When the Actors Collective was preparing to stage its production of “Perfect Crime,” the troupe took its set from the trash dumpster of Circle Rep, which had just completed its run of “The Musical Murder Comedies of 1940.” Such frugality made sense, recalls leading lady, general manager and ticket taker Catherine Russell, since everyone expected a standard 16 performance showcase run.
Eleven years and nine locations later, this murder mystery is the longest-running straight play on or off Broadway. Perhaps the biggest mysteries are what kept audiences coming back to an unsophisticated $30,000 production of a thoroughly mediocre script, and what does “Perfect Crime” have in common with Off Broadway’s other stamina kings: “Blue Man Group: Tubes,” “Stomp,” “Tony & Tina’s Wedding” and, of course, “The Fantasticks,” which opened May 3, 1960. (At the 13th Street Repertory Theater, “Line” has played for 23 years an average of three times a week, but artistic director Edith O’Hara keeps the hourlong show alive more as an actors’ proving ground and schedule-filler than as profitmaker.)
The shows are wildly different: “Stomp,” a mesmerizing celebration of percussion, and “Blue Man,” an indescribable, subversive show that gets laughs both with satire and with toilet paper, are much more ambitious and innovative theatrical productions than “Tony & Tina,” which borders on caricature and revels in its tacky, wild party while providing a unique interactive theater experience, “The Fantasticks,” which is, on many levels, the most elemental of romantic musicals, and “Perfect Crime,” is the live equivalent of a familiar, formulaic TV show like “Murder, She Wrote” or “Matlock.”
Russell sees solutions to both mysteries in the same place: the audience. There are varying demographics, but all these shows reach the audience on a primal, visceral level and therefore attract people who don’t normally attend theater, creating a more diverse audience than a typical play or musical.
Marc Routh, co-producer of “Stomp,” which recouped its $400,000 investment within six months and is heading toward the five-year mark in February, says his show also offers something fresh (and also attracts many non-English-speaking tourists). ” ‘Stomp’ has a unique way of looking at the world, providing a point of view most people have never experienced before,” he says.
“Stomp” producer Richard Frankel says his show’s audience at the Orpheum Theater in the East Village has also remained consistently young and hip: “Our audience has not changed that much; it seems like we’re getting people’s younger brothers. There are a lot more people who don’t go to the theater than do, so if we plug into some small percentage of that,” the show will keep selling out.
Two shows, “Tony & Tina” and “Perfect Crime,” have gone the opposite route, appealing to the “bus drivers, cops and sanitation workers,” Russell says. “Tony & Tina” producer Joe Corcoran says he initially brought his family from Long Island to the show 11 years ago because “they represent the masses,” and when they loved it, “bells went off.” (The show earned back its $112,000 cost in eight weeks and has now grossed about $20 million, Corco-ran says.)
Both shows have, in recent years, moved to Times Square — the wedding takes place at St. Luke’s Church, while “Crime” is at the Duffy Theater — lengthening their lives by reeling in those tourists who want something personal and intimate after seeing the blockbuster musicals but aren’t interested in something as intense as “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”
These shows have not only proved invincible but also difficult to copy. “Tony & Tina” has endured the most rip-offs, from obvious ones like “Joye & Maria’s Wedding” to “Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral.” But none has had the staying power. “They lacked the thought and detail” of the original, says Corcoran, adding that the copycats’ failure proves finding a longrunning show “is not as easy as it seems.”
Maybe each of these shows has some appeal beyond the obvious. Lore Noto, the original producer of “The Fantasticks” says his show still draws new generations of young theatergoers because it’s more than a simple romance. It deals with issues like rebelliousness and generation gaps that were “way ahead of their time” 38 years ago.
“The Fantasticks” should also provide inspiration to its fellow travelers. While Noto says it has had “rough periods” in recent years, the show, which staged its 15,869th performance at the Sullivan Street Theater on Sept. 1, keeps chugging along. “We have losing weeks,” Noto admits, “but we always seem to break even at the end of the month.”