Podcast Episode 72 Transcript – Phil Birsh
Ken: Hello, everybody. This is Ken Davenport and this is the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. So, a little story – the first Broadway show I ever attended was The Phantom of the Opera in 1989 and after I saw it I went right back home, bought a nice frame from the local Walmart-type store and the first thing I did was frame my Playbill, and for the next five years of my life I framed every single Playbill I had until I almost went broke on the frames – and I’m not the only one, I’ve met tons of people out there who have been framing their Playbills since they got them, or saving them in a box, because they are valuable and such a memory. Today we are going to talk to the guy responsible for all of those Playbills – one of the most powerful and valuable brands on Broadway, here is the president of Playbill, Mr. Philip Birsh. Welcome, Phil!
Phil: Thank you, Ken. It’s a pleasure to speak with you today.
Ken: So why don’t we start with can you tell us a little bit about the history of Playbill, the first one, how it got its start?
Phil: I think the history of Playbill was started by a man named Stern in 1884 when he had the bright idea that he would print a bill – which, as you know, a bill is a single piece of paper – which would list the names of the actors and around the bill he would put the names of advertisers, mostly restaurants in the area, and this bright idea caught on and has been in effect for 132 years nonstop. It’s quite an impressive history of success for the theatre.
Ken: You obviously have not been with it for those 130 years. You’re, relatively, in the history of Playbill, a newcomer.
Phil: I’m a stranger to it, yes. I’ve been barely here 25 years, so who really am I to the history of Playbill? But the history of Playbill is really quite interesting in that it’s only had three or four owners; it’s one of these gems of a company that people buy and seem to keep, for better or for worse. The history of Playbill also reflects the history of theatre and the history of Actors Equity and the unions, really showing that the history of theatre and the history of needing to show the public who is the creative forces behind these shows, it really goes hand in glove. In 1913, as you know, when Actors Equity was formed, Playbills became more complex because they demanded of the theatres that people in the shows have recognition and people around the shows, the other creative forces, also put into their demands that they be recognized by the public for their creative influences upon a production, so Playbill played a very important role in recognizing the rights of all of the creative forces in the theatre community and the theatre owners, happily, agreed to all of this and allowed them to get the credit they were due, so Playbill played a very important role in establishing an important reporting of the wonderful people that were creating the entertainment that people enjoyed.
Ken: And this is something – to fast forward a little bit – London doesn’t have a free Playbill like we do, they still don’t.
Phil: No, they do. I was asked by Andrew Lloyd Webber to bring a Playbill to London and was blocked by the oldest problem in the world, which is stealing. The people who are in charge of the programs in London, apparently, were enjoying the old Saturday Evening Post trick of delivering 120 newspapers to a newsstand and the newsstand were supposed to sell only 100 and they kept 20 for themselves and that money was passed around. The same thing goes on in London today so we couldn’t break into that little cash surplus of certain folks, so no, we couldn’t break into London. We can’t swim in the Thames with cement blocks on our feet so we decided it was a mistake to pursue this any further. Also, in London, we don’t have the same protections for the creative forces and the actors that America happily has. There is no obligation to list all of the creative forces for the audience and the only way, really, we’ll learn anything about the performance, somewhat, is to buy the program that they sell, which is terribly dated and not accurate and really almost inevitably has the wrong cast in it, but it’s attractive and it’s full of colors and on nice paper and sold for £5 or £6 each, quite a penalty for the theatregoer.
Ken: So how did you come to be the owner of Playbill? What was your history before it? Were you a theatre guy?
Phil: It’s a fascinating and intriguing tale which can be described in one word – nepotism. I was fortunate enough to have been working on Wall Street for a dozen years and my father, who owned Playbill at the time, told me he was going to sell the company or wanted to sell the company, and after a series of long discussions and painful negotiations – not that painful, I tease my father – we came to a very fair and just agreement and he was very gracious and very, I think, thoughtful to me and my brother and sister and we bought Playbill from him over time and we’ve enjoyed the ownership of it since 1995, I think, 1996.
Ken: But you were working on Wall Street at the time, so you weren’t even working in the theatre?
