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Impressions of BroadwayCon 2016 in New York City

by Stan Friedman

In olden days, before the dawn of the internet, Broadway lovers who lived out of town often starved. They had to wait for the Sunday Times Arts & Leisure section to arrive on the following Wednesday, and wait for the vinyl of the latest musical to be available at the mall, and wait for the annual Tony Awards broadcast to try to sate their appetite. Today, of course, theater geeks feast upon a buffet of instantaneous bliss, following their favorite shows and stars on social media, downloading scores and video clips before a show even opens, and building online communities to share in the spoils.

It was only a matter of time, then, before fans, marketers and performers came upon a shared realization. If Broadway is a banquet, then bring one and all together, fill a New York ballroom with teens and millennials who will tweet and Instagram even as they group-sing their favorite show tunes, add some serious panel talks, some silly presentations, a vendor area and lots and lots of all things Hamilton. Thus, BroadwayCon was born to sate the legions. With an overflow crowd of nearly 5,000 (80% female, 50% under 30, and 75% non New Yorkers), the New York Hilton Midtown is rocking this weekend, stuffed with more talks and talent than one could ever hope to take in. I came a bit late to the party, foregoing the opening sing-alongs, delving instead into a couple of Friday afternoon snacks to whet my appetite before a full slate on Saturday and Sunday.

 

First up was The Hamilton Panel, featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda and seven other cast members of the megahit, being interviewed by Playbill editor, Blake Ross. It is safe to say that nearly everyone in the room knew every word of the musical by heart, and the audience ate up all that the actors had to say. They were helped out by an unseen typist, impressively providing a real-time transcript that was projected onto the many video screens in the mainstage ballroom. Then, near disaster. Ross asked if any of the actors ever rapped previously to being in Hamilton. One replied, "I rapped to Hip Hop." But the typist left out one of the p's in "rapped." Fortunately, both cast and audience took it for the awkward mistake it was. Miranda put a seal on the deal by performing a freestyle rap centered around the faux pas.

 

The next session, entitled I Was a Teenage Diva shifted the action from accidental embarrassments to intentional ones, with a group of major Broadway stars providing footage of their childhood performances, before letting loose to showcase their grown up chops. It was perfect fodder for this crowd, and featured video of an unrecognizable 13-year-old Peter Pan who grew up to be the wonderful Lesli Margherita, and a totally recognizable Rob McClure doing impressions at his 4th grade talent show.

Holding a gathering in the Northeast in the dead of winter is a risky gambit, and BroadwayCon is feeling a bit of the blizzard's sting. Weather-related travel complications knocked Darren Criss and Jeremy Jordan off the schedule, several panels were smaller than advertised, Sheldon Harnick had to drop out, and special blizzard-friendly programming is on tap for Saturday night (audience karaoke, anyone?). With all Broadway shows cancelled, $20 BroadwayCon passes are available to anyone who had a theater ticket for tonight.

 

Nonetheless, there was an impressively large turnout for the Saturday morning sessions, and those who made it here were treated to some excellent programming. I began the day with The Art of Stage Management, conducted by a killer panel of Equity stage managers from productions like Wicked, Spring Awakening, and the upcoming revival of The Crucible. Really, what better room to be in in case of a weather emergency? It was purely a Q & A format and the smart audience proved themselves worthy with bright questions and knowing humor.

Some bullet points:

The benefit of being a stage manager rather than an actor?
"You can't get typed out of anything."

Is a degree in stage management a necessity?
No, but internships are a great way in, as our classmates who might move into positions where they can offer you jobs.

How to succeed in stage management?
Know what you want, or fake it till you make it. You have to love going to Staples and sharpening pencils. Taking a psychology class wouldn't hurt either, and always, ALWAYS, speak in a calm and measured voice, no matter the calamities happening on stage. Stage managing is "the art of balancing temperament."

Next up was a panel on How to Market a Show. "How many people here see 10 or more shows a year?" asked Michele Groner, VP of Strategic Planning at Serino/Coyne. Up went the hands of 95% of the audience. "And how many people pay full price?" she then asked. Four hands went up. Such are the problems of today's theater marketers, who look at the world's population as groups of either "avids" or "occasionals," depending on their theater-going habits.

