Podcast Episode 23 Transcript – Steve Schnepp

Ken: Hey, everybody, it’s Ken. Listen, has this ever happened to you? Someone comes up to you the morning after a big opening and says, “Did you read the Times review?” . . . and you didn’t. A little awkward, right? You want to feel in the know. Well that’s why I started the website DidHeLikeIt.com. DidHeLikeIt.com will tell you in a snapshot whether Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood, or whoever reviewed the latest show, liked the show, hated the show or just thought it was so-so. So check out DidHeLikeIt.com. Subscribe and you’ll be the first one to know whether he liked it or not, and it’s a brand new app in the iTunes store so download it today! Okay, now on with the podcast.

Ken: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. A few weeks ago the annual Spring Road Conference was held here in the city. If you don’t know what the Road Conference is, it’s when the presenters and staff of all of the theaters around the country that present touring Broadway productions descend upon New York City to address issues facing the road, take in all the new musicals on Broadway and go to a lot of cocktail parties. Like, a lot of them. Every year at the conference, I’m reminded of how much our business depends on “the road” and touring. As a New York producer, it’s easy for me to get lost in only thinking about the ten block radius I live and work in, but the fact is that Broadway is a huge street that stretches across the country. You’d think I would remember that, since my first taste of Broadway was a tour of Cats at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. That’s why I brought in today’s guest, who is an expert on the road. Today we’re talking to one of the premiere booking agents in all of Broadway, Steve Schnepp, president of Broadway Booking Office or, as we call it, BBO. Welcome, Steve!

Steve: Thank you so much, Ken. A pleasure to be in your pod.

Ken: Steve has been booking Broadway shows around the country since 1989. His current roster includes shows like Les Mis, Jersey Boys, Phantom, Beautiful, Matilda, Gentleman’s Guide and more. That’s right, if you saw one of those shows in a theater near you, then Steve was the guy who helped make it happen. So, Steve, I think of booking agents as the wizard behind the curtain for touring shows. We don’t hear a lot about you but you really do make a lot of these tours happen. Tell me, in your words, what does a booking agent do? What’s your job?

Steve: Well we don’t have little smart wizard outfits, just regular business wear. Our job, basically, is to meet with producers, such as yourself, talk about the show, your show in New York, for example, how it’s selling, how the reviews are, meet with you about advisements about how we could put a tour together . . . and then we introduce that tour to presenters and theaters across the country and then our job is to try to put those cities in some sort of logical, geographical order so that you have a tour that can be as long as possible to maximize your revenue.

Ken: How did you get started in this business? It’s a very unique part of the industry.

Steve: I started, really, collecting a lot of different experiences in the theater. I was a journalism major in Texas and then I worked in the theater, the Roadhouse in Austin, Texas, for five years, in operations, so I built on that, and then I became a road manager for five and a half years, a company manager for five and a half years, and then, in 1989, Cameron Mackintosh was looking for someone to work with his booking agent that they had hired, Tom Mallow, and I was selected. So I started working on touring Les Misérables around North America. I worked for Cameron Mackintosh solidly for about eleven years, working on tours for Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon and Five Guys Named Moe, so it was just a gradual collection of experiences.

Ken: So Les Mis and Phantom, the Cameron shows of the late ’80s and early ’90s, really defined a new era in touring. What was it like putting Les Mis out on the road like that, initially? Was there a huge appetite for it or was it a challenging sell?

Steve: There was a huge demand for it. A huge demand for Les Misérables after Cats had done a very good job, which had toured. Before that time period, touring throughout North America was a different landscape. That was producers securing venues around the country, usually in a high risk position, and they would put engagements . . . let’s say in Philadelphia . . . on sale, and then a few weeks later they would put Boston on sale. And they would play Philadelphia and if it did great they would move to Boston and they would spend money on advertising there. Then they’d move to the next market. If it didn’t do well, then they would play a few markets and if they lost money here and lost money at the next one, they would close down. So in the mid ’80s, the creation of the guarantee, that the local presenter, the local theater operator, would pay the producer a guaranteed sum, that was really what changed the business and changed how work was done. So Les Misérables was one of the shows that really leapt out of the gate.