Phil: No, I was a Wall Street philistine, a gentle sort of crew of monsters that were making the world unsafe for investments, I suppose, for the regular folk of the world. Actually that’s not so true – I worked in mergers and acquisitions so I only made it unsafe for a small corner of the world.
Ken: So with this outside perspective – I love it when people from the traditional business world enter ours because ours is so unique.
Phil: A very unique niche.
Ken: So when you started showing up here in the Playbill offices every day, what was your first sense of “Oh, this is different?”
Phil: Oh, it was very different. I had been used to doing $100 million deals and working on all kinds of very much larger activities and I never had anything that recurred in my life so the idea of coming and running a company that actually had an annual schedule where the Tony Awards did occur every June and openings came at this time of year and the Broadway Cares events were always in November or early December and April, all of these things made it clear to me that I had actually entreated a community, that I had left a band of mercenaries, of soulless, greedy little urchins and joined a community of talented and wonderful people who were trying to build something from nothing all the time. It was really quite an eye opener and I met so many special and creative forces, it was a true scene change, as if I had left a war-torn Afghanistan and walked into Denmark. It was just a complete scene change and attitudinal change also, and I think I became a nicer person because of it because I was around so many talented and sensitive and smart people who were really trying to be very creative and very resourceful and trying to bring a join to people’s lives, which was quite a departure from Wall Street.
Ken: So those are all the good things about joining this community, what was one of the hardest things about, all of a sudden, being thrust into this?
Phil: Well actually the hardest thing was I joined in approximately ’93, during the AIDS crisis, and the hardest thing of all was trying to figure out what I could do and what Playbill could do as a company to combat this terrible tragedy and so that was very hard and I joined the board of directors of Broadway Cares in ’93. In ’94 I was named the treasurer of the board and I worked very hard on being a good treasurer and actually I’ve been treasurer of the board for 21 years now – 22, oh my gosh – and it’s been one of the great rewarding works of my life. So I would say, emotionally and intellectually, that was the hardest challenge I’ve ever seen anyone face and the heroes of our industry that stepped up and worked so hard to try to help our community through this devastation, it was a very meaningful battle that we still are fighting but we have made a lot of progress and we continue to fight for it. I think that was the hardest thing, everything else, compared to that, was really quite simple.
Ken: Obviously everyone knows Playbill as the magazine they get when they sit down in the theatre but that is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg of the brand and what I’ve noticed over the last five years, or ten years, is the brand seems to have exploded – all of a sudden there are all these other things going on. Tell us how you’ve led Playbill into the 21st century.
Phil: I’ve led and misled Playbill into the 21st century on a number of ideas. I think that all companies, no matter how old or young they are – and Playbill, being 132 years old, is an older company – although quite young for an Irish pub, it’s quite young for an American company. I think the key is to maximize a brand’s value and Playbill is a brand because it has a very meaningful message for the people who interact with it. Playbill is always there in the theatre, it provides a lot of continuity to the audience, it gives them help in enjoying what they are about to consume, it’s a souvenir to remember what they enjoyed and refer back to if they choose to save them – which they do a lot, apparently – you’re not the only one, sometimes we sell 20,000 binders a year to people who are collecting these Playbills, and I’m grateful to sell them to them. This kind of association with Broadway has been very meaningful and so the brand has grown with Broadway and the brand, because it’s so loyally there, in all of New York and the rest of the country over the last many years, people associate our brand with, I think, a very stalwart company and our audience is a great audience so we’ve tried to build upon that relationship with have with the audience in a meaningful way. We’re not producing satellite decoders, we’re really trying to do all things that are related to people’s enjoyment of the theatre and to be a part of their theatrical world and so we’ve created a number of ideas, some good and some bad but mostly good, that have helped people enjoy theatre more, have helped young people enjoy creating theatre themselves, and have also tried to build on the