Jam Takes Broadway

When comedian Eric Idle mounted a concert tour a few years ago, he started a relationship with Jam Productions that came in handy when he decided it might be fun to do a little play based on “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” The little play became Broadway blockbuster “Spamalot,” and Jam Theatricals – Jam’s theatre division – became one of 14 above-the-line producers.

But that wasn’t Jam’s only Broadway effort this year, nor was it the only Tony Award-winning one. The company’s production of “Glengarry Glen Ross” also brought home the coveted hardware for best revival.

The sight of erstwhile concert promoter Arny Granat, along with Jam Theatricals President Steve Traxler, in tuxedos accepting Tonys might have taken some in the concert biz by surprise, but it shouldn’t have.

In fact, as he ticked off Jam Theatricals’ most recent success stories, Granat talked about theatre with the kind of enthusiasm you would expect from someone talking about the next blockbuster rock tour.

“The last three years, we’ve had four plays where we were above-the-line producers,” Granat told Pollstar. “There was ‘Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,’ starring Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco. Then the next year we did ‘Retreat From Moscow’ with John Lithgow.

“Those were both nominated but didn’t win the Tony. This year, we were fortunate enough to be in two categories and win.”

Jam Theatricals has been in business for 10 years, making a steady and methodical climb from its first subscription series in Reno, Nev., to the pinnacles of success on the Great White Way.

“Our first Broadway subscription season was in 1995 at the Pioneer Center in Reno,” Traxler told Pollstar. “People really did not consider that a location for touring Broadway shows because of the casinos in town. We were able to establish a very strong theatrical subscription base that would allow us to bring in four or five titles a year under the auspices of a season.

“We took a very low-key approach to building the company. Our success has been built one year at a time and we’ve added two or three touring markets every year,” Traxler continued. “We’ve always just taken in markets where we feel we could do a good job and that we feel are available for a touring Broadway season. Today, Jam Theatricals manage and book approximately 30 subscription markets around the country.”

The move to expand from promoting and selling Broadway subscription packages to investing in and then producing full-blown Broadway shows began in earnest just a few years ago, with the help of another concert industry figure.

“We’d been an investor in successful Broadway shows like ‘Rent’ and ‘Victor/Victoria.’ John Scher helped bring us in on ‘Victor/Victoria’ when he produced that,” Traxler explained. “So, we were investing in these shows and after a while, you learn the ropes. You decide you want to start being an associate producer, and then you move up the ranks and become a producer.”

Jam Theatricals was born of a need to diversify the core business of Jam Productions, according to Granat and partner Jerry Mickelson.

“To diversify was something we set out to do about 10 years ago, even with the concert division,” Granat said. “It took 10 years, but we’ve now got something that comes only once in a lifetime, and we’re very fortunate to have associated with good product and good people, co-producers, and worked our way to winning two Tonys, which is the equivalent of the Oscar.”

Mickelson concurred, pointing to several divisions under the Jam umbrella. The company’s diversity rivals that of larger conglomerates, including Clear Channel Entertainment. Since CCE’s corporate parent announced it would be floating the division as a separate company, Jam’s name has often been invoked as a potential buyer.

“If it were just concerts, we’d have a tougher time of existing,” Mickelson told Pollstar. “We’re fortunate that we didn’t put all our eggs in one basket. That’s why we went into motor sports, that’s why we started a special events company. And nobody even knows we have a Los Angeles office.

“Those are all part of our effort to be a promoter. When you’ve got people and companies like Clear Channel trying to cut into your market share, you have to learn to exist and survive and move forward. And that means diversification.”

When asked about Jam’s diversification, which appears to parallel that of its Texas rival, Granat laughed and shrugged off the suggestion.

“We’ve been doing what we’re doing for a very long time. Maybe Clear Channel paralleled us!”

There’s not that large a leap from promoting concerts to producing legitimate theatre, all three insist. It’s a function of live entertainment and many of the same rules apply.

“There are edgy shows that are theatrical, like Penn & Teller‘s, that appreciated the idea that we wanted to be in that theatre-presenting business and that we had a decisive promoting desire,” Traxler said. “I think that helped put us in the business in the first place.

“There’s always room for people in the theatrical producing business because of the risk. It’s a business that’s very short on capital. If you can come to the business with a good idea and good people skills, and treat people, projects and artists with great respect, there’s going to be room – particularly if you can put the funding behind projects.

“When we went to New York and introduced ourselves to the theatrical touring agents, I think many of them were excited about having someone who was passionate about the theatrical world but had the background of the concert promoting world,” Traxler continued. “Our business is all about promoting and bringing people to the room, whether it’s concerts or theatre. It’s bringing people to the seats.”

— Deborah Speer