Ken: See, I didn’t even know that. So the guarantee . . . for those of you who don’t know what the guarantee is, that’s literally a presenter saying, “I’m going to guarantee you X amount of dollars,” so they’re guaranteed a show is going to come in the doors. And the mid ’80s is when that started. But before that these shows could close after one or two presentations.

Steve: Yeah, I got a job as a company manager, leaving Austin, Texas, being a road manager, because a tour of Little Shop of Horrors played a consecutive series of engagements and lost money and lost money and then they closed the tour. Austin was on the route for that and it never made it to Austin, so we had a replacement show and that show needed a company manager and I said, “Okay.”

Ken: And producers were booking their own tours at this time, or were booking agents really born out of this era?

Steve: Really in the early ’80s and before that producers would come to New York to one central booking office called the IBO, and that’s when they would go with one fellow, he had all of the availabilities on one big spreadsheet, a big chart, and you would sit down with your tour as a producer and say, “I want a tour,” and he would give you which cities you would play at what time. It was sort of doled out that way. Then, later on, that was all dissolved and booking agencies were grown in the early to mid ’80s.

Ken: Let’s say I’ve got a show and I want to tour it. It’s running here in New York, I knock on your door and I say, “Steve, I’m interested in touring this show.” What are the first questions or the first things that you look at to decide whether or not it’s viable?

Steve: “Please come in,” I would say, if you knocked on the door.

Ken: Offer me a nice frosty beverage, which I have in front of me right now.

Steve: We would talk about the show. First of all, the critical acclaim of the show. We would talk about the sales in New York, how the audiences are reacting to the show, how your advance is building in New York. And then we would talk about in what way you might consider touring, whether you wanted to receive a guaranteed amount of money from presenters, or whether you’d want to be in a risk position and play multiple weeks in a market that traditionally only plays one week. So we would sit with you and talk about all of those decisions and advise you and then, when you’re comfortable, we would then announce to presenters that it’s going to be touring.

Ken: You talk about looking at the sales figures for New York. Is there a formula for what works on the road based on what works in New York?

Steve: Not exactly, but those are the indicators that we have early on in a production. We, like you, look at all of the data that’s available for the show in New York and then try to make an advisement and a prediction. Of course we talk to presenters day in and day out and get their response too. How is word of mouth? Have they heard about it? Because word of mouth, obviously, is our strongest seller, to presenters as well as to ticket buyers.

Ken: Can a show work in New York and flop on the road, and vice versa? Does that happen?

Steve: This was discussed at the League conference that you mentioned. There is a myth or a theory that, while the show is not working in New York but it’s a great show for the road, and that’s a little hard.

Ken: I know exactly who said that! I was there when they said that and I wondered the same question, will this work?

Steve: It’s ultimately about the show and the audience. If the audience is not having a great time in New York, audiences around the country might not have a great time. If they’re having a fantastic time and on their feet and cheering, likely the people in Louisville or Cincinnati or Des Moines will have a similar reaction.

Ken: Do we need stars on the road today? New York seems, to me, anyway, especially when I’m looking for a theater these days, seems to be very star-dependent. Is the road audience desperate for stars as well? Are presenters looking for them?

Steve: I think that’s a hard question because, what is a star and what’s the value, basically, of a star in that market? That’s the question. In New York, you have many star vehicles and they’re generally limited plays, they’re plays with closed runs. So stars are probably not the first thing that you would want. Years ago, yes, stars did tour, and that was the norm. They would do the Broadway run and then they would do a tour or two. Carol Channing did it for years.

Ken: But the simplest way to get a successful tour sold seems to be to have a successful run in New York. The more successful the run in New York, the easier it is for you to get presenters to buy.

Steve: That’s right.

Ken: Plays on the road, is there a place for plays? I was reading over your credits, I don’t think I read any plays in there. You’ve done them before, though, right? There was an appetite for them?  Is there now? How has that changed?

Steve: Well, to your other point of plays in New York, they are often star vehicles, and those stars pretty much don’t want to travel around the country and give up six to eight months to a year of work, so we have to take that off the table. There is a room for the play still, very much room for a play. The last play we worked on was War Horse, and we had about two and a half years of that. But it was a very big event. It felt sort of like a musical in that big way. Plays have successfully toured for years and I think they’ll continue to tour. It’s usually the winner of the Best Play at the Tony Awards.

