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February 16, 2011

17

How Broadway.com editor Paul Wontorek made Broadway click

by Jesse North
paul wontorek broadway com editor in cheif profile head shot headshot interview

Photo: Bruce Glikas/Broadway.com

Broadway.com editor in chief Paul Wontorek sits in a comfy white chair in the middle of the website’s video production room in its Times Square offices. Amid professional lighting and expensive video cameras, a shiny blue curtain hangs. It acts as a backdrop for “Show People,” a new video series Broadway.com launched in December, in which Wontorek interviews A-list Broadway actors in talk-show format. He stares at it and looks proud. Wontorek has a right to feel that way. Last December, statistics on theatergoers gathered by The Broadway League revealed Broadway.com as the most-viewed source for people seeking theater information, beating out The New York Times. Also in December, the site was bought by Key Brand Entertainment, a leading producer of Broadway shows and national tours.

This week marks 11 years Wontorek has helmed Broadway.com. Wontorek, 38, sat down with Stage Rush to discuss the inner workings of Broadway.com, his personal road to Broadway, and the harmful disconnect he sees between critics and ticket buyers.

The acquisition of Broadway.com by Key Brand Entertainment brings to light the story of how the first owner, Hollywood Media Corp., created the property. It was 1999 and the Internet landscape was dramatically different. (Playbill.com was still only available through AOL.) Hollywood Media Corp. bought the Broadway.com URL for $1.6 million. However, the company was based in Boca Raton, Florida, and Wontorek says the owners “didn’t really know Broadway.” Wontorek was brought in for an interview and was told that they didn’t know what Broadway.com needed to be.

“I knew exactly what it needed to be,” Wontorek said.

Video: Paul Wontorek’s 5 greatest diva interactions.

(Using an iPhone or iPad? Watch on YouTube)

Growing up near New Haven, Connecticut, Wontorek was 7 years old when he saw his first Broadway show—Grease. In high school, he began volunteering as a backstage hand at TheaterWorks, a performing arts company in Hartford. Adopted into a much older group of friends, Wontorek suddenly found himself constantly in New York, seeing shows and hanging out at bars (“drinking Sprite”). Upon turning 18, he moved to the city and enrolled as a journalism major at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus.

As a freshman, Wontorek began writing reviews on the school’s theatrical productions, but it wasn’t long before he was theater writing professionally. In 1991, he became an intern at TheaterWeek magazine, which folded in 1997. Wontorek worked under its two editors, John Harris and future Broadway gossip columnist for The New York Post Michael Riedel. “John Harris did all the work and Michael Riedel talked on the phone,” Wontorek said with a smile. A month into the internship, Wontorek was writing his first cover story. Debbie Gibson was joining the cast of Les Miserables and he was to interview her. “It was an amazing opportunity to get my name out there and learn how to interview celebrities,” Wontorek said.

After graduating from Fordham, Wontorek started his own magazine, Upstage. This massive undertaking benefited greatly from his day job as a graphic designer, in which his employer’s office would serve as Upstage’s headquarters. “I remember working at one place where I stayed until midnight. I was the only person there after a certain time,” said Wontorek. “All my friends—the staff of my magazine—would come and we would run my magazine without [my bosses] knowing, using all their printers and paper and supplies.” Creating the magazine themselves, Wontorek and his staff would scour Theater District newsstands and broker deals with them to sell issues. The first person to grace Upstage’s cover was Betty Buckley, who was in Sunset Boulevard at the time. With a circulation of about 5,000, Wontorek was even able to lure Idina Menzel in for a photo shoot when Rent was coming to Broadway. “When we started it, I was 25,” Wontorek said. “I just funded it with my money. I would design it myself, we would print it, I would pay for it. Nowadays, it would have been a website.”

As it turned out, a website was in Wontorek’s future.

paul wontorek broadway com editor in chief kristin chenoweth wicked glee promises interview show people video

Broadway.com editor in chief Paul Wontorek interviews Kristin Chenoweth for the first episode of "Show People."

“I knew that Broadway.com could be more fun than Playbill,” Wontorek said. “It could be star driven. I wanted to treat Broadway stars like stars instead of just actors.” Drawing inspiration from mainstream entertainment news outlets like Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly, Wontorek built the Broadway.com brand on a foundation of celebrity and elevating the Broadway experience.

If Broadway.com was to have mainstream appeal, it would have to shake “insider” qualities, something that Wontorek feels is too rampant in the community. “I wanted my mom to be able to click on a story and read it without feeling she was excluded,” Wontorek said. “I never want to assume that someone knows what Gypsy is. It doesn’t mean we have to dumb things down; we just make sure we’re catering to both audiences.”

