Broadway Producer Arvind Ethan David on His Moral Responsibility When Creating Art

Take one look at producer Arvind Ethan David’s credits on the Internet Movie Database, and I dare you not to have the word “adventurous” instantly pop into your mind. He’s behind an award-winning film starring a famous footballer, the television adaptation of a quirky book series by Douglas Adams, and a touching comedy about a Muslim man who discovers he’s actually Jewish. And that’s only the work he’s produced onscreen. David has also managed to write a play, several short stories, and delivered a TED Talk for the ages in which he drew parallels between his journey to become an American citizen and his work as the lead producer on Jagged Little Pill.

Oh yes, he’s also a Broadway producer, a solicitor, a comic book writer, an escape room creator etc. etc. etc.

Name a hat, David has most likely worn it. If none of his works seem to have much in common, they are united by an undeniable thread: their producer’s unique vision and what appears to be a total lack of fear. 

As one of the few BIPOC lead producers on Broadway, it’s no surprise that David has become one of the loudest voices in the industry when it comes to representation and diversity. The book for Jagged Little Pill, which he commissioned from the Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody, breaks the mold of the jukebox musical by taking Alanis Morissette’s iconic album and turning it not into a bio-musical, but a study of the many issues that plague upper middle class American society. 

When Broadway went dark, David immediately found ways to keep the show in the minds of fans and potential new audiences by creating You Live, You Learn: A Night with Alanis and Jagged Little Pill, a special event that reunited the cast of the show and featured a performance by Morissette herself. But less than a week after the Jagged family had celebrated the power of music, we were reminded that America often grieves but never learns, as a white police officer in Minneapolis, murdered George Floyd, a Black man who had allegedly tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill in a grocery store.

The protests and social uprising sparked by Floyd’s murder led David to put his time in quarantine to organize #WhileWeBreathe, a benefit for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Bail Project, and other organizations that seek racial equity in the US. I spoke to the producer about how he put together an all-star event in the midst of a pandemic, his take on streamed theatre, and his moral responsibility when it comes to creating art. 

I am really curious about what it’s like to put together an event like #WhileWeBreathe in the middle of a pandemic and what the challenges of something like this are for a producer?

Let’s do the why first. It was the weekend after George Floyd had been murdered. It was the start of the protests. And like, everybody else, certainly everybody of color, in America, we were profoundly depressed. My wife and I are immigrants, she is black, I’m Indian, my daughter’s biracial and we moved to Obama’s America, but the last four years have been a very painful repudiation of a lot of our hopes and dreams. I got an email from Brian Moreland, my partner who I’ve been friends with for a while, he’s one of the only Black producers working on Broadway. And he wrote not just to me, but to about seven or eight lead producers from the senior leadership of the board. He wrote this brutally honest letter about the headlines and the news about George Floyd, and laid out his own experiences as a Black man. He said, “we have a position of power, we need to do something.” 

I got that and then everybody started putting out statements, every show, every institution, made a statement. But I knew we could do better than a statement, I texted him back and I said, “I think we should do something, I don’t know what it is yet, but if we do something we’ll do it together.” He wrote back and said yes. 

At the same time, I was texting with other friends, one of them was Neil Brown Jr., who’s a great actor, and I knew he’d be angry and depressed that weekend. I said to him, “ if I write something about this moment, and how I’m feeling, will you act it?” He went “Yes, thank you, I need this.”

As a writer, I needed to write something about this moment. And as a producer, I knew I could put something together. And so that’s how it literally came out that night with a bunch of friends. A bunch of producers of writers, and actors of color, being depressed and angry, and texting each other. By the next morning, I wrote #WhileWeBreathe. And everybody was like, “Yes, we’re in.” Then we started emailing friends, and friends emailed friends, and people posted on Facebook groups and WhatsApp groups and suddenly we have a cast of I think 20 actors, a full production and post production team of another 25, 11 writers, 9 directors. Suddenly we have a company. 

Almost everyone in our company is a person of color, this doesn’t happen in a normal production where we’re usually the only Black or brown faces. Suddenly, it’s us running the show and it’s glorious.

arvind ethan david

George was not the first person to be brutally killed by the police in front of cameras. He’s not the last even. But the difference is this time, because of the pandemic, everyone was at home, and they had to watch it. Everyone was at home, but they couldn’t just go to the office, or go to the bar, or shrug it off and be sad for two minutes and then move on to their lives. We’ve all been forced to sit at home and feel our emotions. And frankly, you know, a lot of people have lost their jobs and even people who are lucky, like me, who can work from home. I’ve also lost my Broadway show, my escape room business. Those things aren’t happening and I don’t know when they’ll happen again. 

