Pure Genius

Q&A: Ken Davenport, Broadway producer, on the future of musicals

Q&A: Ken Davenport, Broadway producer, on the future of musicals

Posting in Technology | From Issue 06 December 30, 2013 & January 6, 2014

Davenport, who is on a mission to keep Broadway relevant, is bringing crowdfunding, smartphone apps and video game-like interactivity to musicals.

If Broadway actually were "the fabulous invalid," as some have dubbed it, then Ken Davenport would be its cutting-edge treatment. 

An accomplished producer whose credits include a soon-to-open Bridges of Madison County musical and last year's Tony-winner Kinky Boots, Davenport's crusade to keep Broadway relevant extends well beyond the stage. With his company, Davenport Theatrical Enterprises, he created a popular board game based on becoming a theater star, designed a wide-selling ticket booth smartphone app, and consistently works to bring younger people into plush red theater seats. Three years ago, he also led the first effort to crowdfund a Broadway musical.

Davenport spoke with us about the business and innovation lessons he's learned from Broadway, what theater will look like 10 years from now, and why it may be better to invest in a musical than in a start-up.

 

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Ken Davenport (Matthew Murphy)
  

You've devoted a lot of your energy to making Broadway accessible and enticing to young people. Why is that so important to you?
It's a fact that more people are inclined to be theater-goers as adults if they've been introduced to it as a young person, usually by their parents. A lot of what I do is to get younger folks really involved with the theater. If that happens, a kid is going to be more inclined to say, 'Can we go to New York City to see a Broadway show rather than Disney for our vacation this year?' Many of my shows also tend to skew a bit younger: Godspell, The Awesome 80s Prom, 13, Altar Boyz, even the Will Ferrell show You're Welcome America.

How much younger?
The average theater-goer is 44 years old. The audiences for my shows are usually about 10 years younger than that -- around 35.

What are some of the innovations you've come up with to help bring younger audiences to Broadway?
I was really happy with our At the Booth app, which tells people what's at the TKTS booth. When we built that and released it, we got huge press. Entertainment Weekly put it on their 'Must List.' We sold thousands and thousands and thousands, literally in days. When you buy apps from the iTunes Store, at the bottom it lists 'Customers Also Bought,' and one of the ones listed with ours was Fandango. That was the thing I was most proud of. I just remember thinking, Well, look at that. We put Broadway and theater right next to the movies on people's phones. We'd worked our way into the conversation about what to do on Friday night, and that's what my entire mission is: to amplify the conversation about Broadway and to get people talking about it, which gets them seeing it, which gets them investing in it.

And certainly the board game Be A Broadway Star is also one of my favorites. What's funny is that I've become somewhat known for incorporating a lot of technology into what I do and [the game] is old-school. I even boxed it just like an old-fashioned board game. If I can get kids playing that on a Friday night instead of Apples to Apples, then it helps market the industry in a fun way.

Between the app and your other tech-focused efforts, it seems like you've charged yourself with making sure Broadway is embracing modernity.
This industry is famously about 10 years behind every other industry out there. That sounds like a harsh criticism, except I have to cut our industry a little slack because our audience is 10 years older than every other industry's audience. It takes us a little bit longer to respond to technology, but only because that's not where our audience is. That said, I encourage us to push ourselves a little bit faster because yes, today's audience may not be there, but tomorrow's audience certainly is, and we have to cultivate them now.

Many Broadway shows end up losing money or closing quickly but yours have been quite successful on both those fronts. How have you managed that?
Broadway's success rate is about one out of five, they say. We're batting close to .500 here in terms of the number of shows I've produced that have recouped. I really think it comes down to the fact that I'm still the 16-year-old kid who used to drive in from Massachusetts to see Broadway shows. The Broadway audience is 65 percent tourists, and the type of shows they want to see are usually, frankly, the type of shows I love as well, and I produce shows I love. My tastes just seem to be very much aligned with that Broadway audience. I think that's one of the reasons I've had the success I've had so far.

And how would you describe your tastes? What do you like in a show?
I love a Broadway show that is a heck of a lot of fun -- that makes you feel really good and leaves you walking on air. The Broadway musical was originally created as escapism. It was a way for people to leave their troubles outside the theater and come in and have a great time. In the 1980s and early 1990s, we went away from that. You saw Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera and Sunday in the Park with George and Cats, even -- these big operetta-type musicals that had very serious things to say. The world shifted as we were approaching 2000, and then of course on 9/11, which I think shifted us so severely that we're still there now. Musical theater is once again that thing where you can go in and forget about your troubles.

