Guest post by Becca
My favorite Broadway show is Pippin. I have a Pippin T-shirt(signed by Matthew James Thomas), I have a Pippin sweatshirt, and I have six playbills from the show. So when I had the opportunity to interview Hugh Hayes, the Producers of Pippin, about his company Play-By-Play, I was ecstatic and nervous, to say the least.
I was nervous because oftentimes people who are brilliant at their jobs are arrogant and intimidating. I’m from Los Angeles, land of Botox, and the stars and movie-makers you meet there have as much substance as the collagen they put in their lips and as much humility as Kanye West. Then there is Hugh Hayes. The producer from South Carolina was down to earth, friendly, and informative; you would never know you were talking to a Tony-winner. As a producer, he hated the idea of an empty theater, so he created the company Play-By-Play, a seat-filling service meant for lower-income individuals. He wanted fans to be able to see the shows for a low price without taking money from the show itself. Suffice to say, it was a pleasure and an honor to interview my favorite current Broadway producer for BroadwayWiz.com.
Becca: How and when did you get started in Broadway and live entertainment?
Hugh: Well, I’ll tell you, I really got started at twelve years old, growing up in the “Bible Belt” of the south. People like me, (laughs) twelve-year-old little sissies, were not popular in the Bible Belt. I basically never saw a movie all the way through the age of twelve to eighteen because the kids would actually spit on me at the movie theatre…I had to go the shopping mall between 5:30 and 7:00 while all the kids were having their dinner. It was rough. But I escaped into the world of the theater.
The only place I could live was the theater and I found Broadway at a very early age, went to a Broadway show and fell in love. And I just lived in my bedroom with the New York Times and I created a little theater district. Cutting out the ads and making the theaters around my bedroom, I had a little game that I played. I kept a chart, and flipped a coin into a circle. Heads was a good review; tales was a bad review. If it landed outside the circle, it was a mixed review. I also flipped a deck of cards to see how many seats were filled. So I’ve been obsessed with filling seats since the age of twelve years old. I just hated the idea of an empty seat.
I went to Boston University and New York in ‘88 and started working as a company manager and then really fell in love with press, the press agent committee. I worked on a lot of shows like Victor/Victoria and Damn Yankees. But my calling really was to produce. And my first show was Naked Boys Singing, which played for thirteen years off-Broadway. I really wanted to have some control and some voice in shaping the entire piece. And so I think producing was how I could do that. As the company manager and as a press agent, I needed to fill seats for shows. And I remember, I decided to take some time off, reshape everything and go into producing, I said, “You know what, let me create a service that is correct, that is right, that is what I needed when I was a company manager and a press agent.” I needed several things that were the absolute criteria. One of things was that it had to be fans: it couldn’t be customers. Through a whole variety of ways I was able to target demographics that have an average income that was 50% below the average Broadway ticket buyer. That was very critical to me, because I didn’t want customers; I wanted fans. That’s what we brought about the business, and actually our members have an average income of 50 -70% below, so it’s been very effective.
One of the things that frustrates, saddens, and really infuriates me is that since I’ve started the company other companies have come along but they’ve gone directly to our customers…It’s sort of exactly the way it can’t work. I feel like I’m doing it the right way; I feel like I’m doing it the ethical way, I feel like I’m doing it in a way supported by word of mouth. We are not easy; we are very strict. We really do interview the people before we let them join. We don’t get tax returns or anything. No doubt a few people will take two or four tickets and inevitably lie to get in. We have been able to prove that our customers are 50-70% below that ticket buying public.
One of the concerns is that as ticket prices continue to escalate, we are pricing more and more people out of the theater. More and more people are in the position, even at TDF prices, where they simply can’t afford to see everything they want to see. So one of the dirty little secrets is that even with TDF there are 30,000-90,000 unsold seats each week on Broadway alone. And if we are charging what we are charging, I feel as a producer I have a responsibility to create an event, to do everything in my power to support my show, and to support my customer. We are way behind the curve on customer service in this industry. I think that I owe them a full house, a house that absolutely says you’ve made the right decision.
A psychological imprint is made before a show even begins and an energy is established before the curtain goes up when you see that there’s nobody there. I remember seeing a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that I was so excited to see, and the managers decided they were not going to take them (the service Play-By-Play). I’m sitting in an empty theater with 200 people in the orchestra with that year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning event and it looked and it felt and it played like a flop. That’s not taking care of not only your show, not only your writers; it’s not taking care of your customer.
So I set about creating a base of people that I knew even at the TDF level would determine any way in the theatre list that would be able to sell tickets. That was the only way I wanted to do it. Other companies have tried to buy Play-by-Play and I knew what they were going to do. They were going to go directly to our customer and sure enough … the industry is very slow to pick that up and they sort of think of us all as the same. You know, I was the first one out there out of all the companies and I created this because I need a service like this. I created it in a really special way; none of the others in the industry really have the understanding to do that.