love of theatre and the love of doing other things outside the theatre – for instance, this last January, we’re partners with Mischief Management and we partnered with them to help them create and be a part of Broadway Con. Broadway Con was a surprising success for everyone – I was surprised only because I had never participated in a Broadway Con or a Comic Con-like event before, but we had 5,100 people come up, even in the snow, to enjoy and to express their love of theatre and I was so impressed by their enthusiasm and passion and there’s a good example of a brand extension. We will be doing Broadway Con in 2017, in January, at the Javits Center. We’ve rented the Javits Center north and several other massive rooms which, when you look at them when they’re empty, you think, “My God, how will we ever fill this?” because they are unbelievably big. One room I know we can fit three 747s in, it’s just so huge, but these will be the rooms where it happens in January 2017 and just this week we put the tickets up for sale in January and we have sold hundreds of thousands of dollars of tickets in a matter of days, so these brand extensions are working. We’ve started a company called Playbill Travel where we do Broadway cruises, because in business you always want to try to find that Venn diagram – you all know what a Venn diagram is, it’s when you take two circles and you intersect them and the part that is intersecting is the area of your focus, so when two circles intersect there is a space where they both overlap, that part is your target – so in that Venn diagram Playbill Travel takes people who love theatre and people who love cruises and where they intersect that’s where Playbill cruises is focused, so at this point we’re literally chartering ocean liners and we’re filling them with people who love theatre and love cruising and we bring along wonderful Broadway stars who enjoy the trip as well and it is a hoot, everyone loves the cruises, I love the cruises. We just advertised a cruise last week – we didn’t even advertise it, we sent an e-mail out to our past passengers and we were sold out without even advertising it. So the brand of Playbill is working but it would never work without Broadway as a foundational part beneath it. So these are the kind of brand extensions we’ve made and the first one you’re thinking about, I guess, is Playbill.com which we started in 1995 and that was a leap of faith.
Ken: There was no DSL, it was dialup back then, AOL maybe. What kind of online activity?
Phil: I think you had a pedal, if I recall. You had to keep some generator going while you actually got online. We actually started as a part of CompuServe and Prodigy – you may remember, most of you may not be old enough to remember but the internet once really didn’t work – and we tried that for a while. I just discovered something called the World Wide Web – no one ever uses that phrase anymore – and I just decided that that was the future in 1995 and we just went full force into it because I felt that people wanted more information about theatre and Playbill.com really does provide an enormous amount of theatre news and we still, to this day, are proud of the fact that we provide the best level of news of any reporting organization on theatre in the world. We get 30 or 40 stories a day and I think people want that kind of information – baseball and theatre are a lot alike, most people think about baseball, watch baseball and discuss baseball far more than they attend baseball. The same thing with theatre – there are people out there that want to talk about theatre, there are people out there who want to read about theatre and so we built Playbill Online based on the fact that people wanted a lot of information about theatre because they loved it and we were right, people do want information and people are now getting the majority of their information about theatre online in 2016.
Ken: That site, obviously, is certainly my favorite theatre site by far – and I say that as a producer who always advertises on Playbill because I know those people are there. It’s changed a lot, it just went through a big redesign, right?
Phil: Yes, it did, we redesigned it. It’s a much more modern site and I find it to be an easier site to participate in because it’s less stimulating and more focused on the material that we want people to choose from. I think that all sites have to go through a little bit of a changeover period where people have to get used to the new site, and of course we’ve heard people who hate the new site and we’ve had people who love the new site, and it is definitely age related, I did have to say to one person who complained a lot about it, “Mom, you have to get used to it, and the hamburger on the left, I’ll put the word ‘Menu’ under it and if you remember that it will work better,” and that almost mollified her so I think we made progress.
Ken: Can you give us any exclusives? Any new Playbill initiatives that are in the garage right now, waiting to be unveiled?