Ken: It’s funny you talk about War Horse being a big production, almost like a musical. I feel that way about Curious Incident right now. I’m predicting that that will tour, regardless of what happens at the Tonys. I have a feeling that that show, which again, feels so big, will get out there.

Steve: I hope you’re right. I love that show.

Ken: Is it yours?

Steve: We’re working on the press and marketing of it.

Ken: Well there you go. What are the challenges facing the road today? I don’t talk to presenters every day, even when I’m doing tours. I think it should be done more often, frankly. What are hearing from presenters as their biggest challenges?

Steve: Biggest challenges . . . presenters really want quality productions. They want quality productions and their jobs are to put together a series of shows in a package that will attract subscribers to buying into that package. So I think they’re in the interesting position of programming shows and putting together an entire package that can be cost effective to their subscribers. That’s probably the biggest challenge, I think, is the balancing act that presenters do, having agents like me calling them on the phone, introducing ideas to them, and there are other agents, too, that do the same work. So for them it’s trying to balance all of those concerns.

Ken: But quality more than price, more than guarantee. You think the first thing they’re interested in is making sure it’s a top notch show?

Steve: Yes, I do believe that. Quality, equal to end price as well.

Ken: Interestingly enough, I ask that question, again, because that seems to me the same issue that our audience goes through. We talk about how expensive Broadway tickets are but the fact is they want a great show and when there’s a great show they’ll pay $150, $200 for it. That’s more of a concern to them than price. So, speaking of quality of production, here’s the big controversial question, here it is, are you ready?

Steve: Drum roll.

Ken: Is there room on the road for non-union tours?

Steve: There’s room on the road for non-union tours, I think, in a very select way. Some markets will not program non-union shows. Some markets find a space for it in some area of their programming. Generally, the non-union tours play mainly single nights, after it’s played for many, many months in a union large format. So generally speaking the non-union tours are smaller and can play shorter runs.

Ken: So there is room, just the right venues. Some people can’t afford big union tours, right?

Steve: Many markets that program one night, they’ve been programming one night since the ’80s. What they can pay for that one night hasn’t changed that dramatically over the years, maybe by a few thousand dollars.

Ken: This is something that I’ve heard a lot. What was the guarantee on Les Mis when you were selling it in 1989, approximately?

Steve: It was $275,000.

Ken: $275,000 a week for Les Mis in 1989. You’re booking Les Mis now, what’s the approximate guarantee?

Steve: Well we’re not quite there. We did a very successful tour of Les Misérables and it’s on hiatus right now.

Ken: Okay, but when it was out?

Steve: $315,000.

Ken: $315,000. So a difference of not even $50,000 in 25 years. That’s not a big increase in that guarantee.

Steve: That’s right.

Ken: Why? What were our ticket prices on Broadway in that era? $50?

Steve: The top on the road when Les Mis first toured was probably $50-something. Because I remember Phantom helped break that margin of $60.

Ken: And top now on the road?

Steve: It’s high.

Ken: Over $100?

Steve: In some markets, based on dynamic pricing.

Ken: So ticket pricing has gone up, just like Broadway, but the guarantee has not.

Steve: Eight years ago was really when dynamic pricing hit the road. That’s really when theaters around the country, in big markets and medium sized and small markets, all sort of embraced this changing the price point up and down to accommodate demand. It’s a huge thing now.

Ken: I’ve heard this at many, many a Road conference from many, many a producer and general manager screaming about how the guarantees have not increased at the appropriate percentage since the beginning. Of course presenters, in their defense, have been jumping up and down, saying, “You want to try to keep a subscription model together in 2015?” And I promise all of you right now, we’re going to have a presenter on this podcast coming up because I want to hear their side of the story, which I think is a very good one.

Steve: It’s an excellent one. They do a lot of work.

Ken: But it is fascinating, that that’s how much it’s changed. The financial model is so different now. What are the other changes you’ve seen in the past 25 years on the road that are affecting the way tours are booked or sold?

