More than 200 people received a back-stage pass to the Broadway theater industry at the third Power of Possibility Alumni Showcase Talk on Thursday, Oct. 15. Producers Bonnie Comley ’81 and her husband Stewart Lane screened their documentary “Show Business: The Road to Broadway” and then answered questions from the audience about their lives and profession.
“This was a labor of love,” said Comley, who is vice president of Stellar Productions. The documentary told the story of the race for the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical, following three of the four nominees: “Wicked,” “Avenue Q,” and “Caroline, or Change” plus the not-nominated, but controversial, “Taboo.” The production team filmed every play and musical that opened during the 2003-2004 season, and edited down more than 400 hours of footage from casting calls, rehearsals, previews, and opening night, culminating at the Tony Awards.
“This could be any theater. This is just the way that Broadway theater works, but it could be any theater-;from community theater on up. It’s the dynamic of people working together, it’s the thrill of having something work really well...And it’s also seeing that sometimes that even when people are working really hard, sometimes it just doesn’t work out,” said Comley.
The producers were able to receive unprecedented access to all these Broadway shows, despite difficult and conflicting union rules, because they agreed to donate any profits to the unions’ own causes. Backstage and rehearsal scenes were intermingled with interviews of directors, actors, writers, musicians and theater critics to give a sense of why the business is so thrilling and rewarding and yet so risky.
After the well-received film, Comley and Lane answered questions ranging from the role of critics in the industry - bloggers are reducing the power of newspaper critics - to the importance of advanced sales in keeping a show from folding right after opening night, a common and devastating situation.
“For most of these shows, it cost millions and millions of dollars just to get to opening night,” said Comley. “And these shows costs anywhere upwards of $700,000 a week to run. So if you don’t have ticket sales, and you don’t have reviews, basically the next day after opening, you pull the plug.”
Others asked about the best way for students to get their foot in the Broadway door. Comley, who began a performing career after graduating from University of Lowell and receiving a master’s degree from Emerson College, recommended taking advantage of volunteer opportunities at the Merrimack Repertory Theater in downtown Lowell.
“Its all about the body of work and getting yourself attached to an artistic home,” says Comley. “New York is an amazing place to go and it is a pinnacle for a lot of people. But there are thousands of companies all of the country doing fabulous theater. Get involved with those.”
Comley and Lane’s most recent honors include a 2008 Drama Desk Award for “Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” and a 2007 Tony Award for Best Theatrical Event for producing “Jay Johnson: The Two & Only.” Besides “Show Business: The Road to Broadway,” they have also executive produced the film “Brooklyn Rules” and the PBS Great Performances productions of “Cyrano deBergerac” and Steven Sondheim’s “Company.”
The next Power of Possibility Alumni Showcase talk will feature Scott Waugh ’90, physical therapist for the Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins. He will speak on Monday, Nov. 9, at 3:30 p.m. in Weed Hall. For more information, contact Heather_Makrez@uml.edu or 978-934-4809.