of this year, it spent about $215,000 on lobbyists in Albany and Washington, according to review of state and federal records.
The League’s annual dues for full members are six times that of the Society of London Theatre — the League’s British equivalent. SOLT’s weekly communications tend to be more extensive than the League’s. A single SOLT email in late August included guidance from the Scottish government on how to eventually reopen stages, research from the University of Exeter on how a theater company transformed itself to create work over Zoom, and a SOLT survey of members about insurance, to aid a coordinated industry lobbying campaign for subsidies.
Around the same time, the Broadway League sent a brief email to its members about a bill to aid producers and theater and music venues, to be reposted on social media. On Sept. 18, St. Martin appeared with Senator Chuck Schumer at a Times Square rally for the legislation, which would provide grants of up to $12 million each. Hours later, news broke about the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The partisan rancor over replacing Ginsburg complicated prospects for another economic stimulus and any chance for the bill to pass this year.
In the meantime, at least nine of the League task forces are working on a “Broadway Will be Back” marketing strategy, to “react [to the crisis], restore, return and re-imagine” the industry. Although a few shows are still selling tickets for performances in January, with the number of new Covid cases rising in New York and nationwide, there’s no indication that Broadway will return or be re-imagined any time soon.