How Far is Off-Broadway?

In the immortal words of George M. Cohan, "Give my regards to Off-Broadway."

A musical called The Fantasticks ran for 42 consecutive years in the same theater, so I have no excuse for not having seen it.  It had 17,162 performances at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village, making it the longest-running show in history.  It is the classic Off-Broadway production.

For all I know, you may have been in the cast of your high school’s staging of The Fantasticks — it’s still a big favorite — but I’m sorry to say that your show in Burlingame or Bellingham or Bloomington doesn’t really count as “off-Broadway”, even though it was done a very long way from Broadway.

So what is Off-Broadway, exactly?  It has less to do with geography than economics, because… well, maybe it would make sense to back up a little and be sure we’re clear on what defines Broadway.

Besides being one of the major roads of Manhattan, it is also the name associated with the theater district in New York City.  There are only a few dozen theaters that are considered Broadway venues, and of those, only a handful are actually on Broadway (the road).  The rest are in a corridor between Sixth and Eighth Avenues that extends from Times Square on the south to roughly 54th Street on the north.  Times Square, by the way, is where Broadway angles across Seventh Avenue (between 42nd and 43rd Streets).

That’s their geographical location, but what really makes them Broadway theaters has to do with their contractual arrangement with Actors Equity, the labor union that represents stage actors.  Venues in New York City that have a seating capacity of over 500 are considered Broadway theaters, although most have well over 1,000 seats.  It’s worth mentioning that the rest rooms in Broadway theaters comfortably accomodate 6-8 people at a time.

OK, so let’s return now to Off-Broadway (and thank you for your patience).  Off-Broadway, according to the Equity contract with the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers, are venues in New York City with 100-499 seats.  As it happens, there are some “Off-Broadway” theaters located within the geographical Broadway theater district I described above.  Most, however, tend to be in Greenwich Village or the Gramercy neighborhood.

Once in a while an Off-Broadway show does so well that one of the big theaters takes it on.  Among the success stories of Off-Broadway shows that had subsequent Broadway runs are A Chorus Line, Godspell and Avenue Q.  Because of Equity contracts, a move like that means a nice pay increase for an actor.  In fact, an actor in a relatively small role who is making the contract minimum would see his salary almost double with a move from “Off” to “On” Broadway.

It turns out that I still have a chance to see an Off-Broadway production of The Fantasticks:  In 2006 a revival opened at a different theater and is still going.  The Sullivan Street Playhouse was not so fortunate.  After the show finally closed in 2002, the theater was turned into condominiums.  I’ll bet the building now has more toilets than it did when it was a theater.

4 responses to “How Far is Off-Broadway?

  1. I was in 2 off- off Broadway shows back in (cough). They were in Manhattan but now that I think of it, they might have been 99 seaters. Ah Tom, always the educator.

    • Those 99-seat (or less) theaters are sometimes referred to as Off-Off-Broadway, although Sally and I call them “black box” theaters. As you know, the walls are often painted flat black, which helps make the venue seem even more claustrophobic.

  2. William Thomas, Jr.

    In those small houses audiences really get to see actors sweat. Those theaters are hot, they are cold, and full of dust mites, but sometimes you get to see amazingly intimate performances in them. And I agree, they could all use more restrooms!

    • Yes, I’ve seen actors sweat, and not just in 99-seat theaters. Oh, and I’ve seen you give great performances in some smallish theaters, Bill, but I know you also had the thrill of starring on Broadway, too!

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