I love doing this and I love that fact that I’m not hurting ticket sales and that I’m giving the fan an opportunity . I am 12 years old and the little game that I’m playing in my bedroom making sure those seats were filled. The inspiration came from a very early age.
I know that’s a very long-winded answer!
Becca: It’s so interesting to hear about it. Because we’ve all been in the theatre where there’s no audience and it just kills it. It kills it for the performers and it kills it for everybody.
Hugh: Let me be clear. I don’t want to have to use my service. I don’t want to ever have to give a ticket away, I do not want to. I hate half-empty theaters. And I have to take care of the costumers. And I have to take care of the show. That has to be the priority.
Becca: How were you able to make this company a reality? It’s one thing to have an idea for a company and it’s another thing to create a successful one.
Hugh: You know, having worked at that point in the industry for many years, I started working in 1999, so in other words, I’d already been in the business for eleven years. I’d already worked on at that time probably 50-something shows, it was a small community. I knew a lot of the managers. I knew them long enough that they trusted me. They were happy to get the tickets.
Initially we took out a small ad, a half page ad in a little off-Broadway program. We did it for a couple of months just to get a couple of people, knowing of course that these were theater-goers. But you gotta start somewhere! So I started by going off off-Broadway, again people with a very low ticket price, and once I got the 100, I just had to wait. We went to street fairs, we passed out flyers, investigating the sources available to me in the city. Being able to locate the low-income people, people that are not the customer, but fans! And because knowing you are a fan, it’s up to me to make sure that you are not a customer. If they come to me, then I know they love theater. I just have to do everything I can to make sure that I’m not taking someone out of the ticket box.
Becca: What were your biggest challenges in starting Play-By-Play?
Hugh: Because there was such a need for it initially, it really was just waiting for the word to spread. We even went through a period where we cut off membership. I knew I had enough people to fill the number of seats that were required, so there were a couple of years where we didn’t even take customers. It just sort of stayed basically at 4,000 members, and it’s been 4,000 pretty much throughout. The same ratio drops off, the same amount come in, the same amount don’t leave, the same amount we kick out. It all sort of balances out to right around that 4,000.
Becca: Can you name a few of the shows, performances, and screenings your members have seen in the past?
Hugh: I don’t list the shows. Other show businesses would put the name of the shows on the site. But I won’t even tell my friends what shows! They get really frustrated with me. “Oh you’re just being ridiculous!” I say, “No, this is truly about taking care of and helping the show!” I will say that before a lot of these other companies started taking customers away, we were getting about 80% of every Broadway show. Now we’re down to about 30% of the Broadway shows, most of the off-Broadway, lots of special events, lots of cabarets, and we also have the opportunity for everyone to at least have at least one chance to see virtually every Broadway show in each season for either 40 or 50 dollars. We have worked with the Actors Fund and raised money for the Actors Fund selling tickets to our members at that discounted price. It’s still a deal, and it’s sort of unheard of. A lot of people say: “Is this a scam? Is this for real?” Yeah, it’s for real! We had five Broadway shows this week! We may go through weeks where there is no Broadway. How much you get out of it really depends on how diverse your tastes are.
Becca: So it says on your site that tickets are free! (except for the processing fee and membership fee) How is that possible?
Hugh: The production gives us the tickets for free.
Becca: Why do shows offer tickets to Play-By-Play?
Hugh: Because they need to have an audience, and the word of mouth. We do a lot of work; we’re really campaigning now with tweeting and digital marketing to see the shows, and get them out there and create talk. That helps. Getting the word of mouth out there has been the greatest asset of all the new technology. We don’t really depend 100% on just that one New York Times review. It’s certainly of the utmost importance. It probably always will be, but word of mouth can get out there in a variety of ways now. That is really helping.
When I first fell in love with the theater, shows would take out a full-page ad on Sundays if it was a musical, a half-page ad if it was a play. They would run an ad on Fridays, previews were two weeks, open on a Thursday. And if the four daily papers didn’t like you, you closed that show. That’s it, game over, it’s very simple, very straight forward. It’s become much more nuanced now, and that’s exciting!
Becca: In your personal opinion, do you think Broadway and some of Manhattan theater is declining or on the rise?
Hugh: I remember a couple of seasons where it really looked like, “Oh, gosh, things are looking bad!” But I don’t feel the trajectory has ever really changed from going forward. It’s sort of always gone up, I’ve never seen it completely do a reverse. Not after 2001, not after 9/11, not after 2008. Yeah, there were setbacks, but there are trends and fads, where certain times in theater, where either the British musical or the big historical epic were the thing, trends and fashions happen, but there is still forward movement. Listen, the demands of theaters now are insane. I am one of the lead producers of Kander and Ebbs’ The Visit and we are looking for a theater, even with stars! There’s a demand now for theaters that I’ve never seen.
Becca: Do you think the crowd for Broadway is diverse enough — appealing to people across the spectrum or just New York adults? One of the funny things I frequently see on Broadway is a lot of the shows take place in New York, because all the New Yorkers want to watch a show about New York. I’m from California, and I love everything, but I’m wondering if you think it’s a diverse enough crowd.