So people have a lot of emotions and they have time. So actors were available, directors were available, writers were available, and they had a lot to say. The usual outlets of how we would say it were not available to us because of the pandemic but in a way there was also a moment of opportunity, where a bunch of enormously talented people with something to say, if we offered the platform for them to say it, we didn’t have to deal with a hundred agents and the usual gatekeepers. Almost everyone in our company is a person of color, this doesn’t happen in a normal production where we’re usually the only Black or brown faces. Suddenly, it’s us running the show and it’s glorious.

The trailer for #WhileWeBreathe

How do you describe the work a producer does?

The easiest answer I found is I say I’m the lead entrepreneur. I’m the chief executive of the organization. It’s my job. In my case, normally it’s my job to have the idea and then it’s my job to assemble the team to execute on the idea, and then to protect them, defend them, and steer them. And that’s how I’ve always worked. Jagged Little Pill was an idea that I had in the shower 10 years ago,

In the shower?

I was in the shower, my then-girlfriend now-wife remembers me coming out dripping wet and going, “Hey, I think Jagged Little Pill wants to be a Broadway show.” She went “you don’t work on Broadway.” I was like “no I don’t.” She said “you don’t work in the music industry?” I said “no, I don’t.” She said “do you know Alanis Morissette?” I said “no, I don’t.” She said “OK,” and went back to whatever she was doing. During opening night in Boston, she said “that’s from the shower.”

So what tends to happen is I just have an idea and then try to build the best team around them and then protect them and fundraise for them, and market. This is me personally, but I’ve never been a co-producer, Jagged was my Broadway debut as a lead producer. I don’t know how to be a co-producer, I generally say no because I think I’m not going to add value.

Is the shower usually where inspiration strikes?

[Laughs] I don’t know if there’s a place. Yoga, often is where I’ll have an idea. Jogging, doing exercise. I only have a few things that can take my brain off the thing in front of it. I’m very present, very focused.  

I was reading your Wikipedia page and you’re also a solicitor. What about your training in business and also in law has contributed to make you a producer?

I’m used to negotiating deals, right? That’s the training of a lawyer. That’s a lot of what a producer does, it’s constant deals, whether it’s talent, marketing or financing deals. I went to business school, I have an MBA. So I know enough in every discipline to know how to manage people who are good at it. I know enough about marketing to manage a marketing team. I know enough about operations. I know enough about finance to ask the right question. A producer also has to be a journalist. 

But I also say because I’m a lawyer, I think about legal solutions, I think about structural solutions to problems. So it’s why when we had the idea of #WhileWeBreathe, I called the Legal Defense Fund and wanted to partner with them, because I believe that racism doesn’t change, just because people make statements. Racism changes when we have the structural, legal, statutory, regulatory solutions we need. And so that’s why they’re our partner, and we’re hoping to raise a lot of money for them and raise attention to their specific programs in the specific focus of police reform, voting rights, and districting.

I think structurally about solutions to any problems, including problems about representation, and inclusion and racism on Broadway, or whether it’s about the bigger issues of race in this country, or whether it’s just the practical issues of how do we structure deals that are fair for our cast and investors on any project that we’re doing.

I come from a family of lawyers, and even though I honestly, I didn’t like being a lawyer, I am proud to belong to that fraternity because that’s the fraternity that is fighting for civil rights and due process, protecting voters not only in this country, but in every country in the world. I’m proud that I have that background. 

What about the process of producing #WhileWeBreathe is something you wish you can continue to do if we go back to seeing theater in community?

One thing that’s really interesting is the perceived wisdom on Broadway that audiences of color will only turn up if it’s specifically a show about them. There’s a very frankly hackneyed, and slightly racist way of marketing to Black audiences. Audiences of colors are left uninvited from Broadway. Not just as audiences, as financiers too. There’s a feeling, no, I don’t think anyone’s had any feelings about it. It just hasn’t happened. It doesn’t happen because they can get by without it. Because you can fill 1000 seats with white people from New Jersey every night. You can do that.

When I got into Broadway, that was really surprising to me because I come from film and TV, and in film and TV, you don’t get to ignore 45% of the population. You don’t get to do that. I can’t put a show on television and say I don’t care about marketing to half of half of America, and two-thirds of the world. I don’t get to do that and I wouldn’t want to. It’s not an option. Netflix doesn’t have that option, which is why Netflix has entire marketing teams and divisions, and entire programming divisions focused on this. And when I turned up to Broadway I wondered how come Broadway doesn’t do this? The answer is because they haven’t needed to. Because it’s only 42 theaters, and only 50,000 people a night. That’s not that many people. 

I think one of the interesting things about this moment of COVID, is the realization that everyone is sort of having, that the audience is bigger and it’s everywhere, and it’s more diverse, and it will turn up on YouTube. The Broadway Advocacy Coalition had a three-day, three or two hours a day series of discussions with no marketing, just an email blast, and 5000 people turned up every day, and sat for two hours on YouTube to listen to people talk about race and Broadway. That’s a lot of people turning up for three days in a row. That’s like, sold out Harry Potter for two weeks, right? That’s gonna start to tell you something. 

It’s always a risk to do something that might kill the golden goose and Broadway is a golden goose.

arvind ethan david

We did a live broadcast of Jagged to raise money for the Actors Fund, and we got two million views in five days. So there’s an audience out there, that will come that is different from the traditional Broadway audience, and they are not that hard to reach. You might have to use different methodologies than you’ve been using day in day out for the last who knows how many years, but they’re not necessarily more expensive to reach. They’re not necessarily that much harder to reach. We just need different thinking and different people doing the thinking.

Unfortunately it’s going to be a long intermission and there’s going to be a long period where all of us whether it’s commercial producers, or not for profit houses, in New York and around the country, are going to have to find ways to continue to connect with our audiences, and continue to give them experiences and stories that move them, and fulfill them because that’s our obligation both morally and commercially. 

Then maybe when it goes back to being 42 buildings, hopefully, one more building if the Apollo succeeds in becoming an official Broadway venue. Even when it goes back to that, hopefully everyone will remember that there’s another way of reaching an audience, and another way of selling them tickets and bringing content to them. We can have Broadway Plus.

Credit: Matthew Murphy

I grew up in Honduras watching movie musicals, and for instance, the first Broadway musical that I ever saw was Chicago. I saw it as a teenager after I had seen the movie version a gazillion times. The big myth that producers tell themselves is that if you see the movie version, or a recording of the show, you won’t want to see it on stage, which is a lie. When you put together the Jagged streamed performance did you ever think: oh, no! No one’s gonna want to see my show now because they saw it online? That sounds like BS to me.

Yeah, look, I think it is BS. I think the data would agree with you, and I agree with you. The data is actually pretty clear. When The Phantom of the Opera came out as a movie, ticket sales for Phantom around the world went up, when the Les Miserables movie came out, the show restarted in a bunch of cities, including on Broadway. The only one that really hasn’t done that is Cats, and that’s a whole different story. 

The data is there, so I think the reason that a lot of producers haven’t embraced that is that they don’t need to. They’re making so much money off ticket sales. In a way, it’s a bit like a pandemic. It’s a low probability, but high impact event, right? So if there’s a low probability, let’s say even if you believe 80% likely, or 90%, likely that a movie will sell more tickets, but there’s a 10% chance it will be Cats. And then if you’re making a couple of million bucks a year, by not making a movie, and making a movie could lose you that, there’s a 10% chance that could lose you that, then don’t make a movie. You know what I mean? If you’re rational, it’s purely commercial. It’s always a risk to do something that might kill the golden goose and Broadway is a golden goose. Once you have a long running hit show it’s a golden goose. 

I’m not speaking for anybody in particular, but I would guess that that is the concern. The concern is simply that they don’t need it. I have my show running in four cities already, it’s netting me X a year. If the movie’s not gonna make you as much money, normally a big movie deal might make you a million bucks as a fee. But that’s nothing if you’ve got a show running for five years in five cities. And if there’s a small chance it might hurt you, why take that chance? 

My position is starting from the opposite, which is I’m a movie and film guy. I’m not happy with only 1000 people a night seeing my work. That’s not enough. I’m not happy with only people that can pay $200 seeing my work. I want Jagged Little Pill seen by people who live in Minnesota, Alaska, New Mexico, and Mexico, India, and Malaysia where I grew up. I want them to see it and if they can’t get to Broadway, then I want them to see it on the screen. 

From day one, we’ve been clear about that, and my partner’s of that mind. Diablo Cody who wrote it, is a movie writer, so is also of the same mind. From day one, we’ve been very open to every alternate form. Even though the show is down at the moment, we’re going to have our book come out in October, we might be the first Broadway show, to bring out a companion book whilst the show isn’t on stage, but we’re going to do it. We believe our fans and audience are hungry for it. We’re bringing out an audiobook at the same time to go with the book, and we’re working on a bunch of other stuff that I can’t announce yet.

We are great believers that a good story deserves to be out there. I think Hamilton has just resoundingly proved it. Does anybody believe that Hamilton ticket sales will be negatively impacted by the Disney Plus experience? If anyone believes that I got a bridge that I can sell them.

You mentioned having a moral responsibility which isn’t something that I hear very often. The book for Jagged Little Pill touches on subject matters that liberal audiences in NYC are familiar with. But when you mentioned making the book available and having people all over the world read about subjects like sexual abuse, prescription drug abuse, and all the topics in the show, by default, you’re educating people. When did you realize that as an artist you had a moral responsibility to your audience?

I’m a storyteller first and everything else second, but the truth about stories is that, like Roger Ebert said, stories are empathy delivering mechanisms. A story is the world’s most efficient machinery for injecting empathy into people. And I think that’s incredibly true. That doesn’t mean that empathy can’t be negative, it can be propaganda. A propaganda story created the view that Jews were evil and needed to be exterminated. That’s how Goebbels won the propaganda war. That’s how powerful stories are. They can make people behave differently. They can make people believe differently. In the debate, we’re seeing now about the police, how culpable are 40 years of dirty cops being glamorized on television and in the movies? What responsibility does everyone who has told those stories have to bear? What responsibility does the producer of The Apprentice bear for the state that the whole country is in today?

Listen, if when we made Jagged we were thinking purely commercially, if we didn’t have a moral dimension or at least an artistic integrity, what commercial producer sets out to say: I’m going to take one of the biggest selling albums of all time and I’m going to make a show about sexual assault, opioid addiction, rape, race? Who does that?

Those are not decisions informed by commercial imperative. We were being informed by what the story wanted to be, by what the music was telling us. By what Alanis was telling us were the themes of her life and the themes of her music. I remember my first conversation with Diablo, who was the only we called to do this. We said to her, you need to come up with a story that is as confrontational, as honest,  as brave, as shocking, as fearless as this album. And she did, because that’s who she is. 

Once you have that and you see its impact on people, when every night from the day we opened in Boston to the day we went on intermission in New York, you have after every performance, not one, not two, but dozens of survivors of sexual assault coming up to the stage door, or reaching out on on social media. When you have dozens of people of color, people who grew up in white communities, people who were cut off from their own identity, people who were adopted, reaching out and going, “you’ve told my story.” When you see people who struggled with their sexuality or their gender expression, coming out and saying, “I feel seen and I feel known by your show.” When that happens every night, how can you not have a moral responsibility towards those people? How could you not feel? 

I’m one of those people, I’m someone who found solace and found identity and found friendship through art. I was the geeky, only immigrant kid of color in my high school. Not terribly too clever, not sporty at all, I spoke with an accent. Am I saying anything you feel familiar with?

Yes sir.

Not until I wrote and directed the school play in my senior year, did I suddenly become cool, found friends and purpose. I know what a good show can do to change your life. So I feel responsibility to those people. To speak to what you’re saying about education and the issues, the book is so much more than a normal coffee table book. It has the making off and behind the scenes of course it does. But the centerpiece of the book is a 20-page guidebook to activism and how to be an activist. We worked with a bunch of great NGO partners and with our cast, all of whom are extremely politically committed young people, and we put together a pamphlet, a kind of how-to guide to be a useful citizen in this time. 

Credit: Matthew Murphy

There were things in Jagged Little Pill that for obvious reasons didn’t resonate with me specifically. But while I was watching the show I had all these flashbacks of being in Honduras in 1995 and hearing “You Oughta Know” blasting from buses in the streets. I’d see other brown people like me rocking to this song not even knowing what it said. This made me realize how art can resonate with people thousands of miles away from where it was created. So I’m very curious to know what is your own personal memory of the album and the time when it came out?

So this will be a more revealing answer than you probably intended it to be. Alanis and I are almost exactly the same age, like within six months of each other or something. So I was in my second year of college when it came out. My first reaction was this is great, this music is good. But also it’s incredibly literary, and I was a very literary kid. There’s a line in “All I Really Want,” which is possibly my favorite line in pop music ever, it’s certainly my favorite line in the album and in the show. “I’m like Estella, I like to reel it in and then spit it out,” I remember listening to that line and going, “hang on! Did she just reference Charles Dickens in a pop song?” I was like, you’re not allowed to do that. 

I thought this is someone who is as clever as me and they found a way to make that clever cool and mainstream. That honestly felt like a gauntlet being thrown down and then I discovered she was my age. I went “Jesus, I’m still in college and she put this out?” So I kind of took it as a challenge and I was very pleased like 20 years later to be able to feel I had risen to the challenge that Alanis, unbeknownst to her, had set for me. 

For more on #WhileWeBreathe click here.

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