The New Road to Broadway

Stephanie Lynn Prugh, University of Colorado at Boulder


Since the 1980s, a number of plays and musicals have transferred to Broadway from a professional nonprofit theatre. This growing trend was highlighted by the fact that a significant number of the 2015 and 2016 Tony nominated productions originated at or were produced by a nonprofit theatre. These professional nonprofit theatres, generally referred to as regional or resident theatres, are actively shaping the theatrical work that is appearing on the Great White Way. From 2000 - 2016, the Tony Award for Best New Musical has been awarded to nine productions that came from a non-profit theatre company; essentially the out-of-town tryout model that served as a popular method to work plays or musicals in the past has transformed into the regional/resident commercially enhanced model. These regional-to-Broadway transfers are gaining momentum with well over 100 Broadway productions having come from a regional in the past sixteen years alone.

In the past, in order to get a show to Broadway, there were only four two ways: the road, transferring from London, transferring from an Off-Broadway theatre or opening directly on Broadway. Producers would take a Broadway hopeful show out of town, work out any kinks in the relative privacy of a town far enough away from New York that critics wouldn’t venture out to see it, then sail into New York with hopes of a successful run. This model, for the most part, has given way to the nonprofit/commercial relationship as a result of several mitigating factors including reduced funding from important sources such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation and an increase in production costs. As the cost of producing musical’s continued to rise, the nonprofit began to play a vital role in the development of new works, raising the question of whether or not a nonprofit should receive financial compensation for their role in the development of work that eventually transferred to Broadway.

By examining the effects of the nonprofit/commercial relationship through four different nonprofit companies – The American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, The La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California, The Denver Center Theatre Company in Denver, Colorado and the Public Theater in New York City – we explore the various effects the commercial partnership has had on the nonprofit theatre – impacting the financial stability of an organization to increasing the organization’s presence on the national stage – the nonprofits’ have created a new road to Broadway.