Shortly after starting school in New York City, David Treatman realized that despite his love of theater, he didn’t want to be an actor or director. “I’ve met famous directors and famous actors that still have financial problems and aren’t happy,” the 24-year-old Israeli American explains.
Business savvy and hungry to learn, Treatman turned his attention to producing. By the age of 19, he landed his first Off Broadway credit and by 20, he had won his first Tony Award.
Treatman, who grew up speaking Hebrew in his Philadelphia home, arrived in New York to study history at Columbia and Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary. A friend of his, who was interning at an Off Broadway production office, told him someone had just quit the production team for a Harry Potter spoof called “Puffs.”
He called the office and told them he knew they were looking for producers. “They said, ‘Great, find us X dollars by next week and we’re all set.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, sure’ and then thought to myself: Oh my god, I have no idea where I’m going to find this money.’”
Opening at the end of 2015, “Puffs” would go on to shatter several Off Broadway box-office records, running for 750 shows. “I was just kind of faking it till I make it. I didn’t obscure my age or anything; people were just taking me seriously because I was hungry to learn,” he reflects.
Treatman soon found himself co-producing “Angels in America,” which would go on to win the 2018 Tony Award for best revival. “Suddenly, I had been attached to this project that won a Tony and everybody would take a meeting with me now. I thought to myself, This is insane: I’m 20 years old and if I wanted to, I could turn this into a full-time career with all the momentum I have right now.”
Treatman now heads a production company with a growing staff and hundreds of workers hired for each individual project.
“You’ll hear this phrase a lot if you ever talk to other theater people: ‘The Broadway business model is totally broken,’” Treatman says, explaining that the goal of most shows is to recoup the initial investment. “Israel is the startup nation. A software company here could be considered a failure if it doesn’t make a ‘60X’ return. For us, a success is being able to say, ‘Hey, we didn’t lose money,’ which is insane. That’s not a business, that’s just charity with the risk hedged.
“If you produce a show on Broadway, and it runs for a few months and then closes, it’s more likely than not going to lose money,” Treatman says, noting that the budget needed to open a show can be between $3 and $18 million with some capitalizations exceeding those figures by tens of millions of dollars.
So how has he managed to make it work? Treatman’s strategy is influenced by traditional theater business models that look to continue the life cycles of shows beyond Broadway, yet he's found his own innovative twists.
He explains how mounting a show on Broadway increases its value, and allows it to continue making money even after the production shutters.
Referring to the 2002 stage version of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” – the only musical to win a Tony Award and not make its money back – Treatman explains that “those investors did fine because that show is being produced thousands of times a year at different schools. Those authors get a licensing income and the producers get a percentage of that, which then gets back to the investors.”
Treatman, meanwhile, has found new ways of selling musical theater content. “We just did ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ on the West End in London and filmed it. So, the film could make a lot of money and make it worthwhile for everyone’s time and investment. When that show closed on Broadway in 2011, it lost its entire investment.”
He adds" “I’m asking myself what I could be doing 20 years from now and not just today, which is also pretty different from how a lot of people think about stuff.”
Treatman’s career kicked off shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic crippled much of the theater world. However, the young producer’s integration of new media formats and long-term perspective enabled him not only to survive the period but actually thrive.
“In 2017, we recorded a few podcast musicals. At the time I didn’t know anything, so nobody cared about them and then in 2020 everyone cared about podcast musicals. We were a little bit ahead of our time with that one.”
His production company’s podcast musical “Propaganda!” – about a man suddenly tasked with leading a secret government agency in charge of covering up political scandals – has been downloaded over 26,000 times and won a 2021 Webby Award, and his latest one, “Who Killed Avril Lavigne,” billed as “a time-traveling pop punk podcast,” is already climbing the charts.
Besides podcasts, Treatman was able to “benefit” from the pandemic by spending the first few months of lockdown buying the rights to shows that had just closed down. Now, as the world opens up again, he’s working on 30 different projects.
The Israeli frontier
Treatman was raised in very Jewish environment. In addition to being raised by an Israeli mother, he spoke only Hebrew at home and was surrounded by Israeli music and culture growing up. After meeting with people in the entertainment industry during a recent trip to Israel, he thinks the country’s theater scene could be his next frontier.
“I’m no different than investment bankers coming to Israel looking for startups,” he says. “I have this weird split identity: I grew up in the United States and I’m American, but I’m rooted enough in Israeli culture to understand. Even though I didn’t serve in the army, I understand 95 percent of what’s in the stuff here. Hebrew is my mother tongue, so I’m weirdly placed to be having those conversations, and I think I’ve been getting people excited about stuff,” he says.
Treatman stresses the uniqueness of Israel’s entertainment business, noting that “the fact there is an entire entertainment industry in the Hebrew language is absurd.
“Through our ridiculous optimism and pride, we’re able to sustain an industry for the very few people who consume the content,” he says. “Look at any successful Eastern European rock band and they’re probably writing music in English – that is, if they want real distribution or a real career – because it has to appeal to the worldwide market. Meanwhile, you’ve got artists in Israel writing in Hebrew who don’t have any aspirations to write in English because they just don’t care,” he adds, noting that subsidies given to the arts in Israel enable such a scene to exist.
Following the international success of Israeli television shows such as “Fauda,” “Tehran” and “Shtisel,” Treatman has been scouting the original Israeli musicals to see if anything has potential. “I saw the musical version of ‘Zero Motivation’ [the 2014 Israeli film about a unit of female Israeli soldiers on a remote army base] and you can see Israeli creators are dipping their toe in the vocabulary of Broadway, but aren’t going all the way. Even though Israel is usually referred to as a Western country, culturally it’s still very Eastern – and that definitely comes through even in attempts to be like Broadway.”
Despite all his success, Treatman’s main advice for those aspiring to succeed in show business may be surprising. “I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me about what they should do if they want to be a producer. My first piece of advice is if you could be fulfilled doing literally any other thing, then you should do it,” he says.
“It’s so much more exhausting than a lot of other things, because it’s also your heart wrapped up in everything, not just your mind and your labor. You have to put your creativity on the line.”