With Ken Davenport, Tony Award-winning Broadway & Off-Broadway Producer
Welcome to the final segment of the “Steve Goes to Broadway” series. It all started in early 2018 when Steve interviewed Tony Award-winning producer Ken Davenport to understand the business of Broadway. What it takes to produce a show, to raise money, to find talent, to promote it, and so on.
Ken has been behind some of the most iconic shows in theater, including Kinky Boots, Spring Awakening, and Once on This Island. He has raised $50 million from investors over his career, with shows that have grossed more than $500 million in 25 countries.
Steve Invests In Broadway
After first interviewing Ken, Steve decided to put some of his own skin in the game. He traveled to New York City to attend a sample run of Gettin’ the Band Back Together, highlighting the story and the music, without the costumes and sets. He thought it was funny and well-acted. Its headliner was the adorable and talented Marilu Henner, so Steve thought this would have a chance of success. He whipped out his checkbook and ponied up.
Launching An Original Musical
With the show’s run now over, Steve speaks again with its producer, Ken Davenport, to talk about how it all played out.
Ken wore two hats on the show. He wrote the book of the musical and produced it. In previews, before the show’s official opening, he made further tweaks based on audience feedback— changing lines, adding a joke here, taking something out, costume changes, new songs, etc.
On the production side, Gettin’ the Band Back Together was a challenge because it was a totally original musical on Broadway at a time when the business of Broadway was about recreating well-branded Hollywood blockbusters such as Frozen and Harry Potter.
Ken’s musical had no such brand-name recognition. He had to count on word-of-mouth spreading very quickly for his show to be a success.
In initial previews, the show had a few big glitches on stage. For instance, the deck was eight inches off the stage, making viewing hard from the first few rows and from the balcony. Ken had to deal with last-minute changes to overcome this, as well as some other glitches.
Prior to opening night, the New York Times listed Gettin’ the Band Back Together as its top five recommendations. Things were looking up! Like any producer, Ken was anxious for a good review but also knew that shows with less-than-stellar reviews also went on to become Broadway hits.
However, with his 25-years experience in the business of Broadway, Ken noticed that the season appeared weaker than usual. And while Gettin’ the Band Back Together had all the ingredients of a big fat hit and fantastic word-of-mouth, its buzz wasn’t spreading fast enough to sell out shows.
Banking On The Reserve For Takeoff
Like most Broadway shows, Ken had set aside a healthy cash reserve to tide the show over initially slow sales. But because business was extraordinarily slow that summer, he blew through the reserve faster than expected. Although most of the feedback was positive, it didn’t help that the show got a few bad reviews and did not sell as many tickets.
Ultimately, Ken decided to pull the plug on the show. This was especially difficult for the team because everyone knew how much the audience loved the show. It also reiterated a harsh truth of the business of Broadway, that it had gotten harder for new, unbranded musicals to succeed, compared to 10-20 years ago.
The good news, though, is that Gettin’ the Band Back Together isn’t dead. It’s being licensed to smaller production houses across the world. So there is still some hope that the show could achieve great success and help Steve recoup his investment, even if it’s not on Broadway!
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Steve Pomeranz: Welcome to the final segment of my Steve Goes to Broadway series. It all started back in February when I interviewed Tony Award-winning producer Ken Davenport with an idea to understand how the business of Broadway worked. What it takes to produce a show, to raise the money, to find the talent, to promote it, and so on. And who better than Ken to bring us into this world?
Ken has been behind some of the most iconic shows in theater, including Kinky Boots, Spring Awakening, and Once on This Island. As I mentioned in my first interview, Ken’s bio included the fact that he had raised $50 million from investors over his career, with shows that have grossed more than $500 million in 25 countries. And how’s that for success?
So I decided to put some of my own skin in the game and make an investment. I traveled to New York City to attend a sample run through of the show, highlighting the story and the music without the costumes and sets. The show’s title is Gettin’ the Band Back Together, and I thought it was funny and it was well acted and would have mass appeal. Its headliner was the adorable and talented Marilu Henner, so I thought maybe this would have a chance of success. I whipped out my checkbook and ponied up. So let’s meet producer Ken Davenport right now and talk about how it’s all played out. Hey, Ken, welcome back to the show.
Ken Davenport: Thanks so much for having me, and thanks for your investment as well.
Steve Pomeranz: [LAUGH] That was my pleasure; it was a lot of fun. Gettin’ the Band Back Together was the show, and it has really been quite a rollercoaster. Leading up to opening night, what were your duties, what were your plans that you expected to unfold?
Ken Davenport: Well, it’s interesting, I wore two hats on this. I actually wrote the book of the musical, as well as was producing it. So part of the job as the writer, you’re making tweaks and making changes based on your gut, based on the director’s asks. But also once you get into previews, those first weeks before the official opening, you’re making changes based on what the audience is telling you.
So over the course of those four to five weeks of previews, no two shows were the same. We were constantly changing, adding a joke here, taking this out, costume change, new song, all sorts of stuff. So it was fast and furious.