This editorial direction for Broadway.com meant that there wouldn’t be much room for opinions. Wontorek noted theater opinions often lead to negativity, which isn’t what Broadway.com’s target audience is seeking. “We used to have traditional reviews, but we got rid of them about five years ago in favor of this ‘Word of Mouth’ concept,” Wontorek said, referring to the site’s running video series that features three theatergoers evaluating a new show they’ve just seen.

It turns out Wontorek isn’t fond of theater critics. “My problem with critics is that so often, their goal is to come off as really smart and funny and intelligent,” Wontorek said. “They’re so agenda driven. The critics walk in with such a history with the director, the composer, and the actors. They walk in with all this baggage that audiences do not walk in with at all.” Wontorek describes the “Word of Mouth” series as “baggage-free reviews.” The site has a diverse group of panelists that appear in the series, all who have purchased full-price tickets to shows from Broadway.com in the past. Despite Wontorek’s stance on negativity, are the reviewers allowed to give a bad review? “Every new panel comes in and asks if it’s OK if they don’t like a show,” Wontorek said. “We’re like, ‘Of course it is!’ The goal of ‘Word of Mouth’ is not just to say whether a show is good or it’s bad; it’s also to describe it in a way that will make sense to me, unlike [New York Times theater critic] Ben Brantley’s review.”

Wontorek denies the notion of Broadway.com employing a no-negativity policy, but emphasized his value of positivity. “I do like supporting the community. I feel like it’s needed, and I’m proud of it,” Wontorek said. “And we sell tickets. It’s definitely a different format than I learned in journalism school, but hello, it’s the Internet in 2011. There aren’t that many websites that combine the level of editorial with sales like we do.”

In addition to being a news source, Broadway.com also sells full-price tickets to shows. Broadway.com adds fees to each sale, and the better the seat, the higher the fee. The fees fluctuate depending on the show, but an orchestra seat fee runs in the $38 range. How well does Broadway.com’s business model work? Wontorek says it is “financially, a very successful website. We’ve come up with a very lucrative revenue system.”

Some would think the marriage of ticket sales and editorial content would create a conflict of interest, but Wontorek upholds Broadway.com’s balance of each. “We’ve written about every story that’s come out about Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark,” Wontorek said. “We don’t write Michael Riedel-style stories that says it’s a piece of shit that doesn’t deserve to live. But we’ve written about every story and it’s still our number two or three best seller. I can see why it could cause a conflict of interest, but it doesn’t.”

The topic of Broadway.com’s high ticket fees led to a candid conversation on what Wontorek believes are serious problems that Broadway faces today.

“Let’s face it, discounted tickets will not keep a show running. If a show is giving out discounted tickets, there’s something wrong with its finances,” Wontorek said. “I think we’re a tremendous asset to shows in that we increase the value of what a theater experience is worth.”

Neither does Wontorek believe that people are unwilling to spend top dollar for a night of live theater. “I think there are plenty of people willing to buy tickets. The question is: What are they willing to buy tickets to?” Wontorek said. “When someone is going to see a Broadway show, they want an event. They want to see something that they’re going to be able to go home and brag to their friends about. Whether it’s a guy dressed as Spider-Man flying over their heads or a movie star 20 feet away—these are exciting moments.”

Wontorek sees an unhealthy discrepancy between the shows that sell and those that critics praise. According to him, there is a correlation between panned shows that succeed and praised shows that shutter. “If your show is too high brow, if it doesn’t appeal to the masses, it’s not going to make it,” Wontorek said. “It probably means there needs to be a better off-Broadway community. But now, everything’s Broadway. Is The Scottsboro Boys Broadway? No.”

Then what’s the explanation for the outcry once these shows post their closing notice? “First of all, most of these people that are crying that these shows weren’t a success are people that got free tickets or bought them half off,” Wontorek said. “A lot of people that are the loudest in critiquing these issues are the people that aren’t really putting money into theater.”

With this philosophy in mind, Wontorek doesn’t fear the mountains of bad press attracted by Spider-Man will hurt the show’s sales. “They’re selling the shit out of that theater,” Wontorek said. “Most of what Michael Riedel obsesses over in The New York Post—I don’t think anyone gives a shit. I don’t think most people reading the Post on the subway care about what Spider-Man costs. If anything, they’re going to think, ‘Wow, it must be spectacular and I’m going to go see what all that money went into.’ I think there’s a real disconnect.”

