I'm planning a long post for either later in the week or later today about the history of the term "off off Broadway," and the fact that it is an indisputably awful mouthful. Look forward to it—my trenchant analysis and amateurish research will both amuse and disgust you.
In the meantime, I turned up a May 5, 1957 Times article which appears to be the first time the paper used the term. At the end of a long article complaining about the woes of Off Broadway producers:
One steady observer of off Broadway drama suggested that what was needed was off-off Broadway. As a matter of fact, there is a troupe that calls itself the "Way Off Broadway Players."
Since this was the Old Gray Lady's first use of the phrase, they had yet to settle on the house style, which calls for capital Os when it's used as a noun or an adjective—"An Off Broadway producer," "Off Off Broadway is flourishing,"—but teeny-weeny Os when it's serving as an adverb—"The play was performed off Broadway." Oh, and never hyphenate it.
Anybody who doesn't own the Times Manual of Style and Usage is a chump.
More interesting than these five decade old copy-quibbles is the fact that the complaints of Off Broadway producers have not changed at all—they are still caught between artistic ambition and the nightmarish realization that, "the path to quality is paved with producers' greenbacks."
A few quick figures illustrate the situation. In 1953, a play, "Climate of Eden," was opened for $500. Today the average cost is between $7,000 and $15,000, with $20,000 no longer unusual. The revival of "Johnny Johnson," which ran for seventeen performances, cost $40,000. One of the most experienced off-Broadway producers estimated recently that of approximately 600 off-Broadway productions in the last five years, not more than twenty had made a profit.
That forty grand, internet inflation calculators will tell you, is over $300,000 today. It's been a long time since producing off Broadway was cheap.
Various scourges are blamed. The producers of the '50s criticize the rent charged by theater owners—as high as $800 a week in Eisenhower-bucks—they rage about Actors' Equity wage demands—$40 to $70 weekly—and they complain that competition among the thirty or so Off Broadway houses has forced them to raise standards and spend money in desperate hope that their show will be a hit and transfer to Broadway. "Each producer," reporter Murray Schumach tells us, "clings to the hope that his project will be another 'End as a Man,' 'The Iceman Cometh,' 'The Threepenny Opera,' 'Way of the World,' 'Uncle Vanya' or 'Purple Dust.'"
Those titles reflect one thing about the Off Broadway of old that surprised me—a heavy reliance on "the vastness of literary public domain, where prestige is high and royalties non-existent." This was a day when new plays could find a home on Broadway, and didn't need to take refuge below Fourteenth Street. What was on stage might have been old fashioned, but the front of house headaches have hardly changed at all.