‘Buddy’ &Amp; Al Click For Biotuner Impresario

Paul Elliott’s name may not have the recognition factor of colleagues Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber, but in his chosen realm – the biotuner – the producer has two solid London hits. And Buddy Holly and Al Jolson to thank.

His musical “Buddy,” about the American rock ‘n’ roller, has taken £35 million ($55 million) in seven years on the West End, and is now confidently advertising bookings “to the year 2000.” Joining that show in October was a second Elliott venture (with Laurie Mansfield and Greg Smith), “Jolson,” which got mixed reviews but virtually unanimous raves for star Brian Conley, an English TV entertainer; the show, with an advance Elliott pegs at £2 million ($3.1 million) and increasing,” is now eyeing Broadway for fall 1997.

“We’re on target,” says Elliott, 54, who has an added annual cash cow in producing large-scale Christmas pantomimes (32 this season, plus one in Australia). “Jolson,” he says, came in under its $2.5 million budget, with a $800,000 reserve. It has been playing to an average 80% capacity in the 1,500-seat Victoria Palace, or $320,000 of a $390,000 potential.

Divergent auds

Its audience, he says, couldn’t be more different from that for “Buddy,” which transferred Oct. 7 from the Victoria Palace to the smaller 1,051-seat Strand, where it continues to pull over $155,000 a week net, Elliott says. (The move to the Strand cost $650,000 – some four times the producer’s original estimate.)

“All the ‘Jolson’ audience wants is top-price tickets; they don’t want second-price,” says Elliott. “It’s a moneyed audience” – aged between 40 and 70, he reckons – “and they want to sit sixth row center. You can sell a pair of tickets to ‘Buddy’ in 90 seconds; with ‘ Jolson,’ it takes four to five minutes.”

Claiming that the show is “underpriced,” he will hike “Jolson” tickets to a $50 weekend top in April, up $4 from the current top. As for the few negative reviews – Elliott characterizes four as “indifferent; the rest were raves”- they hardly matter to the tabloid audience being wooed.

“I love Sun readers,” says the producer, who has been taking full-page ads across the spectrum, from the mass-market Sun to the more highbrow Independent on Sunday. “We’re getting the carriage trade, as they used to call it.”

Elliott anticipates recoupment in 30 weeks at 75% capacity. But whether “Jolson” will be a phenomenon to match “Buddy” remains to be seen, although it seems telling that both follow a formula of more or less abandoning plot two-thirds of the way through to devolve into a concert of greatest hits. (“Jolson,” too, couldn’t be more sanctimonious about its subject, its putative hard-edged approach notwithstanding.)

“I thought we’d do a year; I was wrong,” Elliott says of “Buddy,” which, he reports, has “the best return business on the West End.” (The average: 21/2 times.) About the only place “Buddy” misfired was on Broadway, where it had the unenviable task of following “A Chorus Line” into the Shubert – and closed after six months, despite winning a Tony nom for leading man Paul Hipp.

“I don’t quite understand New York,” says Elliott, whose other Broadway credits include Roy Dotrice in “Brief Lives” and (with Don Taffner) the ill-advised Ray Cooney farce “Run for Your Wife.” “We’re not a prize-giving nation here; it doesn’t matter at all. If you win in New York, it’s important. If you win here, who cares?”

Having said that, Elliott can’t help but smart just a bit at losing last month’s Evening Standard Drama Award for musical to his only competitor, “Mack and Mabel.” To that end, he is keeping February’s Olivier Awards ceremony within his view.

“I’m not sure how someone can say one thing is better than anything else, but if Brian doesn’t get best actor in a musical, there is no justice.” He pauses. “I would love to add to it by getting best musical.”

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