Could it be that it’s the talking heads, not high prices, that have been plaguing Broadway in recent years? “I do think that we’re in a weird turning point. The critical community and this weird, gossipy, insidery fan community—I don’t think they’re really in touch with what people want to see. It’s a really stubborn, small community, and I’m proud to say I’m not part of it.”

Yet being the king of Broadway news, Wontorek admits he doesn’t have the upper hand on predicting how the state of the Great White Way will turn. “There are lots of things I’ve been wrong about. Like Avenue Q. I said, ‘They shouldn’t move that to Broadway!’ I was totally wrong.”

What do you think of Paul Wontorek’s story, Rushers? Is Broadway.com your go-to site for theater info? Do you agree with Broadway.com’s editorial principles? Do you agree with the disconnect Wontorek sees between Broadway critics and fans? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kym
    Feb 16 2011

    Very, very interesting interview, Jess. This gives a ton of insight into how a great idea can be executed and some of the problems inherent in trying to create a Broadway site that appeals to people of all kinds. Being a big fan of Broadway.com, it was neat to hear about how the whole thing started :)

    Reply
  2. apc
    Feb 16 2011

    does wontorek believe that tdf/tkts is contributing to the early closings of critical favorites? does this mean that shows like wicked and the lion king, which are never available at tkts, are the only financially stable shows on broadway? and how is the price one pays for admission relevant to the validity of one’s opinion of a show? has he ever considered that many of the people who buy discount tickets do so in order to be able to afford going to multiple shows over a sustained period of time? these people, true theatre lovers who may go to several shows in a single week are a part of the “community” that he is so proud to not be a part of.

    Reply
  3. Robyn
    Feb 16 2011

    With many people viewing theater as an investment, it’s great to see Mr. Wontorek’s intentions of providing objective, honest information for the public to make an informed decision.
    I always thought productions should lower ticket prices to put the theater experience within budget for more people by eliminating so many of the “filler” pages in Playbills. In the age of technology, much of the information can easily be obtained online, with savings passed along to the masses.
    Online sites create a much more personal exchange of opinions, both good and bad that foster a loyal, closer community.
    I do believe the man behind the Stage Rush curtain stepped in front of it by interviewing actors before Mr. Wontorek? My prediction:Stage Rush will surpass both the NY Times and Broadway.com as the go-to source for stimulating and insightful Broadway information.

    Reply
  4. Feb 16 2011

    Great interview! I was fascinated by Mr. Wontorek’s insights into the Broadway audience today and the disconnect between theater goers, true theater fans and critics. But I think they are all part of the community and I would count Broadway.com in there as well. I tend to think of it more as a political spectrum. You have your theater critics on the right, your die-hard theater fans in the middle and casual theater goers on the left. It all makes up the audience of Broadway and Off-Broadway, together.

    I do agree with him that critics tend to be overly negative and not inclusive. I am often annoyed by them throwing in big words or references I wish they would explain a little better. I like to consider myself an intelligent person but I can also admit where I could use more information, and I love the way Broadway.com makes me feel that I’ve received good, quality information without having it “dumbed down”. It’s the same reason that I prefer to read a magazine like InStyle- which is about personal style- as opposed to Vogue- which is about fashion with a capital F. It’s just annoying to feel excluded in a community that I truly love and appreciate, I just may not know as much about.

    What I love about Stage Rush is the balance. I always feel that I am getting good information in a clear, intelligent way. I love reading these articles and looking at Broadway through a different lens. One of my favorites was the “5 great things about ‘Spider-Man’ (yes, really)” because it accepts that while, yes, everyone knows Spider-Man cost a ton of money and is weak on plot and music, there ARE spectacular things about the show. After all, that money went somewhere! This is another great example of an article that teaches me something without assuming I already know half of the back story. Thanks, Stage Rush!

    Reply
  5. georgette valle
    Feb 16 2011

    As a Word of Mouth alumni, I have lots to say, Paul made me feel comfortable and happy to be honest about the way I felt about a show that I had the opportunity to review..and yes I did not love them all but a lot goes into a production and it was not easy to bash a show..Broadway.com is getting better each year due to the creative juices that Paul pours into his work,,It was a pleasure to meet him and to have been involved with the Word of Mouth group..miss it..

    Reply
  6. Linda
    Feb 16 2011

    He’s not a part of the “community”???

    Who is he kidding? Talk about disconnect.

    If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be getting the A-list Broadway people to appear on his ShowPeople.

    Reply
    • Feb 16 2011

      Hey Linda, I think it’s important not to take what Paul said out of context. The community that he says he is not part of is “the critical community and this weird, gossipy, insidery fan community.” He doesn’t say he’s not part of the Broadway community.

