As Hamilton prepares for a long run and potentially earning hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, joining the ranks of The Book of Mormon and Wicked, Broadway appears to be richer than ever. But John Breglio, a producer and former top-flight entertainment lawyer present at the creation of many landmark shows, said the risk-reward for investors hasn’t changed much in his four and a half decades in the business.
The author of I Wanna Be a Producer (Applause), he notes that the vast majority of shows still fail. “Unless you have a musical that is consistently doing over a million dollars [a week in sales], you don’t really have a hit,” he said over Chicken Paillard at Remi restaurant in midtown Manhattan. Blockbuster musicals offer better reward than in years past, thanks in part to “premium tickets” like the $849 seats Hamilton just introduced, but given escalating budgets, the risk for investors has also increased. And he points out that highly anticipated offerings are accessible only to angels with connections. “You have to know people,” he said.
Breglio, 70, has been a “consigliere,” lawyer and friend to countless producers and artists, Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis writes in the introduction. Clients included Michael Bennett, Stephen Sondheim, August Wilson and producers Allan Carr and Carole Shorenstein Hays. Through his association with Bennett — a close friend and onetime business partner who created A Chorus Line — he helped shape the Actors’ Equity’s workshop contract that decades later allowed Mormon actors to share in its profits. He himself has done okay. Before retiring as a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, in 2008, his billable rate was $1,000 an hour.
Breglio argues in the book — a detailed reference and how-to peppered with anecdotes from his career — that shrewd producers and investors temper enthusiasm for material with a nose for numbers. And all parties should be willing to walk away from deals that don’t make financial sense. He recounts how Carr replaced a dream team — including composer Maury Yeston and director Mike Nichols — for the 1983 musical La Cage aux Folles because the terms agent Sam Cohn demanded for his clients were too rich.
Breglio advises in the book on everything from how to protect an idea for a show to where to throw the opening night party (answer: near the theater) and what to serve (finger food). “There’s never enough seating for all the people,” he said. The book opens with Breglio describing in vivid detail being transfixed by his first Broadway musical, Damn Yankees, at age nine.
At 79, he’d like to produce a second Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. It will be timed to the original’s 50th anniversary — in 2025. “You realize it’s only nine years away,” said Breglio, who is executor of the Bennett estate. “The big question is, do we do another replica or a new direction and new version.” Reinventing the musical, Broadway’s sixth-longest-running Broadway show and a groundbreaker to which Hamilton has been compared, “takes a lot of courage” for a director, he said.
Among his endeavors, the first Chorus Line revival, which he produced in 2006, made its investors whole 19 weeks after opening. In 2011, he was a co-producer on Lysistrata Jones, a pop musical loosely adapted from Aristophanes, that closed after 30 performances. “I fell in love with the piece but if I had been advising myself, I might’ve said it’s not ready for prime time,” he said.
Other excerpts from the conversation:
On how to become a producer: “You just say you are,” Breglio said. “It’s not like a doctor or lawyer or carpenter or electrician, where you actually have to know how to do something. You can have a lot of money and be a producer. And if you win a Tony, who’s to say you’re not a producer. The other extreme are real producers, who have the idea, work with the creative team, buy the rights, develop the show, keep the thing together, go out of town, raise the money, market the show. There are precious few of those people.”
He writes that inspired producing requires sustained passion for material over a long incubation; a talent for balancing artists’ creative freedom with the practical demands of mounting a show; sound instincts and the confidence to follow them; and the ability to focus on what’s onstage instead of uncontrollable distractions, like Internet chat.
On producer fees that aren’t “appropriate”: In a provocative three-page chapter called “The Producer’s Deal,” he writes that other than being reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses, producers in the 1930s and 40s relied on their share of a show’s profits as their sole income from producing. (He’s referring specifically to “adjusted net profits,” which producers and investors split once a show repays investors.) As shows took much longer to develop and to recoup production costs, producers began paying themselves in additional ways: a onetime fee of $50,000 to $100,000, a royalty of 3 percent of net gross or the equivalent in operating profits and a weekly office charge. “Now you have a producer taking every which way,” he said.
Breglio said greed is not the driver. “It’s a different mindset, a different point of view from what producers did 25 years ago.” He said a producer should be compensated for the risk of developing a show over many years, but “to get onetime fees and royalties, I don’t think that’s appropriate.” He writes that producer excesses in the long run may make raising money more difficult, “especially from first-time investors who often are very savvy in other businesses.” But most investors, he said, don’t read the offering papers. “They just sign them.”
On representing Stephen Sondheim: Breglio began working with the composer-lyricist in 1971, initially as an associate at Paul, Weiss, where he practiced for 36 years. “I was terrified to talk to him,” Breglio said. “I was in such awe of him. He doesn’t suffer any fools. And I was this young kid. I was always careful to be very prepared. And I didn’t want to waste his time. He can tell if someone’s wasting his time very quickly. I never wanted to bother him unnecessarily. He’s always working. By and large I would do all the deals. He’s incredibly smart about all those things.”
On why he wrote the book: “I was in the unique position as a lawyer to be a shadow producer for many people,” he said. “Allan Carr. Michael Bennett. I became intimate friends with these people and I learned so much along the way. My wife [writer Nan Knighton] was the one who urged me for years. And my daughters finally said, before you get too old, you have to do it. There was nothing out there that really talked to producers.”
On risk-reward specifically for plays: “The big difference now, there are these handful of plays that people consider a no-lose situation. Even Al Pacino in China Doll. Couldn’t get worse publicity. Still makes money. We never had that in the past. That just wasn’t Broadway. You didn’t have sure hits with stars. That’s changed the risk-reward toward reward, but it’s tiny reward. In the old days, you’d have plays like [Bernard Slade’s] Same Time, Next Year, and you made a lot of money. [It ran three and a half years, beginning in 1975.] You don’t have those anymore. What is the last play that didn’t have a huge star that ran for a long time?” Breglio adds Broadway’s exhausting its play revival candidates. “How many versions of The Crucible or Death of a Salesman can you do? We’re running out of them.”