Phil: Well we’re working on the new Broadway Con that we talked about. Our Playbill Travel area is beginning to go into river cruises, after our ocean cruises, we are beginning to chat with some investors about maybe doing a Playbill hotel in Times Square, which would be a huge undertaking – we would not own it, we could never have the money to do something like that, we would simply license our name and be a participant in the hotel’s marketing and being a part of New York, but I think that’s a program we’re trying to push forward with several investor groups. It’s a difficult time for hotels in Times Square, in 2016, because people don’t want to stay in hotels longer than they sleep and eat breakfast, because when you stay in Times Square the last thing you want to do is stay in your room reading a book. It’s much like a theme park – and I’ve argued that Broadway is like a theme park and the shows are like rides and we could use a hotel – so maybe we could convince people to do it, but I think hotels are also suffering from the OTA problem, the online travel agency problem, where the hotels have done such a good job that you can’t tell the difference between a Hilton or a W or a Sheraton or Renaissance or a Marriott and because they’re doing such a good job the online travel services are just waiting for the managers to make a mistake and then they make a mistake and they charge $195 for a room and no one’s making any money. So I think a theatre-centric hotel would do much better because it would appeal to a very, very loyal and very theatre-centric audience and we would have some fun things in the hotel as well that would, I think, make people want to stay there.
Ken: I think if you need some letters from people to your investors saying they would stay there, there are thousands of listeners right now that I think would all stay there. I know I would stay there! I’ve actually blogged before about how there’s no Broadway walk of fame, like the Hollywood walk of fame, or a Broadway museum in Times Square. This Playbill hotel could be all of those things.
Phil: I think it could be a lot of those things. I’m not sure we have enough sidewalk to really cover the walk of fame as it should be covered but I think we could have a very important display of Broadway memorabilia and history in the hotel and I think we could have a great deal of entertainment at the hotel and themed rooms and really celebrate the history of theatre in New York so I think people really will enjoy this idea when and if we bring it to fruition. So that’s one of our projects. We’re not going to own the hotel so it’s not going to be ours to command but we will have participation in it and I hope it happens in the next year and a half, two years, if it does happen at all.
Ken: Well I’m in, just let me know.
Phil: Thank you.
Ken: One of the things I’ve noticed about the website that is different from many of the other theatre websites out there is that you have no reviews on your site.
Ken: And no message board.
Phil: Very good question. Number one, I think that reviews are not Playbill’s role. There’s a lot of people reviewing theatre, there’s a lot of people hectoring theatre, there’s a lot of people with a lot of opinions in this world. Our website and our magazine is about being positive about theatre, presenting it to the audience, you make your own decisions. I think it would be unfair for Playbill to review a show and the producers have to take our magazine, we have to be in their theatres, and if we were to review a show poorly I think it would be a cinder in the eyes of the producer if one of our writers didn’t like it and therefore we would say that. I think Playbill is the good housekeeping seal of Broadway and I think if we didn’t like something, I think that would be very damaging versus just another opinion, so I think you have to be fair and say we’re going to let other people review, we want our audience to experience as much theatre as possible and there’s good in every show. I don’t believe there is ever a show that isn’t worthy of seeing because there’s always something in it that is quite excellent, there’s always some actor or actress doing a good job or there’s some wonderful group of songs worthy of listening to. I don’t buy the fact that you should miss a show because someone didn’t like it – you have to make your own decisions. So that’s the reason, and there are many more, why we don’t have reviews. Why we don’t have message boards is a decision I made years ago because I saw the same people, the same socially imperceptive, angry, snarky people dominating message boards constantly and scaring off people who would like to make a contrary opinion to those theatre police, and therefore I felt that it was a waste of time. I look at theatre blogs or boards often and they always descend into hell, it just takes about six or seven opinions and all of a sudden all hell breaks loose and nastiness shows up and opinions go awry and somebody gets called something. I think they’re a waste of time – and, by the way, they’re a waste of time on a lot of sites. You go to the Washington Post and twelve things in somebody hates the president, Dick Chaney comes up and it’s just awful. I think mostly message boards are filled with the truly unsettled and undereducated so I don’t have a big respect for that, plus I saw some disturbing stuff on our message boards where people started doing roleplay on it and it just seemed like a feeder farm for all kinds of child molesters so I thought, “Forget that, we’re not doing that either,” so I just shut it down and said, “Let people make their own opinions elsewhere.”
Ken: I think that’s a very fair approach. Just to clarify for the listeners out there – you said the producers have to have the Playbills because your deal is with the theatre, right?