Hugh: Absolutely not diverse enough. That’s due to varying components of the industry. The ticket pricing is really alienating more and more people. I am really concerned about that. I think it’s because producers are going to try to get as much as they can for their tickets. They are about taking care of themselves at the moment. It’s frustrating because we do have to work together to bring this art form to as many people as possible from diverse backgrounds. Broadway is just not something that is part of many people’s social dynamic. And it should be.
Becca: It’s part of my social dynamic! I can tell you that much!
Hugh: Yeah! It just should be! We really have to find a way not to try to price so many of these people out of the game.
Becca: What was your favorite show to produce and why?
Hugh: I’m certainly very proud of Pippin and It’s Only A Play. I tell you what, when we did The Visit this past summer in Williamstown, it was the kind of experience that I’ve never had in the theater. It’s a very unique show, some people may love it, and some people may hate it. For me, it just has the power and is just very special. I’m really, really excited about that. I also worked on the original production of Lips Together, Teeth Apart, I’m very proud of that. I did Christopher Shinn, a production of his play called Four, we did the New York premiere of that, and that transferred to Manhattan Theater Club, and that was beautiful. I just sort still fall in love with all of them.
Becca: Yes! My grandmother always says, you can’t pick your favorite finger, they are all a part of you!
Hugh: You know, they really are. Even the flops! My first Broadway show was an absolute disaster. For years it was the most expensive, the costliest non-musical flop in the history of Broadway, we held that title for years. It was the stage version of On the Waterfront. We went through two directors, James Gandolfini was in it, we were stupid enough we even fired him (laughs). It was a revolving door, people were getting fired left and right. The play was a mess, the production was overproduced, it was a train wreck. But I learned more from that experience then I have learned from anything ever. So I was dreading the world, and even there, do I still love the show? Absolutely. It’s like a member of my family. But was it good? No. (laughs).
It’s like we have members of our family! We may not like them, but you love them. And it’s the same thing with the show, you know. I can’t lie to myself; I’m actually the only person I know that has actually seen every Broadway show since 1985. Literally every play and musical. I’ve seen too much. I can’t lose my objectivity. It’s impossible for me not to really know what it is. So if it’s good I know it, if it’s not I know it.
Becca: Is there a show you’ve seen that sticks out in your memory?
Hugh: I remember Dustin Hoffman in Death of a Salesman , I remember Kathy Bates saying “ ‘Night, mother,” closing the doors to the bathroom and you hear a gunshot and an audience that just absolutely did not want to leave the theater. I remember Angels in America. I remember seeing Sunday in the Park with George, seeing that painting come to life, and I also remember a big night of Into the Woods.
I was a student at Boston University, and I knew there was no way that I could get into the show, I was just a kid from South Carolina, and I had nothing to do with the industry. But opening night I stood, at it was called the Martin Beck at the time, (now the Hirschfeld), it’s where Kinky Boots is playing now. And the theater has a wall of doors, and if you put your ear up to the door, you can still hear the show. So opening night after everyone went inside, I put my ear up to the door and just listened. And the box office attendants said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Oh, please, please, please, I’m not bothering anyone, please, just let me listen, please let me hear.” Opening night, hearing the performance of Into the Woods. That was just two hours and half I’ll cherish always.
Becca: Which show is a must-see on Broadway right now?
Hugh: Pippin is one of the most special and unique and touching and valid things out there. The work of Diane Paulus in that show, it just soars. It’s just legendary. It’s a brilliant production, if I do say so myself (he laughs). However, I think of the shows that are playing, and I think a lot of people would disagree, I think that the most underrated musical, maybe in the history of the Broadway theater, in spite of its success, is Wicked. I saw the third performance of Wicked, in San Francisco. Talk about great memories. Kristin Chenoweth, her third performance in San Francisco was so completely different than what it ended up on Broadway. What she was doing completely threw the show out of whack and put the balance and the focus on her character. So it wasn’t correct, but it was truly one of the most stunning musical theater performances I’ve ever seen. Kristin Chenoweth, that first week in San Francisco. But the show itself, it is so smart, it is so intelligent, it is so complex. I think that it is just pure cynicism for them to get marginalized. And I remember opening night of Wicked, seeing those reviews come in … I remember one critic saying “It’s too difficult to understand, it’s hard to follow.” I was like, wait a minute, you can make it through twelve hours of a Tom Stoppard play, and think it’s brilliant and understand all of it, but you can’t understand Wicked? I think Wicked is the single most underrated musical in the history of American musical theater. A friend of mine is one of the investors, so he’s a very happy man now. The lead producer actually started in the business around the same time I did. He was an assistant to some producers; he worked his way up through the system. He found Wicked, I found Naked Boys Singing (Laughter). Hey, that’s the way it goes!
I’ve got some thrilling projects coming up!
Becca: I’m excited to see them! Thank you so much for all your wonderful information.
Hugh: Thank you so much!