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Oren Jacoby: 'Broadway is not playing it safe’

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Oscar-nominated filmmaker Oren Jacoby speaks with Yahoo Finance about his latest documentary, 'On Broadway,' which traces Broadway's return from the brink of collapse in the 1970's and examines the importance of Broadway to the health of New York City economy and culture. Jacoby also discusses the outlook for Broadway today, as it begins to emerge from the 18 month shutdown caused by the pandemic.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: It was a big week for Broadway with blockbusters like "Hamilton", "The Lion King", "Wicked", and "Chicago" raising their curtains for the first time in 18 months. The pandemic caused the longest shutdown in Broadway history, but it is certainly not the first time Broadway has been down on its luck. A new documentary called "On Broadway" chronicles the history of the Great White Way including its remarkable comeback from near collapse back in the 1970s.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

JOHN LITHGOW: The theater district in those days, you just can't believe how different it was. I mean, it was so down on its luck.

- Times Square was a rat hole.

- You didn't walk down 42nd Street after dark for anything.

- It was wall to wall junkies and hustlers.

- It was like the Wild West.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Well of course, if you've been to the Broadway theater district or to Times Square, you see it looks very different now. It's back in business once again. And I had a chance to speak with Oren Jacoby, the Oscar nominated filmmaker and director of that movie "On Broadway" about what it took to save the Great White Way back in the '70s and why it's important to do it again.

OREN JACOBY: We tell the story in our documentary "On Broadway" that things got so bad in the early 1970s that there was a serious proposal to shut down all of the Broadway theaters, tear them down, and turn those spaces into parking lots. That's how bad it got. I mean, New York had kind of given up on the arts, it had given up on the theater district, there was crime, there was pornography and prostitution, there were drug dealers, the Mafia owned a lot of the businesses, there were real estate guys, taking advantage to make whatever money they could, and the neighborhood was just on the skids. And so was New York theater.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: What are some of the reasons why Broadway was able to bounce back so strongly the way it did in the 1970s?

OREN JACOBY: There was a new generation started to work in the theater, both theater artists, and theater owners, and producers. And they approached it in a different way. They understood they had to do something to change things. Because people just weren't coming to see the plays that were there. They were old fashioned. Rock music had kind of changed the audience. And they didn't want to-- they talked about the shows that were available as things that your grandmother would want to go to. And then they found new shows that spoke to the times.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: And now we find ourselves here in this moment with Broadway reopening amidst the pandemic. How confident are you that Broadway can come back better and stronger? And what can Broadway learn from what happened decades ago as it sort of looks forward to its rebirth?

OREN JACOBY: I think there's no question that it can come back. I mean, part of the story we tell is not just that there was this original turnaround in 1972, where things came together and "Chorus Line" was the first big show that brought things back and got it going again. But that over and over again, over these past five decades, it keeps reinventing itself. It keeps figuring out new ways to be more responsive, to be more diverse. You look at the plays. I mean, I just went online and checked what are the shows that are coming in this season. And Broadway is not playing it safe.

I mean, it's going to be maybe the most African-American plays that have ever been on Broadway in one season. They're really responding to Black Lives Matter. They know that people want to know what's going on now in America. Let's talk about these things. And the Broadway will reflect that. And I think audiences will follow.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: How important is Broadway though to the overall economic health of New York City, even for folks who maybe don't go to Broadway or not Broadway show lovers? Why should they care about Broadway coming back successfully?

OREN JACOBY: I mean, it's something that isn't spoken about enough. I don't know why economists and politicians don't address this. The arts are not something that are a little fringe on our lives. It's not like a little dessert at the end of the meal. The arts are an important economic engine in any city in any culture. The year that we covered in our documentary, the 2018, 2019 season, was the most successful in Broadway's history. That meant that there were nearly $2 billion in ticket sales.

But not only that, there were nearly $12 and 1/2 billion in revenues in the city related to those ticket sales, to tourists coming into the city to see a Broadway show and spending money on other stuff. And think of the tens of thousands of jobs that are sustained by all of that expenditure. So the arts are a driver for other businesses in our economy. And we need them. And we particularly need them in cities to keep them going.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: And that was filmmaker Oren Jacoby, director of that new documentary "On Broadway", which is in theaters now.

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