Scott Moore, of AKA NYC, pointed out that the real problem is not discounting, but that today's savvy audiences always want to "pay the best for the least," seeking great seats for small change. And all the panelists pointed out that marketing is a profession that has seen vast changes. Prior to the rise of social media, they could run a tv spot and know exactly how and when a box office would be affected. But now they must react to the flurry of Twitter and Facebook that, like a blizzard, can blow up when least expected.

 

The morning ended with four members of Fun Home discussing their show, which is about to reach its one-year mark on Broadway. Lisa Kron took us behind the creative process involved in writing "Ring of Keys," and was joined by Judy Kuhn, Emily Skeggs and Michael Cerveris in discussing how the first "lesbian protagonist" on Broadway proved to be a universal character to whom all audiences could relate. They also spoke to how the Stage Door Johnnies, and especially in this case the Stage Door Joannies, are an integral part of their performing experience. Greeting the crowds after the show has proven to be a cathartic experience for the actors as well as the young women and men who were affected personally by the production.

When faced with the question of what to do with a ballroom full of blizzard-stranded theater fanatics on a Saturday night, BroadwayCon decided to phone a friend. Many friends, actually. Playbill's Blake Ross, The New York Post's Michael Riedel, and actor and conference co-creator Anthony Rapp took to the stage to flex their mighty Rolodexes in a pop-up event called The Broadway Party Line. They dialed up and chatted with the likes of Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone, Joel Grey and Audra McDonald, to name but a few, with Ms. Ross ultimately showing off her call log on Twitter. The SRO crowd ate it up. After all, for a generation attached to their mobile devices, Patti LuPone answering a phone is only marginally less enthralling than having her appear on stage.

 

Prior to the phone fest, on Saturday afternoon, BroadwayCon was busy showing off its range. Teen girls roamed the halls dressed as revolutionary-era founding fathers, wandering past a room where Princeton theater professor Stacy Wolf presented an academic paper on 1960's feminism as represented in Mame, Cabaret, Sweet Charity and Hello, Dolly! The choreographers Kathleen Marshall and Christopher Gattelli earnestly discussed their careers in one salon while, just across the way, a gaggle of Harry Potter buffs debated to which Hogwart house various Broadway characters belonged (Hamilton a Gryffindor, Burr a Slytherin. You're welcome). Who knew that planet Potter was in such close orbit to the land of the theater geeks?

 

Sunday, I brought my conference going to a close with back to back sessions to compare and contrast. At 11:00 a group of six social media experts discussed how their tweets, blog postings and podcasts have contributed to the Broadway community. Then, at noon, a panel of four established theater critics talked about their jobs. The optics, and the remarks, were telling.

In the first session, Laura Heywood, a.k.a. @BroadwayGirlNYC echoed the thoughts of her youngish, multicultural cohorts saying that she started her Twitter account for her own enjoyment, that it was her love for theater, and not her marketing, that led to her having over 26,000 followers, and that one should tweet their obsession, not obsess over their tweets in hope of gaining followers. Alternatively, when Deadline.com's Jeremy Gerard was asked, in the latter panel, what qualified him to be a critic, he replied, "a paycheck," and was only half joking. Indeed, the difference between these two panels reflects the differences between social media theater vanguards and traditional old-school critics. One is concerned with sharing a common fascination across a vast community, the other tasked with casting judgment on deadline. One panel seemed exuberant and upbeat, running long; the other, tired and worried, cutting the discussion off at the scheduled time, leaving many audience questions unanswered.

Still, it is hard, even for a New York theater critic, not to leave BroadwayCon without an overwhelming sense of optimism about the future. Broadway, by definition, is a small planet, with a population only as large as the 40 professional theaters in Manhattan can employ. But this conference has shown it to be a planet with a million moons: retirees from Iowa, fangirls from Texas, community theater techies, Ivy League scholars, podcasters and future chorus boys. All of them hungry as Audrey II to taste whatever comes next on the Great White Way. Here's hoping that BroadwayCon finds a path to a long run, to keep everybody fed. But maybe, next time, in April?

 

Written by Stan Friedman

Originally published on

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