Steve: As I mentioned before, the birth of the guarantee was a change in the road. The other big change has been the increase in subscription sales in all of the markets. Cleveland now has a two week subscription footprint and they have 32,000 subscribers. That’s a lot, it’s really good. So the subscriptions have grown and that’s primarily because, I think, more people that are not used to coming to the theater come to the theater, have a good time and decide to subscribe. What’s also changed in the last 25 years, I guess, is the mega musical. There’s more of them. In the ’90s, Les Misérables was out, then Phantom of the Opera came out, then Miss Saigon came out. Those all had their courses and so forth, and they would return to markets which would invite single ticket buyers into those markets and get them to sign up for subscriptions. Now it’s not just one or two mega musicals touring around, it’s Lion King, Wicked, Book of Mormon, Jersey Boy. Those are all out there as well so that has helped the road a lot, in addition to having a fresh group of shows every season coming on subscription sales.

Ken: In the era of these mega musicals is there room for something small that no one’s ever heard of, maybe that doesn’t win an award, that’s totally original? How does that sneak into these seasons?

Steve: Pretty much the job that we have as booking agents for touring Broadway is that the show either has to be a success in London or a success in New York or have Hugh Jackman in it. A major, major star. That’s what they’re looking for. Yes, some presenters do mix and match some things that are smaller on their seasons but that’s pretty much a rare case.

Ken: Let’s go into the closet and find a dirty road story, if you will. What’s the worst road story you can think of? Trucks collapsing on the highway, any crises, any fun stuff that you remember?

Steve: As a road manager I do remember having the Radio City Rockettes on a tour. We broke down in Iowa. I remember being on the bus, watching outside the window and seeing this wheel roll past us. It was our wheel from the bus rolling past us. So the job was to try to flag down some police, which we did, and they brought a big old trailer and put us all in there and took us to the best little motel that was close by.

Ken: Did you make it to the show on time?

Steve: It was a day off so that was good. We did make it to the show the next day.

Ken: Thank goodness. You’ve worked with a lot of producers, obviously. Is there a difference between being a Broadway producer and being a road producer? Producing for the road versus producing in New York?

Steve: I love all of the producers we work with. They each have their own personalities, their own set of experiences, their own interests in how much detail they want to know about touring, about the routes and so forth. So we try to fit each producer and give them the information they want.

Ken: If you could design your version of the perfect producer for the road, what are the characteristics that that person would have?

Steve: Well, it’s pretty much soup to nuts. It’s a grasp of the artistic, a grasp of what’s happening on stage, command of all of the designers and directors, committed to keeping the show always looking fantastic, understanding about routing and booking deals and marketing plans and ad looks and press stories and raising ticket prices and lowering prices, how wraps come in to play with all of this, how the weekly sales come in. So, basically, a producer who knows about the whole gamut.

Ken: One of the things that I often forget about our country is that we’re very different. Travel outside of New York City, and it’s a whole different world out there. Sometimes it’s amazing that it’s even the same country, yet these shows that are born in New York City and play to a very specific audience here then travel all over the country to places like Harlingen, Texas, where I played when I was a company manager with a non-union tour there. They have different tastes, different cultures, different upbringings . . . have you ever dealt with a situation where people have said, “We want this show but you’ve got to change X, Y and Z about it. You have to cut this song, remove this profanity, this is too sexual.” Have you ever dealt with a situation where people are asking for things to be adjusted?

Steve: In rare cases people have asked for perhaps some language to be removed a little bit. It’s pretty much rare. I think, for the most part, producers don’t want to change a production or sanitize it for what they think the public is going to want. They pretty much present the show as it is and I think audiences appreciate that.

Ken: Have you ever had to sell someone on a show that was like, “I don’t think this is for our audience?” Whether it was Rent in 1998, something like that, or a controversial show where you had to be like, “No, no, no, trust us, your market is ready for it?”

Steve: So Light in the Piazza was up at Lincoln Center and we were going up and my husband said, “We’re going to go and see this production, it’s written by a relative of Richard Rodgers. It’s supposed to be wonderful.” So I went to see it and I fell in love with it. I was blown away by the story, by the music, all of it. I had never worked with Lincoln Center or Bernie Gersten so I called them up the next morning and said, “May I come and meet with you?” He said, “Yes,” we met, I said, “I think there’s really a tour here,” and he said, “Are you sure? You think it can really be a tour?” I said, “I do, I do. I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful story and it will be a very touching story and people will embrace it.” He introduced the idea to presenters and a few of them said, “Well there’s some Italian in it.” And I said, “Well there’s one song that’s sung in Italian, but audiences can understand that, they can understand what’s happening on stage,” so we got past that and we ended up getting a 45 week tour of that, and presenters embraced it. They got every notice and the newspapers and online were all raves. One of the things I mentioned to presenters to try to get them on board for this controversial material, if you will, because it had some Italian in it, was I said, “You saw the show in New York, right?” They said, “Yes.” I said, “Who did you see it with?” They said, “Well, our director of development.” I said, “That’s great, but Lincoln Center has now offered to buy another pair of tickets for you. Come back with someone you love deeply in your life. I want you to experience the show in that way because, most likely, your audiences are going to experience the show with someone they love, someone that’s close to them.” So that was one way to get the presenters on board.

