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Musical or Play, Broadway or Off-Broadway…do you know the difference?

I’m going to an Off-Broadway play this weekend, and I think that a majority of people believe that that means I’m seeing something that is not playing in Manhattan’s Theatre District. In this case, they would be correct—but I’ve seen plenty of shows that qualify as Off-Broadway in and around the vicinity of Times Square. This confuses many…New Yorkers included. Also, I wish I had a dollar for every time an actor, or a neighbor, or a friend informed me that they either saw or performed in an Off-Broadway show—when it was clear to me that they had not. The friends and neighbors are most likely ignorant of their mistake, while the actors are usually lying(I always let them get away with their show of vanity, even though they foolishly convince themselves that I don’t know the difference). It’s a forgivable little white lie, but it’s still fibbing if you claim anything that isn’t actually on Broadway is considered off-Broadway. I’ll explain why ahead, but let’s just say that size matters. Furthermore, a musical and a play are not the same thing. That one should be apparent to everyone. It drives me nuts when people say “I’m going to a play”, if they have tickets for let’s say, “The Phantom of the Opera”. If anyone doesn’t realize they should be calling “Phantom” a musical by now, they’ve been asleep for a quarter of a century(“Phantom” celebrates its 25th year on Broadway this coming January). I mean everyone must have heard at least a snippet of a number from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most legendary creation at this point, right? It has actors singing songs—it’s a musical, NOT a play. Now, I chat with plenty of suburbanites that would never dream of venturing into the Big Apple for any type of show without music. To them that would be a waste of time and the equivalent of not getting enough “bang for your buck”. Which means that they are eliminating a sizable portion of what’s out there—and the best stuff in most cases. “Rock of Ages” and “Mamma Mia”(two productions I never intend to see)are a couple of the titles I hear bandied about often, as shows people have seen or desire to see. Am I judging these productions sight unseen and calling the audiences who only attend these types of shows uncultured? Guilty. I absolutely adore a good number of stage musicals(“Sweeney Todd”, “Rent” and “Chicago” are among my favorites), but straight plays easily outnumber the toe-tappers I frequent by a margin of two-to-one. “Dirty Blonde”, “Copenhagen”, “Hamlet”, “Six Degrees of Separation”, “Ruined” and “August: Osage County” are among the finest theatrical experiences I’ve ever had in NYC…and there’s not a cast album for any of them. Expand your horizons, folks…you’re missing some fantastic stuff! Also, in almost all cases, the distinction between a Broadway and an Off-Broadway show lies in the number of seats at the venue. It’s not considered a Broadway production unless 500 or more customers can rest their fannies. So, even if you venture away from Times Square and catch something at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont(which, btw, holds a special place in my heart because it first opened its doors on the very day and year that I was born)for instance, you are still seeing something that falls into the Broadway classification. Off-Broadway typically seats anywhere from 100 to 499 patrons. So, if you pop over to one of the multiple shows at the cavernous New World Stages(a former underground movie multiplex that houses anywhere from 199 to 499 seats among its 5 individual stages)on 50th street, it is still an Off-Broadway production even though it’s smack dab in the heart of the Broadway Theatre District. Off-Off-Broadway is generally for shows sporting under a hundred ticket holders. That’s the way it works and that’s my tutorial. If I sound like I’m nitpicking, I really don’t feel that I am. If you want to sound informed about your theatre-going experience, you really should get this kind of stuff right in conversation. And if you are one of those folks that only attend musicals—see an actual play once in a while. It won’t kill you. Maybe “Tribes”, currently showing Off-Broadway, will be the one for you. I will posting a review at some point next week. Finally, expect an eventual rant about the frequency and annoyance of standing ovations. It’s one of my biggest theatrical pet peeves…and I’ve got a tried-and-true set of rules about how to handle those!


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