Do you see any other big shifts on the horizon?
It will keep going and going and morph based on what an audience expects. And a kid growing up with a cell phone in his hand expects a lot more than the person who was born in 1950. The kid expects his entertainment to be different.

Different in what way?
Video games have become a huge part of every generation, starting with mine. I'm 41 now, so I'm also becoming the average theater-going age. A 44 year old who grew up on video games is much different from people who grew up two decades earlier. I have a sense of wanting, needing and enjoying being able to interact somehow with my entertainment. That's going to affect not only what audiences expect, but also what's created. I grew up on personal computers in my home and video games. If I'm an artist, I'm probably going to create something with that kind of sensibility. It's just a different way of growing up.

Does that mean we should be expecting more interactive theater experiences from here out?
I do think we'll see more interactive components. You'll see some level of interactivity or involvement of the audience -- a real destruction of the fourth wall -- happen over the next decade. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and Sleep No More and Here Lies Love -- these pieces all have a component that involves the audience more than plays and musicals of 50 years ago, certainly. You went to see Oklahoma!, you weren't going to dance in an aisle during the show.

Your company turns 10 next year. What are the most universally applicable business lessons you've learned as a Broadway producer?
One of the biggest lessons I ever got was when I was raising money for my first show. I was pitching very hard to a potential investor and he stopped me about halfway through and said, 'I'm going to write you a check for $25,000 but I don't think this show is going to work.' I remember wondering, then why are you doing this? And he said, 'I don't invest in projects, I invest in people.' That is one of the biggest lessons I've learned and that I impart on everybody. People are going to support you. Yes, you have to have projects you believe in, but at the beginning of your career, what you're really looking for is people to invest in you because they believe you're going to be successful.

I've also never learned more than in the early days when it was just me running my entire company. I was doing everything from selling tickets to finding the insurance to running the box office. Those startup days are like grad school for any business person. I don't care what degree you already have, you don't get your real degree until you're all alone in your apartment, figuring out how you can eat.

What about in terms of innovation? Do you have any tips for success in that realm?
Try to be as unique as possible. It's very easy nowadays to look at a company that's doing well and say, 'Let's just do something similar to that and we'll do fine as well.' You may do fine, but you're never going to do great. What does great in the long-term are companies and products and shows that are very unique. Things that no one else is doing.

My company mission statement used to be this fancy MBA-like thing: 'We are the most cutting-edge, innovative and blah blah blah.' About two years ago, I changed it to 'We do shit that other people don't.' That's what gets attention and that's what gets success.

You've said before that Broadway has a better average success rate than a start-up. How much better?
A Broadway show's odds of success are one out of five. But the hope, and what usually happens, is that the one out of five pays for all the others. It's just like venture capital or anything else, but in those worlds it's anywhere from one out of 10 to one out of 20. I'm a big believer that Broadway and entertainment in general should be an asset class. If you're an investor with a certain net worth, your financial advisor is going to tell you to put a percentage of your portfolio in alternative investments: high-risk hedge funds, some real estate. I believe entertainment should be part of that alternative-investment asset class because it has explosive growth opportunities and, when managed well, it's not as risky as everyone thinks.

Speaking of funding musicals, can you tell me about making Godspell the first crowdfunded Broadway production in 2010? Did it go well enough that you'd consider doing that again?
I'd do it again, but the rules and game have changed now. I did Godspell that way because no one had ever done it before, but more importantly, I did it because that's what the show was about. [Composer] Stephen Schwartz literally said to me when I asked him what the show was about: 'Godspell is about bringing a community of people together.' I thought, 'Wow, why I don't I bring together the largest community of producers and investors ever?' The marketing message matched the artistic message, and that's what I try to do often.

How many investors did you end up with?
More than 700. That was some shit that no one else did.

Photo: Matthew Murphy


Photo: GSG/Creative Juice

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Molly Petrilla

Contributing Writer

Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She has written for The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia magazine, Cleveland Magazine, The History Channel Magazine and The Princeton Packet. She holds a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure