Time is fast running out for the two most celebrated plays of the last Broadway season. But in truth, the money ran out a long time ago.
Despite winning the Tony Award for best play in June, Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” was slated to end its run on Sept. 17, after seven disappointing months at the Walter Kerr Theater. The play was produced under the terms of the Broadway Alliance, which restricts production costs and lowers ticket prices, and moved to Broadway from the Manhattan Theater Club by way of a $750,000 priority loan from Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns the Kerr.
The loan – essentially the play’s capitalization – was repaid before the season ended, making “L!V!C!” the first Alliance production to end up in the black. But just barely; a limping box office, despite the acclaim, has meant that the play barely broke even for its Valentine’s Day to post-Labor Day Broadway run, according to Jujamcyn president Rocco Landesman. running
A much bleaker – and somewhat stranger – picture holds for the more expensive “Indiscretions” at the Ethel Barrymore. Notwithstanding generally rapturous reviews, a cast headed by Kathleen Turner and a slew of Tony nominations, the $2.4 million production was blanked at the awards and has struggled ever since. The show has also been bedeviled by unanticipated problems: When Turner took a week off in July, receipts plummeted to $124,000, about a quarter of the gross potential of $453,701. At Broad-around the same time, Eileen Atkins, who drew the most laudatory reviews of all the cast members, was suddenly forced, for reasons of health, to leave the show.
In the latest of the strange twists “Indiscretions” has taken, actress Dana Ivey is completing negotiations to take over the Atkins role beginning Oct. 2 – despite the fact that the show has been advertising its final weeks. The rest of the cast – Roger Rees, Jude Law and Cynthia Nixon, along with Turner – is signed through Dec. 3, which is a long shot given the show’s declining receipts; last week’s take was a grim $176,560. In nearly six months, “Indiscretions” has taken in barely 50% of its potential receipts of $10.4 million.
“This has really been a star-crossed proposition,” concedes Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, which produced the show in a consortium that included Shubert producing partner Capital Cities/ABC and independent producers Roger Berlind and Scott Rudin. “But as long as we’re above water – as long as we’re treading water – I do not wish to throw in the towel.”
That’s a noble sentiment, but one the numbers belie. Schoenfeld says the production was budgeted at $2.4 million and brought in for $1.9 million. Shubert, CapCities and Berlind put up $600,000 each; Rudin $375,000. Over the 23 weeks it has run, “Indiscretions” has grossed an average of about $240,000 per week, with weekly costs averaging about $220,000 including advertising and other payments. Schoenfeld asserts that the production has recouped “between $700,000 and $800,000,” but the figures cited suggest a return to date closer to 25%, or $460,000.
The picture is least onerous for Shubert, which as owner of the Barrymore has also been taking in around $25,000 per week in rent from the production, virtually covering its investment. Had “Indiscretions” been mounted as a Broadway Alliance production, no rent would have been paid before full recoupment – one reason why the Shuberts have been critical of the plan, which only covers house expenses until a show has returned its capitalization.
“This was an extremely well-produced show,” insists Schoenfeld, adding that, because Shubert was a co-producer, “Indiscretions” got a favorable rent deal. “What this says is that there have to be changes in the economics for straight plays on Broadway. The Alliance is not the answer. There are too many restrictions and it’s geared to unrealistic pricing, to unrealistic budgets and to unrealistic expectations of the theater owners. It’s fallacious to say theater owners should be happy to have their expenses covered until recoupment. You want to create a healthy environment for plays.”
One place “Indiscretions” has proven to be a boon is at the Theater Development Fund’s discount day-of-performance TKTS Booth in Father Duffy Square. For the week ending Aug. 13, the booth sold 3,839 cut-rate tickets to “Indiscretions,” returning $111,825 to the box office; both figures are straight-play records in the 22-year history of TKTS. Schoenfeld notes the booth had a great summer, as did New York’s lower-priced hotels; indeed, half the “Indiscretions” audience currently comes from day-of-performance sales, most of it at a steep discount, rendering the $60 top all but meaningless.
Schoenfeld doesn’t hide his disappointment about the fate of “Indiscretions” on Broadway, though the signs were there. Under its original title, “Les Parents Terribles,” this wild production of the 1938 Jean Cocteau black comedy was first mounted two seasons back at the Royal National Theater (Law was the only cast member to have played both versions) to similar critical raves. And yet while many other National productions have moved to commercial West End gigs, business at the subsidized theater never matched the critics’ enthusiasm, and a transfer never happened.
On Broadway, the producers and their advertising and marketing partners at Serino Coyne took every step they could think of to increase awareness of the show, including the creation of an expensive TV spot – a rarity for a nonmusical. The only thing he might have done differently, Schoenfeld says, is “cast five stars” instead of just one.
“I don’t think there is anything that could have been done that we didn’t do,” Schoenfeld muses. “You know, it is a very frustrating thing, but if we had it to do over again, we would absolutely still do this show.”