Ken: And it worked. Let’s talk about the road in general a bit. If the road was a patient at a hospital, how would you describe its health? Would it be just fine, no problem? Would it be sick, dying, needs intensive care? How do you rate the road these days in terms of its health?

Steve: Very, very healthy. Vibrant. Hearty.

Ken: Where do you think it will go in the next 10, 20 years? We’ve seen when the road began, let’s say it was reborn in the ’80s with Les Mis and all of those mega musicals, we saw the guarantee. What’s the next thing? Is there a next thing that’s going to happen in the next 10 or 20 years from now?

Steve: I hope that we have more and more people coming into the theater that have not been to that theater in their market. They’ll say, “What is this? I heard about this online or I got an e-mail about this because I bought a concert ticket,” and they’ll come into the theater and then they’ll have a great time and enjoy themselves.

Ken: Are there some producers out there that are pushing new financial models? Are there people suggesting, “You know what? This guarantee thing isn’t working like it used to work. Our guarantees haven’t gone up since 1990. What about trying something new?”

Steve: Well, every show has its own financial model. The guarantee is one way of doing it. The other way is the sharing terms arrangement, where something comes off the top . . . maybe it’s advertising . . . and then there’s a split of proceeds, and that exists today. So there are quite a few models. There are also models where the producer rents the theater, like in the very old fashioned days, so there are several models that exist, and it’s really market-driven.

Ken: Okay, last question. I call it my genie question. I want you to imagine that the genie knocks on your very nicely decorated office door here and says, “Steve, you’ve done a fantastic job of boking shows all over the country and really helping to stretch Broadway from New York to all of these small towns, like Harlingen, Texas. I’m going to grant you one wish.” If you could change one thing about Broadway, the road, our industry, what would it be? What is the one thing that drives you crazy? You’re one of the nicest guys I know, which is why I wanted to do this podcast. What gets you so mad, so angry, that you’d ask this genie, with the snap of a finger, to change?

Steve: I would like, Genie, for every market around the country, I’d like for you to produce, at the front of the theater, 5,000 people who have never been through that door, to come through that door and be in that theater per year and then those people would then be hooked on touring Broadway and would want to come back and would tell their friends.

Ken: Okay, I’m going to ask you another question based on that because, of course, this is something that keeps me up at night constantly, how do we get new people into the theater? Forget about Broadway, we need to do a lot more, obviously. We just busted an attendance record so we’re doing some really good things and we’re keeping at it, which is great, and I think the road is doing good stuff, but what’s an idea or something they can do out there, or even people listening, to try to get new people to the theater in these local markets that can’t see Broadway every day?

Steve: I think many people are doing that right now, they’re trying to bring audiences in there. One way is adjusting price points, giving a variety of price points so that people don’t choke over the price point, they can sit somewhere in the theater at some price point. The goal to sell the upstairs seats, and you know the orchestra is already sold down there, so you’re putting pressure, then, on the middle seats to be sold. So if you can move those balcony seats first, as well as the orchestra, which always goes first, then you’re getting more opportunity for more people to come into the theater. We all pay our bills, downstairs in the orchestra and in the mezzanine, and we make our profit in the rear orchestra and in the balcony.

Ken: Great answer. Steve, thank you so much for doing this today. All of you out there, remember, Broadway is not just this ten block radius here in Times Square, it is all over the country. Go and see a show at your local market today. Thanks, everybody, we’ll see you next time!

Steve: Thanks, Ken.

Ken: Thanks again for listening, everybody. Don’t forget to check out DidHeLikeIt.com and subscribe so that you can be the first to know whether the New York Times liked the latest show or not, and it’s an app in the iTunes store, download it today! That’s DidHeLikeIt.com.

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.