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What's the Difference Between a Broadway and Off-Broadway Show?

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Over the years, there’s been a lot of debate about what should and shouldn’t count as a Broadway play or musical. Still, it’s widely agreed that, in order to qualify, a production needs to run at a Broadway theater.

In general, a Broadway theater is defined as one that’s located in Manhattan and seats at least 500 people. (Actually being located on Broadway is not a requirement.) Those on the island with 100 to 499 seats are regarded as “Off-Broadway” venues. Meanwhile, establishments with 99 seats or fewer are deemed “Off-Off-Broadway.”

If the facility hosts concerts and dance shows more often than it does plays or musicals, it isn’t considered a Broadway theater, regardless of the seating situation. Because of this, Carnegie Hall doesn’t make the cut—even though the main auditorium has way more than 500 seats (2804, to be precise). 

How many Broadway theaters are in Manhattan proper? The industry’s national trade association is known as the Broadway League, and, at present, they only recognize 40 legitimate Broadway theaters—with the majority sitting between West 40th and West 53rd Streets in Midtown Manhattan. By comparison, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway stages are more widely dispersed throughout New York City.

Every year, the Broadway League joins forces with the American Theatre League to administer one of the Big Apple’s biggest celebrations: The Tony Awards. To be eligible for these prizes, a show must open at a Broadway League-certified Broadway theater at some point in the current season before a designated cut-off date (which for this year was April 28).

Given these rules, the Awards completely ignore Off-Broadway productions. But this doesn’t mean that you should. Some of the most popular shows ever conceived started out at Off-Broadway venues. For example, the original production of Little Shop of Horrors opened in 1982 and ran for five years without ever making it to the Great White Way—although a Broadway revival did pop up in 2003.

For many productions, Off-Broadway is a stepping stone. Just a few months after opening up at smaller theaters, Hair, A Chorus Line, and, more recently, Hamilton all made the jump to a Broadway stage.

That transition isn’t always easy. Often, new sets have to be built and, sometimes, key players have to be re-cast. Furthermore, as producer Gerald Schoenfeld told Playbill in 2008, the Off-Broadway venue where it all began won’t want to be left “high and dry” after the show leaves. “[You’ll] probably have to make arrangements with the originating theater,” he says, “which probably would require a royalty and possible percentage of net profits.”

Broadway productions also come with much higher price tags. When you factor in things like talent fees, rehearsals, and marketing, the average Broadway play costs millions of dollars to produce. An estimate from The New York Times says a Broadway show costs "at least $2.5 million to mount," while larger-scale musicals fall in the $10 million to $15 million range.

Unsurprisingly, it’s become quite difficult to turn a profit on the Great White Way. According to the Broadway League, only one in five Broadway shows breaks even. Furthermore, those lucky few that actually make money have to run for an average of two years before doing so.

As they say, there's no business like show business...

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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