What Jordan Roth’s Ascension Could Mean for Independent Theater in New York

Reubonic is a wise, melancholy look at the previous brevity of life and the challenges of being an artist.

JordanRothThere is near-jubilation among the Broadway chatterati with Jordan Roth to succeed Rocco Landesman, the newly installed chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, as president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which may own and run a mere five Broadway houses but which exerts a powerful influence over the artistic and financial structuring of the Great White Way.

The near-jubilation is very much earned. Like his mother, producer Daryl Roth, whose nose for superlative new work remains virtually unchallenged, Jordan Roth is a class act. He’s approachable, sophisticated (although not in an elitist manner), savvy, and in what is arguably a first for Broadway since the brothers Shubert arrived on the Gotham theater scene some 109 years ago, he’s young. He may also be the first gay Broadway theater owner since Charles Frohman to have so much power. (If you’re saying “What’s a Frohman?,” click here.) Unlike Frohman, however, Roth is out.

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In its coverage of his rising to the top of the Jujamcyn pile, the Times situated Roth’s age — 33 — front and center, or at least more prominently than his marketing prowess or genetic nose for aesthetics. Roth, according to the Times, may have been “coy when it came to specific plans he might have in mind, saying only that he will continue the company’s tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship,” but his age clearly makes a comparison with the “other two Broadway stalwarts, the Shubert and the Nederlander organizations…led by Philip J. Smith, 78, and James M. Nederlander, 87.”

I would merely point out that there is more to this story than meets the eye. Roth’s track record includes not only the 2000 revival of The Rocky Horror Show, Off-Broadway’s The Donkey Show and identifying Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening as major artistic and commercial achievements, but he is Off-Off-Broadway’s best hope for a patron at the Broadway level.

If I were a playwright, director, artistic director, actor or any other theater practitioner working in the independent theater world in New York, I would immediately do the following:

1) Watch Jordan Roth’s actions as well as his words. Carefully note the properties he cultivates and presents to the public.

2) Think about what productions you’re working on and what, if anything, would make them commercially viable yet not cash out their essential integrity. If you can make a compelling case that your show fits what I’d call the “reason of Roth,” place him on your mailing list immediately. But be smart about it: Everyone will want a piece of him as soon as he’s settled into his new job.

3) Align political, financial and sociological causes with Roth’s own. Develop ways to make the case that what affects Broadway — the tourist trade, say — also affects Off-Off-Broadway, including the economic impact of spending.

4) Educate Roth regarding the Equity Showcase Code and work to gain his support for meaningful reform. This will be the toughest task for Off-Off-Broadway to achieve, given the community’s historical factionalism. Even today, with so much more organization present in the sector, advocacy and service groups are working too often to first promote all of their brands and names, and only second to promote the real needs of the sector as a whole.

I believe Roth will be a friend to Off-Off-Broadway if Off-Off-Broadway takes the full measure of him and understands what being president of Jujamcyn really means. If Off-Off-Broadway really is the research and development arm of the New York theater — and, I would argue, the American theater — steps must be undertaken to keep him illuminated and challenged and intrigued. It doesn’t mean he’ll produce your Kabuki Hamlet. It means the independent theater world has a chance to fundamentally change the mindset of a Broadway mover and shaker, to put to rest once and for all this dumb idea that Off-Off-Broadway is the amateur hour, the substandard, the unformed, the ill-conceived. If the sector wants to have a pipeline to the commercial theater — and it should — it must begin to build one immediately.

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  • This may be a question with an obvious answer, but it wasn’t directly addressed in the piece and I’m genuinely curious: Why is it in Off-Off-Broadway’s interest to have a pipeline to the commercial theatre? What would it gain from this, and what might it lose?

    • I don’t believe it would lose very much. And I believe that OOB has many reasons for wanting a better relationship with Broadway as a whole.

      1) Increased audiences and awareness of its work.
      2) Increased potential for income — remember, Equity Showcases in New York pay next to nothing.
      3) Increased donor base and, properly structured, enhancement-funding potential.
      4) Increased perception of professionalism by the remainder of the theater community.

  • Lanie Zipoy

    Thanks for your interesting perspective on how Off-Off Broadway/indie theater may benefit from Jordan Roth’s rise to president of Jujamcyn Theaters. The glowing coverage of his ascendancy reminds me that last fall millions of people were thrilled by the idea “change has come to America.” And the man who inspired it. Could Roth be the Barack Obama of Broadway?

  • There must be cross-pollenation between “commercial” theatre and the non-profit sector; otherwise, none of us have a chance in hell.

    If Jordan Roth and other young, visionary producers can bridge the gap between keeping an eye on the bottom line, and “ars gratia artis” (that’s “art for art’s sake”) then that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

    If my failing memory serves, “The Donkey Show” which he (co?) produced, was presented outside the usual confines of Broadway/Off Broadway, got positive reviews–and has had an afterlife.

    In order to have both bread and roses, we need to prove to the theatre going public, private and corporate investors, that we are capable of justifying their faith in us by making both intelligent, entertaining theatre and at least breaking even.

    Maybe the savvy to do that skipped a generation, from Sondheim, Prince, Merrick, et al., to the under 40 crowd; but if that’s the case, let’s swallow our pride and follow the float!

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