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Exclusive Q&A with Benjamin Nelson AB '11 (producer)

Updated: Jul 8


Benjamin Nelson AB '11 is a theater producer in New York, NY. With classmate David Thomas Tao AB '11, he is Nelson & Tao, with current Broadway credits including Oh, Mary!, opening July 11th, and Illinoise, playing through August 10th. He has worked on dozens of productions in New York, London, and at North America's most vital regional theaters, including the American Repertory Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, and the Stratford Festival. 


Q: You’ve had a busy few months - Lempicka, Illinoise, and Oh, Mary! opening on Broadway and Invasive Species downtown (with an appearance on Jeopardy to top it off). What initially drew you to the world of Broadway producing, and how did you get your start in the industry?


Upon graduating I was broadly interested in entertainment but refused to move to LA - despite being born and raised in South Dakota, I’m a New Yorker to the core. I had a very generous housesitting offer here so I came and started applying for jobs in film, TV, and theater. My first big break was being hired to be a major Broadway director’s assistant (from posting my resume on Monster.com) and that segued to the producing team at the A.R.T. and becoming Director of Creative at one of the largest global theater companies.


Theater and music were my first love (my father is a band teacher and community theater bigwig) but making a real career in it seemed quixotic given how impenetrable the Broadway producing club seemed and the anachronism of theater in the modern world, only being able to reach a house worth of people every night.  I’m so glad I did end up here, however, because these same conditions result in huge operational flexibility at a time when entertainment more broadly seems in endless crisis.  Having started a production company with my classmate, David Thomas Tao, ‘11, I get to champion the artists I want to and am not beholden to a studio or corporation’s interests. The only notes I have to worry about are the ones I’m giving, which are always intended to push a project toward its best possible form.


Q: Can you walk us through the typical process of bringing a new musical to Broadway, from concept to opening night?


There really is no “typical” process - musical development cycles now average four to ten years. SIX sprinted from conception to the West End in just over two but Lempicka took fifteen to reach Broadway. When the music or story is pre-existing it can shorten the process considerably, but readings, workshops, downtown productions, and out of town tryouts can all happen in multiples as the creative team rewrites until they and/or the producers think it’s ready. Scheduling is a major issue as there are usually multiple creatives each working on multiple other shows at once and theaters are programmed years out. All of this plus the fact that a truly great musical is possibly the hardest thing to write in entertainment - a creative team has to engage in true collaboration to make all the elements work together with very little room for individual egos. There is no set person like a director on a film who the buck stops with, so the dynamics of who is really driving the project can vary immensely.


Then “opening night,” if you get there, is really just the start - many shows have longer lives in some form on the road than they do on Broadway, and there are an ever-growing number of thriving foreign theater markets which primarily rely on NY and London for content. 


Q: What are the key factors you consider when selecting a theatrical project to produce?


It often seems there’s an almost unbridgeable divide between the commercial and nonprofit sides of our industry - but I aim right down the middle as I refuse to give up on either quality original work or possible appeal to general audiences. I am over the moon with our launch slate because the three Broadway titles each showcase one of my true passions - fully original musicals which don’t look, sound, or feel like anything I’ve seen before (Lempicka), shows which use brilliant existing music as an ideal foundation for ambitious leaps forward (Illinoise), and knock-down-drag-out comedy that leaves you gasping and needing your inhaler (Oh, Mary! - Cole Escola is a mad genius). Plus, Invasive Species downtown at the Vineyard has been a dreamy hothouse for new tactics in storytelling and marketing and signifies our deep commitment to promoting new voices.


Of course, given the realities of commercial theater I often rule out work that I personally love because I know it will be difficult to recoup investment. I keep a spreadsheet of all Broadway and US road grosses this century, which in combination with a decade of new work development experience has resulted in a rubric I use when making these decisions. There are (almost) no sure things in the theater, but if you pay attention to the numbers and know the viable audiences you can certainly beat the industry recoupment rate.


Q: How do you approach fundraising and securing financial backing for a Broadway production? What strategies have you found most effective in gaining support for something totally new?


This varies immensely from project to project and has several aspects: the artistic, the personal, and the purely financial. Once I realized that a huge part of raising money for a show is community building and enabling peoples’ love of the theater, I lost my inhibitions around it. I absolutely love lifting the curtain on our odd little world and bringing people further into the process. The ideal investor loves the specific project so much that they are happy to bear some risk in exchange for literally making the show happen and becoming a part of it - plus getting to go to opening night and some amazing parties. 


That said, I tend to be highly data-driven when selecting shows so sometimes the numbers are just very good and it’s actually a compelling financial proposition. If I personally have signed on to a show’s producing team it’s because I fully stand by the art and see a path to profitability, which usually makes it relatively easy to lay the case out for others.


Q: Illinoise received four Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, and won the award for Best Choreography (congratulations, by the way). What do you think resonated most with audiences and critics about this production?


The album is such a major, luminous work, it draws audiences who don’t frequent Broadway just to hear it beautifully reorchestrated and performed live. Once they’re in, though, the story Justin Peck and Jackie Sibblies Drury have built on that foundation knocks it out of the park. Without any spoken word, an alternatingly heartbreaking and ravishingly life-affirming story mines primal emotional heft with just the cast’s physicality. There’s no language barrier and it aces all fronts - story, music, dance, and design, sending the audience out on a transcendent high.


Q: What are you looking forward to on the horizon?


We have many irons in the fire and are focusing firmly on what live entertainment can look like 5, 20, and 50 years from now. What we do is timeless - I see connecting through live storytelling as fundamental to human existence. It can double as religious practice or therapy and, more than ever, it’s a critical antidote to the chaos around us. Especially coming out of COVID, we provide an experience that no content on your phone ever will. Everything old is new again.

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