Ken: The theatres make a deal with you to have the Playbills, so as a producer I go in, I get the Playbill and we’re very happy to get it, but I think that’s a very fair approach. If you had people review I could have to carry that review in the magazine as they’re watching the show.
Phil: That would be really terrible, but also the role that Playbill provides is a critical one because the contract that the theatre owners have with all of the unions states within those relationships that they have to have a program in the theatre that highlights the creative forces behind the show in that theatre. It’s at no cost to the producer or to the theatre owner that we are there but someone has to provide this service to fulfil the contractual obligations for, for instance, Actors Equity. There has to be bios on a piece of paper handed literally – proffered is the word in the contract – to every individual patron. So this is an important task that producers are very terrible at fulfilling and, by the way, my dear, dear friend Jimmy Nederlander Sr. once said to me, “That was the worst decision he ever made,” and he said to my father as well, when he decided to produce his own Playbill for the Palace Theatre back in the Sweet Charity days, he said, “I’m never doing that again!” And I appreciate that very much as well, he’s a wonderful man, but it’s hard to produce because the rules are very complicated, as many people know. The inside of a Playbill has to change weekly to reflect the actor and cast members. If there’s someone out in the midweek there has to be a slip in it that describes who’s out and who’s in with a bio as well, so it’s not easy. Someone said, “Why do you have to change weekly?” I say, “Well a lot of people’s casts change names and new boyfriends and new girlfriends,” and the casts do change, of course – people don’t realize how often a Broadway cast changes in larger shows, it’s quite continuous.
Ken: You said something about the actor’s union requires that the patrons get on a piece pf paper and then you talked about how difficult it is and, I’m sure, how expensive it is and time consuming. In the green world we live in now, do you ever think there will be a time when Playbill is purely digital and there is no magazine?
Phil: People have said that but people love their Playbills and without that receipt, without that souvenir, without that experience, I think the theatre will be less of the experience that people enjoy because it is part of the theatre going process and the digital effect will be that the shows are interrupted by light – people do refer to their Playbills in the middle of shows, they do want to read them all the time, take a look at how many acts there are, who is this actor? People do use their playbills during the show; if it was digital it would destroy the main role of the audience, which is to be unnoticed and to be quiet and to participate as a spectator in the story that’s being told. Digital things are very intrusive and they can really wreck a performance. I think, and I’ve talked to a lot of people, you know Broadway Green Alliance and they’re not against playbills. We use recycled paper as much as possible, we recycle our playbills – we take them out of theatres and we recycle them regularly because paper is expensive and recyclists want the paper back – so we do a very good job and plus there’s no real harm if somebody keeps their Playbill and puts it in a frame or a binder, it doesn’t make a landfill that way, and it is a natural product, it’s all paper and clay so it’s not very damaging.
Ken: My favorite form of free advertising is the Playbill. As I go on a subway at a subway station on my way home at about 10:30 or 11 o’clock and look at all the people holding their playbills in their hands it’s a conversation starter, for sure.
Phil: That’s a fun train to go home on. You always see all the actors and you see the patrons and you see the musicians all going home and it’s really quite fun. At 50th Street Broadway line it is like a little Broadway Con on the train, it’s really quite funny that all the actors and actresses and musicians and all the other creative people are on those trains. You just start recognizing people, you say, “How did the show go?” It’s just a fun moment. That’s a little fun secret on Broadway, that 50th Street station going uptown.
Ken: It’s the cheap version of Joe Allen’s. Have you ever thought about producing yourself?
Phil: No, producing is very hard, Ken. What you do is really quite impressive. Producing is a real art form and it’s a detailed world of endless details and it’s a very risky environment and it’s wonderful and I admire producers for their pluck and their creativity and their… I think, really, their risk quotients. Very few people understand risk in business and producers really do understand risk and they play that risk game as well as anyone on the trading floor at Goldman Sachs. It’s really quite impressive what producers are able to do. I always describe to my friends what it’s like to be a producer – like the guy in the circus ring spinning plates, you just have to keep the plates spinning, he has to keep spinning, oh that plate’s slowing down, he’s got to spin that one up! They just keep circling and spinning the plates, there’s so many plates he’s got to keep going and keep spinning and he can’t let any of them hit the ground and break. I think it’s very impressive what all our producer friends are able to do and it’s a real important process for a theatre, of course, and to learn to be a producer is not available at any business school. To learn to be a producer you’ve got to work for a producer, it’s one of the last journeymen kind of occupations in America. You really only learn by trial by fire, right? How’d you learn?