From the producing side, we always knew that Gettin’ the Band Back Together would be a challenge because it’s a totally original musical on Broadway, at a time when Broadway is all about big Hollywood, Blockbuster-like movies coming here. When they come in with brands, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We have Pretty Woman, we have Mean Girls, we have Frozen, of course, Harry Potter. So when we think about it from just a product and sales perspective, there’s a lot of competition for new musicals, and we didn’t have that kind of brand.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Ken Davenport: So we knew we would count on word of mouth and word of mouth spreading very, very quickly if the show was going to be a success.
Steve Pomeranz: Were there any unforeseen glitches you experienced right up to opening night?
Ken Davenport: Well, the biggest glitches, well, there was a scenic glitch that happened in rehearsals. You’ve designed the scenery and you have a model, right, you look at a model.
Steve Pomeranz: Mm-hm.
Ken Davenport: Oh, looks great, and then you build the scenery, and then you put it up on stage. And then we got there, and we had made a decision. No big musical puts the set on the deck, as we call it, flat on the stage. We always build something on top of the stage so we can bury cables, lighting-
Steve Pomeranz: Oh, of course.
Ken Davenport: All sorts of things in it.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Ken Davenport: So we’re actually performing six, eight inches off the deck. Well, when we did that, we neglected to realize that the front row would be staring up. And the first four or five rows would be staring up at a little higher angle than we thought.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Ken Davenport: And the balcony would have some cut off. So we had to make some changes to that deck at the last minute. If you saw the show, there was a step up. That step up was added during previews.
Steve Pomeranz: Oh, okay, all right. A few weeks prior to the opening of the show, you won a Tony award for Once on this Island, and I was really amazed and excited. So here I was for the first time kind of entering the world of Broadway and I’m hooking up with Ken Davenport, the producer and he wins a Tony. And I actually did a segment on the Steve Goes To Broadway series about, wait a minute, what have I done here? What have I got myself into? This is really kind of amazing. First of all, really quickly, what was that feeling like to be chosen? I mean, you are going up against Carousel if I’m not mistaken, one of those really kind of big shows that have been on Broadway forever.
Ken Davenport: Yeah, we were up against these classical war horses.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Ken Davenport: These two big musicals, that was actually My Fair Lady and Carousel.
Steve Pomeranz: Okay.
Ken Davenport: And we were the underdog. And if you saw the Tonys or Google around and watch when Once on this Island was announced, you can see the genuine shock and awe on my face as I’m literally running to the stage before they change their mind.
Steve Pomeranz: [LAUGH]
Ken Davenport: It was an amazing experience. And look, hopefully someday, knock something, I will get that chance and opportunity to be on that stage and give another speech. But I wonder if it will ever be as thrilling from a competitive standpoint because usually, you know what’s going to win these awards. They’re not usually that tight of a race.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Ken Davenport: This one was super, super tight. So it was a real nail-biter, and if you listen to the ovation in the audience, not only did we have the love of the audience, but they were shocked too.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Ken Davenport: It was a real Rocky-like victory for this beautiful show, that’s still running. So if you’re in town, you should go see it.
Steve Pomeranz: Once on This Island is the name of that show. So it’s August, it’s before opening night, and then the New York Times comes out with five shows, five summer recommendations and there’s Gettin’ the Band Back Together. So things were looking up. Take us through opening night, kind of the week prior, in terms of what your expectations were going into that.
Ken Davenport: Well, you, of course, always are hoping and dreaming that you’re going to get the best reviews on the planet, even though reviews aren’t necessarily the thing that makes big Broadway hits. Famously, Wicked didn’t get good reviews, Les Miz didn’t get good reviews. We all know this. I’ve been doing this 25 years now; we know reviews aren’t the thing. However, it’s still romanticized, you kind of dream about that stuff and everyone wants that kind of validation. But more importantly for me, listen, as we were going through previews, we were in the summer, which is a difficult time to open.
We had an original musical, which is challenging to get out there into the world. I saw, I was reading the market conditions, if you will, and I noticed that the season, the summer and leading into the fall was showing some weakness from an industry standpoint. So there were a bunch of things that were starting to concern me a little bit. I noticed we had fantastic, fantastic word of mouth.
However, it was spreading a little bit slower, and that the audience that was coming to see the show right off the bat, the early adopters for this group, weren’t your typical Broadway theatergoers. So I started to get concerned that while we had all the ingredients of a big fat hit. Literally, people telling me from the first preview this is going to be bigger than Jersey Boys. This is the most fun I’ve had at a Broadway show in a long time. I knew that it may take a little bit longer than I thought for that word of mouth to spread, so I started to have those concerns.
Steve Pomeranz: Now, don’t you have money in the budget to give the show a chance to develop and to have that word of mouth and all of those necessary factors which give the show time to gain momentum?
