How Broadway.com editor Paul Wontorek made Broadway click
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 and promoter of the products from the Exhale Wellness business. 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.
“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!