Theater producer Alia Jones-Harvey is the only woman of color currently a lead producer on Broadway. Her company Front Row productions began with the revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ” in 2008, continued with “A Streetcar Named Desire” last year, and is involved with “The Trip to Bountiful,” which opens April 23rd at the Stephen Sondheim Theater — two of the three productions featuring all-black casts, the third (Streetcar) primarily people of color. Starting next month, she will be teaching a course entitled “Producing for Broadway” at the City College School of Continuing and Professional Studies.
It seemed the right time to ask her the secrets of being a Broadway producer.
Jonathan Mandell: Yours is one of the five names listed as producer of the revival of Horton Foote’s “A Trip to Bountiful,” starring Cicely Tyson, Vanessa Williams and Cuba Gooding Jr. What is it exactly that you are doing for the show? What, in other words, does a Broadway producer do?
Alia Jones-Harvey: Front Row Productions joined the producing team to advise on casting, bring investment and marketing support to Bountiful. Much like our past productions, Bountiful offers the opportunity for traditional and non-traditional theatergoers to engage with the stellar casting of this inspirational story.
Mandell: What do you mean by non-traditional theatergoers?
Jones-Harvey: New audiences that have not come to see Broadway shows in the past. They are drawn in by the all-star ensemble casting, word of mouth, and group tour operators. It always helps to have advertising partners that will extend the reach of the budget as well.
Mandell: You’re also involved in non-traditional casting
I’m sure you saw the AAPAC study on the percentage of minority actors on Broadway and 16 leading non-profit theaters in New York, which I wrote about in a post Theater and Diversity. They found for example that African-Americans make up 16 percent of actors, but 23 percent of the population of the city, and Latinos make up three percent of actors, while 29 percent of the population. These figures may not mean too much in and of themselves; for example, for all I know, Latinos may only make up three percent of the actors auditioning for roles. But is there the same issue of this under-representation among producers?
Harvey-Jones: Absolutely! Stephen Byrd and I are the only lead producers of color on Broadway right now. There is a great opportunity for more cultures to be represented in the producer ranks. It is a part of what leads me to encourage others to pursue their projects on Broadway.
Mandell: How do people react to your being a producer?
Harvey-Jones: Pride! Ruth Morrison, founder of What’s the 411 Networks, honored me with the 2012 Vanguard Award for “creating opportunities for others on Broadway” in the networks’ first Salute to Blacks on Broadway.
Mandell: Why should the theater community be concerned?
Harvey-Jones: Your commentary on the study cited the reason well. Arts organizations cannot sustain themselves by competing for a small affluent homogeneous audience. Expanding the diversity of producers bringing productions to Broadway will expand the diversity of offerings and in turn expand audience interest in Broadway shows.
Mandell: What can be done and what is being done?
Harvey-Jones: Education is a part of what can create more awareness among diverse communities. Role models are also a key component. We publicize to our audiences that we are here as often as possible.
Mandell: How is what you’re doing on “The Trip to Bountiful” differ from what the other four producers are doing?
Harvey-Jones: Each producer on the team brings resources to the production—time and relationships. Working with such a diverse and experienced group of producers is a valuable aspect of this production.
We have cultivated an audience that came to see “Cat on A Hot Tin Roof” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” and found high quality inspiring work on the stage. That audience will come to see “The Trip to Bountiful” because we have promoted to them and asked for their support.
Mandell: This is the third show you’ve produced on Broadway. How did you get started
Harvey-Jones: My producing partner, Stephen Byrd, was a mentor on Wall Street. He developed a vision for non-traditional casting of “Cat on A Hot Tin Roof” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” over 10 years before we formed Front Row Productions in 2006. My skill set from hedge fund services was directly transferable to producing on Broadway. Opening “Cat on A Hot Tin Roof” with an incredible team and achieving the highest box office grosses that season spawned my passion for this career on Broadway.
Mandell: I suspect most people know even less what a hedge fund manager does than what a Broadway producer does. How are they similar?
Harvey-Jones: Hedge funds and Broadway fall into a class of investment referred to in the industry as “alternative.” Investments in Broadway productions are typically structured as private placements. Hedge funds and Broadway are considered riskier investments therefore, only accredited investors are eligible to subscribe to these private placements. With both hedge funds and Broadway, investors receive regular reporting and distributions. Unlike a hedge fund, managing performance on a Broadway show is all about selling seats!
Mandell: You’re teaching a course starting next month at City College on producing on Broadway. How did that come about?
Harvey-Jones: City College of New York invited the producers, cast and director of “A Streetcar Named Desire” to speak to the students in their theater program during the run of the play in the Spring 2012. The executive director of the Continuing and Professional Studies Program was in the audience and we began a dialogue immediately following the panel.
Mandell: What are the five most important things you hope your students learn about producing on Broadway?
Harvey-Jones: My hope is that the course will be a new forum for dialogue and exchange of ideas. I am sharing what I know at an early stage of my experience to encourage more voices and collaboration on the Great White Way. I receive requests to impart what I know to emerging producers regularly. The questions I receive are:
- What is the job of the producer?
- How to get started
- Is my show for Broadway or better served in another type of venue?
- How to build the team
- How to sell the show
Mandell: So how will you be answering one of those questions – like how to get started? Not everybody has a Wall Street mentor with a vision, and experience at a hedge fund. Do you need to have money to be a Broadway producer? Do you need to know money? Can you picture somebody in your class who’d be the perfect producer material? How about somebody who would be the worst possible candidate?
Harvey-Jones: Each producer that I have met has come into the business in a completely different way—some with money, some with ideas, some with mentors, some through general management, some through casting, some through non-profits. I would not suggest that one way is better than another. Producing on Broadway is for entrepreneurs that love theater, can dissect budgets, manage people, and market to an audience that will embrace their show. Finding investors is a key part of producing, so knowing investors or being willing and able to find investors is critical. The answer to the question of how to get started has everything to do with the individual. Anyone who takes the class will leave with an idea of what getting started means for them.