B’way’s ‘Class’ Act

Terrence McNally’s “Master Class” opened last week at the John Golden, and the critics generally put it on the dean’s list. The play, which stars Zoe Caldwell as opera diva Maria Callas, has given Broadway its first big hit play of the season.

But the Street is also buoyed by the fact that “Master Class’ looks to become the most financially successful new play in years – offering by example its own master class in producing for Broadway in the ’90s.

When “Master Class” opened Nov. 5 in front of $1.2 million in advance ticket sales, the play had already recouped more than half its $600,000 capitalization, producer Robert Whitehead said last week. Whitehead, who shared the production costs equally with co-producers Lewis Allen and Spring Sirkin, expects the play fully to recoup by the end of the month – an astonishing feat for a Broadway show. Virtually sold out through the end of the year, “Master Class” will almost certainly be a solid moneymaker at least until Tony time in the late spring.

Mounted under the guidelines of the Broadway Alliance, “Master Class” should thus prove to be the first unqualified success for the plan, which puts caps on production costs, running expenses and ticket prices in order to encourage the production of straight plays on Broadway.

McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” was produced last season under the Alliance plan and it, too, recouped. But it was a transfer from the nonprofit Manhattan Theater Club and was financed under special conditions that allowed it to recoup before other expenses were paid.

The capitalization of “Master Class” included enhancement money to help underwrite the initial production last spring by the nonprofit Philadelphia Theatre Company. The production then moved to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where it turned a small profit, Whitehead said. The big change came with a run at the Kennedy Center this fall, which was set up essentially as a Broadway tryout.

“At the Kennedy Center, we came out way ahead,” said Whitehead. Playing in the 1,554-seat Eisenhower Theater, the show ended its Washington run well in the black. “We went in with a $1 million advance and played 51/2 weeks. We paid off half the $600,000 capitalization – actually, maybe a little more.”

The show came into New York with a healthy $1.2 million advance and wrapped $100,000 the day after the reviews came out. It breaks even at about $100,000 per week, with a gross potential of just over $245,000. With recoupment, the running costs will hike up about 10%. The rest is profit.

For Whitehead, a major supporter of the Alliance, the experience has offered a mixture of exhilaration and vindication. Of course, he concedes the point that being married to his star has been a factor in controlling costs. And even if there were no Broadway Alliance, he still would have done the show on Broadway rather than go Off Broadway, where so much of the straight-play action is these days. “Master Class” should make a lot of people happy for some time to come.

“It’s financially a great moment, and it’s nice to have it, ” Whitehead said. “I haven’t had this feeling, both artistically and financially, since ‘A Man for All Seasons,’ and that’s 30 years ago.

“It’s pandemonium at the box office right now,” he added, “and that’s a great feeling.”

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