One of the guardian angels of Broadway will soon honor the creator of Angels in America
. On June 18, the Theatre Development Fund will host its annual benefit gala at Gotham Hall, and Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner will be honored at the event. “He has deeply touched audiences around the world,” commented its executive director Victoria Bailey. However, celebrating its fiftieth year of building audiences on Broadway, the Theatre Development Fund itself has deeply touched audiences around the world. Started in 1968, the non-profit organization was established to rescue remarkable new plays struggling on the Great White Way. It realized that risk-conscious commercial producers were bringing less and less new plays to Broadway, and mounting more and more formulaic musicals.
“We cannot permit the worthy play to become extinct,” remarked its first president, John E. Booth, in 1968. “The time has come to acknowledge the fact that the commercial theater is an indispensable wellspring of activity for the American theater,” he said. With a helping hand from drama critic Harold Clurman, the Theatre Development Fund first identified plays that made a substantial contribution to the development of the performing arts, and were unlikely to survive for long on Broadway without its assistance. It then purchased up to five weeks of tickets to the vulnerable shows, and sold them at a steep discount to people who could not otherwise afford to
see them. The Theatre Development Fund wanted to “bring back to the theater the young people who now seem to have two or three dollars to spend for tickets but almost invariably choose to spend that money for
tickets to motion picture theaters,” stated one of its founding trustees, John F. Wharton, in 1968.
The architects of the Theatre Development Fund “decided from the very beginning that the way to help plays was to give them an audience,” explained Bailey. Reducing the economic barriers of entry for
theatergoers would get more people talking about the shows, and help develop a sustainable audience for the future.
However, the organization received some criticism for using federal funds to bail out Broadway. Highlighting the cuts made to space exploration and merchant ships in the 1968 federal budget, the editor of one business magazine insisted that subsidizing commercial theatre was not the best use of taxpayer money, and argued that the Theatre Development Fund threatened the integrity of the competitive market. “There are bound to be unexpected reactions when success of a theatrical presentation no longer is determined solely by the theater-going, ticket-buying public,” he warned.
Yet, the results were all positive. For its first show, the Theatre Development Fund selected to help The Great White Hope
starring James Earl Jones. The boxing play had received two federal grants to cover the costs of its premiere at a regional theater, and only came to Broadway in 1968 after its playwright invested some of the money that he made from selling the film rights. The Theatre Development Fund purchased 1,112 orchestra seats to the show for $10,008 during the first few weeks of its run, and, since it did not yet have a mailing list, it gave away all of the tickets for free to New York City public schools. Word of mouth spread quickly, and
the play lasted for 546 performances on Broadway, winning both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play.
The ticket subsidy program continued to grow, and later expanded to encompass musicals and other forms of live entertainment. It now offers discounted tickets to more than 110,000 students, teachers, union
members, retirees, arts professionals, and disabled individuals around the world. However, the most well-known contribution of the Theatre Development Fund to Broadway is not its ticket subsidy program.
Recreating a discount ticket counter that Joseph LeBlang and his widow operated at Gray’s Drug Store until 1948, the organization opened up a small TKTS Discount Booth in 1973 to sell half-priced Broadway
tickets. The Parks Department allowed it to use Duffy Square for the project, and the city donated a $20,000 trailer with one window. “We stayed in [it] until the floor broke through,” recalled Anna Crouse, one
of its trustees.
As the TKTS Discount Booth became more popular and added nine more windows, it also allowed several struggling shows to sustain poor reviews and grow their audiences. When The Wiz
started preview performances at the Majestic Theatre in 1975, for example, the musical was losing about $21,000 each week. It barely had any advance ticket sales, and the producers posted a closing notice backstage on opening night. “But, when the producers gave us tickets to sell at half price, people bought them and the show became a word-of-mouth success,” remembered Crouse. The show won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and continued to run for over four years on Broadway. The TKTS Discount Booths now sell about $110 million in discounted tickets each year, and have become major tourist attractions. About 30 percent of the people on line are waiting to purchase tickets to their first Broadway show. “The only thing I wish is that they would’ve put TDF in its name when they opened it,” commented Bailey.
Over the decades, the Theatre Development Fund has also responded to feedback from theatergoers, and introduced several programs to make Broadway more accessible to high school students and disabled individuals. “When people didn’t know what to do, they called TDF,” Bailey stated. “Trying to get more people to go more often to the theatre at a price that they can afford, and feel welcome there, is critically important,”
she said. “It’s where we started, and, fifty years later, it’s where we are now,” Bailey smiled.
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