Stewart F. Lane and his wife Bonnie Comley have collectively produced over 40 Broadway shows, garnering nine Tony awards and 14 Tony nominations. Lane, sometimes dubbed “Mr. Broadway,” is behind such productions as Thoroughly Modern Millie and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. And he’s been a co-owner of the famous Palace Theater for some four decades. More recently, the couple launched BroadwayHD.com, a Netflix of sorts for theater with a mission to promote and preserve live theater, extending the reach of Broadway and Broadway-caliber shows to anyone with an internet connection.
It’s unclear how much this Broadway power couple is worth, but like many other Glitzy Givers we write about, they are illustrative of an entertainment sector in which top earners can amass much larger fortunes than in the past—the kind of money that can bankroll significant philanthropy. While many of these givers earned their money in film, television, and even radio, we do come across entertainment philanthropists who’ve gotten rich through a more ancient art. For instance, I’ve written before about another Broadway winner—Wicked producer David Stone, whose giving through his foundation largely focuses on the theater community in the Northeast.
Lane and Comley give in part through their Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley Foundation, which gave away around $200,000 in a recent year. They’ve also given large individual donations to support the arts, including at their alma maters. I recently spoke with Bonnie Comley to get a better idea of the family’s philanthropic mission and the motivations behind it.
“We just got really lucky in our careers,” Comley told me quite early in our conversation. “It’s just very uneven in the entertainment business, especially for actors and performers. You’re not always compensated based on talent. A lot of it is luck.”
To that end, the couple are major supporters of the Actors Fund, a national organization that assists performers and behind-the-scenes workers in performing arts and entertainment, helping through emergency financial assistance, affordable housing, health care and insurance counseling, secondary career development and more. The couple is keen on the organization because it provides a safety net for artists when luck isn’t on their side.“It’s very difficult to find work, for instance, while your health is compromised, and the Actors Fund supports performers when their careers are in transition or crisis,” Comley explains.
Much of Lane and Comley’s philanthropy is focused on their alma maters. Lane graduated from Boston University in 1973. Comley, meanwhile, received degrees from UMass Lowell and Emerson College. The couple have given at least $1 million to Boston University, where Lane serves on the board of overseers. They launched the Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley Musical Theatre Fund to enhance the School of Theatre’s music theatre curriculum. And Boston University’s Joan & Edgar Booth Theatre has a stage bearing the couple’s name. “We’re going up there pretty often,” Comley says of the couple’s strong ties with their New England alma maters. Comley recently connected with Emerson College president M. Lee Pelton at an event where they talked about diversity in theater.
As for her undergraduate school, UMass Lowell, Comley couldn’t have been more clear: “If I wasn’t able to get in there, I probably couldn’t have gone anywhere else at that time.” She also discussed the importance of state schools like the University of Massachusetts system. “There are probably a lot of first time college students who take advantage of UMass system, especially Lowell, because of its tremendous value.” UMass Lowell is home to a 500-seat theater called the Comley-Lane Theater, and the couple have supported other theater programming at UMass and Emerson.
Overall, Comley explains that the couple’s biggest gifts are toward the arts, arts education, and performance careers in crisis or transition. They also give back by doing masterclasses and seminars, and sponsoring internships and showcases. “We’re constantly trying to keep people working in the arts and support them any way that we can,” she tells me. Typically, the Stewart F. and Bonnie Comley Foundation only takes solicitations from organizations they’ve already worked with, so personal connections are key. However, anybody can send a request to the foundation via snail mail.
Also, while their $8.99 per month streaming service BroadwayHD is for-profit, the couple are looking at subsidizing access for theater teachers so they can see some of the performances they teach under the Broadway lights. “Our aim is to democratize theater and eliminate barriers of geography,” Comley says. “There’s a whole world that doesn’t get to New York. We are making Broadway available around the world. So long as they’re connected to the internet, they can stream theater.”