It’s a small world

Low-budget tuners thrive Off B'way and beyond

If the small musical seems to be a contradiction in terms, several producers who do not have the $15 million bankroll of Disney (read “Aida”) are willing to bet otherwise. While such mid-range tuners as “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” and “Putting It Together” have been recent failures, the success rate at the bottom end of tuner capitalization is delivering impressive results.

Potentially big things in small packages include “The Donkey Show,” “Bomb-itty of Errors,” “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” “Naked Boys Singing,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Dirty Blonde,” the incoming “Big Bang” and “Bat Boy,” and a whole subgenre of high-concept shows that feature plenty of music but tend to eschew the musical moniker: “Blue Man Group,” “Stomp,” “De La Guarda” and “Squonk,” which is brassily defying all the others by starting previews on Feb. 8 on Broadway instead of staying put Off Off Broadway.

“If those shows started out now, they could make it on Broadway,” William J. Repicci said of the “Blue Man” school of musical theater. “They went where it was more appropriate for them at the time. Today, people don’t have to live below 14th Street to get into that kind of theater.”

Financial success, however, may have more to do with number-crunching than trendy venue location. Of the dozen shows mentioned above, the average stage features four performers and a three-piece combo. A few of them are even more minimal, such as the two-person “Big Bang,” the player-piano backup for the three-actor “Dirty Blonde” and a DJ who scratches records in “Bomb-itty,” for example. In “Squonk,” the five-member instrument-playing troupe does it all.

Still, the transfer from tiny P.S. 122, where “Squonk” originated last August, to its Broadway home is a quick lesson in why most of these small-scale tuners stay put in venues with well under 400 seats. “If you can do a small musical Off Broadway, there is simply less risk,” said ICM’s Mitch Douglas, who reps “The Big Bang” and “Bat Boy.”

For example, shows like “Bomb-itty” and “I Love You, You’re Perfect” were capitalized at around $400,000 each. Producer Eric Krebs said his incoming “Big Bang” musical, with two actors and two musicians at the Douglas Fairbanks Theater, would also come in at that figure.

“You can’t do a musical cheaper than that Off Broadway,” said Krebs. Their respective producers contend that “De La Guarda” clocked in at significantly more than $400,000, while “The Donkey Show” was something less.

At the Off Off Broadway P.S. 122, “Squonk” cost $111,000. “On Broadway, it is $1.5 million,” said Repicci, “which includes a healthy advertising budget.” Many Broadway shows devote up to a quarter of their budget to advertising costs.

Taking “Squonk” a few blocks uptown necessarily grows it to medium-size, as compared to the $1.25 million it took Eric Krebs to produce “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” at the Vivian Beaumont and transfer it to the Ambassador. “Blues,” however, had a larger company — eight performers, five additional musicians — and house, the 1,225 seat Ambassador Theater, which helped to balloon the latter musical’s weekly nut to $165,000.

Repicci put his show’s figure at under $120,000, which is, he said, “40% of its gross potential.”

Daryl Roth, a producer on “Bomb-itty” and “De La Guarda” and whose son, Jordan Roth, produced “The Donkey Show,” firmly believes that certain shows are Off Broadway specific. “If you do a little musical where the ticket prices and the expectations aren’t sky high, people are more easily satisfied because they are pleasantly surprised,” said the producer, who put “De La Guarda” in an old bank and “Bomb-itty” in a renovated lumber building.

Repicci is betting otherwise. “With something like ‘Blue Man’ or ‘Stomp,’ 95% of their audience today is tourists anyway,” the producer said. “Even at P.S. 122, the ‘Squonk’ box office was being inundated with foreign tourists, because there isn’t the language barrier and the music is accessible.”

Oddly enough, what may be too edgy for Broadway is just the right fit for Las Vegas, helping to increase these small shows’ overall profitability.

“Blue Man Group” opens in March at the 1,200 seat theater in Las Vegas’ Luxor Hotel, with productions of “De La Guarda” and “The Donkey Show” following at other L.V. venues later in the year. Repicci revealed that after Ben Brantley’s “Squonk” rave review in the New York Times, some of his first phone calls came from Las Vegas hotels.

“These (smaller) shows are perfect for Vegas,” Daryl Roth says. “They’re highly entertaining, shorter than your average Broadway musical (90 minutes), and yet they still have the cachet of the theater.”

On the Vegas front, the Second City is negotiating with several hotels to play there. If the Chicago-based comedy troupe runs into snags, they might try adding lots of music.

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