Ken Davenport: That’s right, we call it a reserve. And every show on Broadway raises a reserve if they’re able to, frankly, and we had a very healthy reserve. Because I knew that, I went in there with some, I stored some chestnuts, I had some nuts stored away for the winter if you will. And because I expected it, I knew it, it was totally original. It was a thing, it wasn’t a brand. But because the summer, which we didn’t anticipate to be as challenging as it was and then leading into the fall, we went through that a little bit quicker than we expected.
Steve Pomeranz: Mm-hm.
Ken Davenport: So that was one of those glitches that you might say, or very quickly, we were like, oh, we’re getting to the end of our reserve. We knew we were going to be in this position, but we’re in this position a little bit sooner than we thought.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, so when is the decision made? You’re looking at not only your reserves, but kind of all the cash in the bank, money expected to come in, however the numbers work. And at some point, you have to kind of either pull the trigger or take another risk, another week, another two weeks. What was the point for you where you said this is just not going to fly?
Ken Davenport: Well, it’s a great question because the hardest thing to do is close a show or pull the plug on any business. I’m sure many of your listeners out there who have started their own business, and most, first businesses especially, they don’t work and you have to go on to the next one and the next one. And knowing when to do, that is one of the hardest but most important things for any business person. Because you can’t just keep going at something that isn’t going to take, number one, it’s not working, or two, it’s going to cost too much money to get it to work. And that’s where we were with Gettin’ the Band Back Together.
There was no question in mind that the show was working. I was hearing this not only from the everyman audience members, investors like yourself. But major executives in our industry, my peer group here, as well as some incredible artists were coming to me and saying how much fun they had. So I knew the product was working. However, what I realized and my analysis said was, it’s going to take longer because of the audience coming now and because of the competition
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Ken Davenport: It’s going to take longer, and we didn’t get the reviews that we wanted. Reviews sometimes, they don’t provide long-term health for a musical, but they provide short-term health, I call them a steroid shot of sales.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, especially at the beginning I would think, there’s so much competition, and we don’t really have a lot of time, but I think they were two or three other shows that had the word band in the title, I know there’s The Band’s Visit, there was Gettin’ the Band Back Together. There was another one with the band, so there must’ve been some confusion. So you had to sit down with the cast members, all the people in production, all the people that have worked so hard and so tirelessly, and had high expectations like yourself, and you had to tell them. What was that experience like?
Ken Davenport: Well, when you work on Broadway, this is a common thing, all shows close, unless they’re Phantom of the Opera or The Lion King. So I’ve been in this situation before and had to deliver this news. Unfortunately, it was a bit devastating for everyone on Gettin’ the Band Back Together because we knew how much the audience was loving the show. We were hearing it from our friends and we were just seeing it and hearing it in the ovation.
And I think that one of the reasons why it was hard for all of us, is not only were we getting this positive affirmation every night, but it recognized, especially for me, a real change in the industry. That new musicals like this without the big brand, that are trying out in the summer, that is going to be a very difficult thing to get going, and it wasn’t that way 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago. Original musicals have always had it hard, but it’s harder now than ever. And I think all of us were a little bit disappointed just because it meant, oh, the business is changing and we’re going to have to change with it and maybe have to alter the things that we do as a result.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, the hurdle is higher cost-wise as well. I mean, it’s very expensive to put on one of these shows now. So it’s not that easy to just kind of put something on with relatively minimal amount of money and if it fails you can kind of keep experimenting. Ken, we’re out of time, but I do want to ask you what are the next steps as an investor? And just to know, what can you do with this show now that it’s no longer on Broadway? Are there any revenue streams possible going forth?
Ken Davenport: Yes, in fact, this is the exciting thing about Broadway being so popular right now. And it’s a great way to mitigate risk for investors, is that the show will have a life. It’s being licensed now, so your listeners have probably seen shows at their local regional theater, community theater, summer stock, high schools. So Gettin’ the Band Back Together will live on in productions hopefully all over the world. And there have been many shows that have achieved great success in this market that haven’t been the biggest success or haven’t had the longest run on Broadway.
We expect Gettin’ the Band Back Together to be one of those shows because it was so popular with the everyday audience members. So I encourage your listeners out there, go to gettinthebandbacktogether.com. Get the CD, listen to it. Recommend it to their local theater, and hopefully, they’ll get a chance to see it even if they didn’t get a chance to see it on Broadway.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, Ken, it’s been a wonderful experience, to say the least. It’s been exciting for me to have a chance to kind of see the inside, and also to get to talk with a professional like yourself. I wish you the best of luck and definitely keep us informed as to what’s going on. I only really have about 30 seconds left. What’s new in your life in terms of the next show?
Ken Davenport: Well, we’ll be doing some that feature some pretty big brands, actually two of them. One, I have the rights to the Vacation movie franchise, so just like there’s Vacation, European Vacation, Las Vegas Vacation, we’re developing Broadway Vacation, the Griswolds Come to New York City for the very first time.
Steve Pomeranz: [LAUGH] Okay, that sounds great. Again, Ken Davenport, my guest, Broadway producer. Thank you so much, Ken.
Ken Davenport: Thank you.
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