Nov 02

Ken Davenport and the Off-Broadway Musical

Not long ago, I had a meeting with producer Ken Davenport.  Perhaps best known for the recent revival of Godspell, Ken has also produced 13, You’re Welcome America, Speed-the-Plow, Blithe Spirit and Chinglish, just to name a few. However, I want to discuss what is arguably Ken’s most successful work: Off-Broadway productions.

Ken has seemingly conquered the formula (if there is one) for producing a show Off-Broadway, or productions that run in legitimate Manhattan theaters that have under 500 seats. Most notably, Ken created and produced the hit Off-Broadway musical Altar Boyz which ran for 2032 performances- a practically unheard of feat in what is an increasingly more difficult Off-Broadway market. How did he do it? There are many reasons, one of which is that Ken is just plain good at what he does. But I might also argue that he created the perfect Off-Broadway musical.

The Off-Broadway musical could practically be considered its own genre of musical theater. Famous (and successful) musicals in this style have included You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Ruthless! and The Fantasticks. Now, Avenue Q is joining the ranks (celebrating their third anniversary moving BACK Off-Broadway tonight). All of these shows including Altar Boyz have a host of things in common. These commonalities are what (in my mind) create a successful Off-Broadway musical.  Let’s talk about five of them:

  1. The casts are small. Simple concept, really. The theaters are smaller and the budgets are smaller. With fewer expenses, these shows also have fewer hindrances to their financial success.
  2. The stories are simple. None of these shows require epic scenery, or special effects in order to tell the story. Save the epics like Les Miz and Phantom for Broadway.
  3. The characters are special. Each of these shows have very interesting characters with whom audience members can identify. When you want to see every nuance of the actor’s face, and you want to feel close to the characters, the show is perfect for a small house.
  4. The scores are intimate. None of these musicals require a pit orchestra of twenty in order to provide a sweeping flourish of music. Rather, the score feels intimate and is easy to accomplish with a small band.
  5. The entertainment value is high. The fact is, people don’t usually travel to New York to see an Off-Broadway show. Travellers want to be able to say that they saw a BROADWAY show. It’s unfortunate, but true, and it means that these shows must become events that pack a punch of entertainment large enough to convince audiences to choose them over a Broadway smash.

In my mind, these five things contribute to making lucrative Off-Broadway shows. Yet it’s not always that simple. I recently saw the short-lived run of The Last Smoker in America. This was a fantastically fun musical starring four very talented performers. It appeared to all of those key Off-Broadway elements. It was exactly where it needed to be, comfortably in the Westside Theater (upstairs), but somehow, it didn’t last. Maybe it was the subject matter, or maybe marketing for the show didn’t perform as expected. I honestly don’t know.

But, I do know this: producing Off-Broadway musicals is a difficult job. It is a huge balancing act, and very few shows are able to find a place in the truly prestigious category. I have tons of respect for the people that make it happen, and you should too– especially since some of the best work can often be found in these lower-budget environments. Next time you’re looking to see a show in New York, maybe think twice about giving your business to a hit like Wicked (honestly, they don’t need it)  and consider venturing to some of the smaller New York theaters for an Off-Broadway show instead. I promise you won’t be sorry, and I’m sure Ken would appreciate it.

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