Ken: I learned by working for lots of producers, actually, and then I learned the most just by getting out there and producing something myself and having flames nip at my butt every single day, for sure.
Phil: Absolutely. It’s truly one of the last great entrepreneurial events. I have the joy of, now and then, being involved with horse racing and that is somewhat like producing because producers do something which is so magical because they make something from nothing and they just find talent, they find creative teams, they find stories, they build an entire system and a machine that’s supposed to come together and be an active, breathing event and it’s quite amazing to me that they take nothing and turn it into something, from 0-60mph, it’s really quite impressive. It’s a lot like horse racing, where the horse is born and you hope and pray he’s healthy and strong and fast and he’ll run well and stay healthy and nothing will go wrong and that’s the same kind of thing. That’s as much producing as I can do, is oversee a horse here and there, but producing is hard.
Ken: You see a lot of advertisements on your site from shows – what do you think is the biggest mistake that Broadway makes in terms of its advertising?
Phil: The biggest mistake is not being able to communicate to the average person what the story, what the essence of a show, is about. People are overstimulated in 2016 – a person can receive thousands of stimulations a day and unless your message is clear, unless your message is concise, it’s very, very hard to get people’s attention and to be able to find that tribe. Broadway is a series of tribes – it’s not a singular audience. There are people who only go to musicals, there are people who only go to plays, there are people who only go to good plays and musicals, there are people who only go to really, really good musicals and, once in a while, a really great play, there are people who only go to plays with a star and there are people who only go to shows that are depressing. There are groups of people on Broadway and for a producer to be successful in communicating to all of these tribes they have to be able to bring a clear and concise message of all the positives of this show and why it’s worth seeing and sometimes it’s not enough to cry a star, it’s not enough to show a good looking person in the story – you have to hit the audience up on a number of angles because we’re dealing with a vast array of consumers who consume differently. There are people who have to see everything, there are people who only have to see hits, there are people who only want to see shows that are controversial. You have to figure out how you’re going to hit these groups carefully, give them the message that they’re able to enjoy and be able to maximize their theatre going power. For instance, if you talk to real experts on Broadway about ticketing and the audience’s behavior, there are all of these different tribes that you must, must hit up effectively and so the mistakes I see are the producers who don’t understand the behavior. You’re only going to appeal to a part of it and then, all of a sudden, you will have this drop and, “What happened?” you’ll say. “We were going well and, boom, we hit a wall!” and that’s because you just appealed to a singular tribe and you didn’t go across the spectrum of all the tribes. So that’s what I’ve learned by observation, if that’s helpful.
Ken: Alright, my last question, which is my Genie Question.
Phil: Oh, goodie.
Ken: I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to your office door, knocks on it and says, “Mr. Birsh, I want to thank you for your contributions to the theatre and I want to grant you one wish.” What’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that makes you mad, that gets you pounding on the table that you would want this genie to wish away with the rub of his lamp?
Phil: I probably would want the empty seats of Broadway to be used for under privileged people. There are so many empty seats, there are so many people who should be sitting in those seats. I so wish there was a methodology of getting those empty seats, which are going to go to waste, to young people who we can impress with our great, great product and make them lifelong fans. There is so much we can do to share the wealth of our resources, it won’t cost us any money. I would like to see us have a system in place where the 50 or 60 empty seats in all the balconies could be put into a pool for teachers and students and people like that who would truly, really fall in love with what we do.
Ken: It’s a great answer and I want to thank you for sitting down with us and thank you for letting me adorn my walls with your playbills. Until the next time, I am Ken Davenport, this was the Producer’s Perspective Podcast.
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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.