      Reply
      • Anonymous
        Mar 21 2011

        Hey Jessie, Yes it is important to realize that Mr. Wontorek is indeed a member of the Broadway community: A community many of whom are aligned with the “weird, insidery fan community” in a lack of excitement for Spiderman or excitement for Broadway being a sideshow to gawk at movie stars.

        Also important to note, In this article he:

        1. details starting his first magazine by stealing from his employer.
        2. takes a swipe at all critics, and states his inability to make sense of Ben Brantley.
        3. makes a patronizing statement about using his mom as a barometer for writing articles people can understand.
        4. dislikes weird “gossipy” fans and negativity…
        5. then, he reveals an anecdote about how his former boss, Michael Riedel spent all his time on the phone while John Harris did all the work.
        6. goes into detail about which shows are “Broadway” and that highbrow does not belong there as it does not sell. (Les Mis?).
        7. quickly brought up his mistake about Avenue Q before someone else did.
        8. chastised fans for complaining about shows closing if they did not pay full-price, no matter their ability to pay the ever escalating ticket prices in a horrible economy. (Gee, just like in retailing, I wonder if full price is a mark that is set knowing that most tickets will never be sold at that price?)

        Reply
        • Walter Holinoty
          Mar 21 2011

          Silly me, I forgot to put my name on the above comment.

          Reply
  7. Shane
    Feb 17 2011

    I agree with everything. Paul is the type of Broadway genius I would like to be.

    But as a student, getting tickets half off is the easiest way for me to see shows. If I can do a rush or lottery for half off, great! I can do that multiple times and contribute money to a show I like. But I’m sorry, I can’t pay full price for multiple viewings of my favorite show. I truly want to invest my buck in Broadway, but I have to do it the cheapest way possible.

    Reply
  8. TJW
    Feb 17 2011

    Broadway.com has become an essential part of the NYC Broadway experience. Paul has demonstrated his ability to mesh well with the other professionals in the theater.

    “Show People” is a pleasure to watch!

    Reply
  9. Daniel
    Feb 17 2011

    Ken Mandelbaum was the best part of Broadway.com, and without him I find the site highly irrelevant.

    Reply
  10. Bryan
    Feb 18 2011

    Who?!?!

    Reply
  11. Carlos Alvarado
    Feb 24 2011

    Great interview. There is such a vast difference between broadway.com and other broadway related websites. It’s interesting to hear the reasons why.

    Reply
  12. Clare
    Feb 27 2011

    This was a well-written, intriguing article! I’m so glad I read it. My comments overlap a lot of what other people have already mentioned so I won’t repeat too much. I like some things about Mr.Wontorek’s approach, particularly taking some power away from the critics who aren’t able to communicate well to people who aren’t constant theater-goers. BUT I was so turned off by his disregard for discounted tickets. We all need an entry point into theater and for those of us without money bags stashed at home, a discounted ticket helps us see that first Broadway show. And then maybe we’re hooked and later on by the full-price tickets. Plus, did he know who he was talking to? Did he not hear the “Rush” in Stage Rush? This wonderful website and news source wouldn’t have started without discounted rush tickets.

    Reply
  13. walt
    Mar 19 2011

    “The critical community and this weird, gossipy, insidery fan community…”

    “Gossipy” — I am against that too and I am sure Mr. Wontorek has never gone there in his “Show People” series.

    “Weird…insidery fan community” — would these be the strange people who like to go home and brag about an amazing display of talent they have seen as opposed to “…a guy dressed as Spider-Man flying over their heads or a movie star 20 feet away” that Mr. Wontorek deems exciting. Silly elitists.

    For an editor that maintains that his site itself brooks no opinions, he certainly and tellingly has made his own apparent. I am not too familiar with the Kander/Ebb/Stroman, Scottsboro Boys. But, I do know it now stands as much a chance of being back on Broadway as Spiderman ever does of officially opening. Even if Spiderman opened and sold out continuously at full-price, how long would it have to run to recoup. Answer, it wouldn’t stand a chance of doing so. So, Mr. Wontorek’s model for an “exciting” full-price show would still leave Spiderman in the same category as finer shows, like Little Women, of mixed review that closed at a loss. Difference being , those other shows have an after-life.

    As for paying full-price for the “excitement” of seeing a movie star 20 feet away; well, there have been a number of examples of that embarrassingly backfiring.

    Reply
  14. Catherine
    Apr 19 2011

    agree. agree. agree.

    Reply

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