Following recent cuts to arts education programs across the nation, New York City public schools have added Broadway shows to their high school curriculum.
Over the past month, the Broadway League has sent about 3,500 tenth-grade students to see several popular shows, such as The Band’s Visit, through its new Broadway Bridges initiative. The price charged for each ticket was $10.00, and the philanthropic program hopes to soon bring 75,000 students to Broadway at the reduced price each year.
Yet, despite its praiseworthy purpose, building Broadway Bridges was a challenge.
Developing an initiative to bus 75,000 students to Broadway was first discussed among industry executives over two decades ago. But, the bold plan was abandoned, and, after the Broadway League started to flirt with the idea, it took over seven years to get its program off the ground.
According to Charlotte St. Martin, the president of the Broadway League, the organization first applied for a not-for-profit grant from a large local arts council to cover the costs of the initiative. “We were a finalist,” she recalled, “but we did not end up getting it, because it was not what they perceived, as I understand it, as not-for-profit.”
While most of Broadway operates as for-profit businesses, St. Martin explained that the Broadway League is a completely not-for-profit organization. The national trade association is organized as a business league under Section 501(c)(6) of the Internal Revenue Code, and the high school initiative falls under its charitable 501(c)(3) arm, the Broadway League Foundation.
In spite of the setback, St. Martin remained committed to creating Broadway Bridges. She sought other sources of financial support, and asked the board of the Broadway League to bankroll the first three years of the initiative. It would provide enough cash to get the new program up and running, and buy enough time to find an outside partner to help cover some of the costs.
But, although securing a source of funding was a big step forward for the program, the founder still needed to line up thousands of Broadway tickets. “We knew if we were going to get extremely reduced ticket prices for the kids,” St. Martin said, “then it would require a lot of bridge-building to all of the producers.” After all, she added, “you’re asking for them to make an investment in their future, and, when they’re not sure they’re going to be open next month, it is really hard to think about the future.”
Yet, St. Martin was able to persuade several producers to provide the program with discounted tickets during the slower stretches of the Broadway season. Receiving $20 for each ticket sold to students and their chaperones, of which the Broadway League pays for half, “they’re certainly not making any money off of it,” she recognized.
However, St. Martin said that Broadway executives are “very aware of the studies about … getting kids into the arts before they graduate.” High school students exposed to the arts, for instance, tend to receive higher grades, vote in more elections, and enroll in college at a higher rate than their unexposed classmates. “It makes a better society,” St. Martin smiled.
With decades of research in mind, the Broadway League teamed up with the New York City public school system to make the program available it to all sophomore students. Tenth grade is the last year that students must attend school, and Broadway Bridges is designed to grab them all before it is too late.
But, of course, the philanthropic program also offers sizable benefits for the Broadway League.
Introducing younger generations to the arts is a proven ingredient for generating a sustainable audience in the future. “Without a foundation,” such as exposure through high school field trips, observed Joe Volpe, the former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, “young people will not be into the arts.”
The experienced educator also noticed that his students were beginning to bring their first theatergoing experiences into the classroom. When teaching a class about set design, Robinson said that his students were comparing the sets that they were studying in class to the sets that they had seen on Broadway. “That is the beauty of Broadway Bridges,” he remarked.
Improving arts education in New York public schools, the initiative might inspire the next crop of creative professionals on Broadway. St. Martin explained that the educational program is intended to “remind the students that they can not only be in the audience, but they can work on Broadway in many careers that aren’t on stage.”
“You could begin to see the development of the directors, of the actors, of the technical crew,” echoed Robinson. “They begin to show signs of where they are headed,” he said, adding that “that’s what you hope for, especially as a theatre teacher.” “Who is going to pick up the baton, and keep going?”