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Broadway’s fall smorgasbord

Roster remains full even as economy falters

The three great pillars of Scandinavian culture — Ibsen, Strindberg and ABBA — are converging on Broadway this fall, providing a slight unifying theme for the typical grab-bag of newcomers and revivals that will take up residence on the Great White Way between Labor Day and Christmas. (Order your herring plate for intermission now.)

Although the general economic news continues to be grim, Broadway grosses held up fairly well through the summer. Through the first 14 weeks of the season, the B.O. saw a 1.8% increase from the period last year. Attendance told a slightly different story, however, as it fell by 1.8%.

Still, the lineup of newcomers is at par for recent seasons. There are 12 new productions slated to open on Broadway this fall, roughly the same number as in the past two years.

Jed Bernstein, prexy of the League of American Theaters & Producers, noted a softening in ticket sales during the first half of the year but is upbeat after the summer’s relative strength.

“I don’t think it’s inevitable that we’ll see a serious downturn on Broadway even if the economy continues to be sluggish. You might put off buying a car or a house, but you still have to celebrate Mother’s Day,” he says.

Although hotel occupancy rates have been down, Bernstein thinks fall biz, traditionally less reliant on tourist dollars than the summer, will be healthier.

Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld says, “I can only judge by the amount of business over the summer, which was not as strong as last year. We are being impacted, but it’s hard to quantify at this point.”

Schoenfeld is relatively bullish about the season, predicting that while the fall slate is relatively healthy, the real test comes in the spring, and he envisions a very busy winter and pre-Tony lineup.

Is Broadway in better shape to weather a recession than at previous points in its history? Schoenfeld thinks so. The investment landscape has changed, for one thing.

“I see a difference in the investment community now,” he says. “It’s not comprised of a large number of small investors; it’s comprised of a smaller number of large investors” — who are less likely to be affected by economic downturns.

Same is true of the big shows, the biggest this season being the ABBA behemoth “Mamma Mia!” A critic-proof show that nevertheless seems to be charming critics on its path from London to Broadway, the musical has tallied an advance sale reportedly nearing $25 million. It’s capitalized at $10 million.

The producers’ risky decision to tour the show to major cities in advance of the Broadway opening appears to have been a canny one; the show broke box office records in Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere, and with a post-“Producers” $100 top at the newly restored, furball-free Winter Garden, it may well do the same at that house.

The fall’s other new musicals aren’t trying to compete in the Broadway blockbuster sweepstakes. First up is the transfer of “Urinetown!,” the spoof tuner that’s gone from the 1999 Fringe Festival to Off Broadway last season and now arrives at the 635-seat Henry Miller under the aegis of the Dodgers.

The transfer and refurbishment of the theater put the overall cost at about $2.75 million, according to Dodgers principal Michael David.

“It was less about geographical nomenclature than about finding the best home,” David says of the transfer to Broadway. “And what we found out in our 13 weeks (Off Broadway) was that the audience for the show was potentially broader than we might have imagined. Broadway makes us more available to a broader group of constituents: We had the traditional matinee ladies in last week.”

With three other shows on the Broadway boards in the face of a sluggish economy, David admits he’s a bit apprehensive in general.

“It’s times like now — September, October and through to January — that things are going to be put to the test. It will be interesting to see how all but the few megahits get through the period.”

David also says the economics have already changed considerably on Broadway, so that “anybody coming here with reasonable expectations knows this is only the beginning of the process; it’s no longer the place you go to make a killing.”

Treading an equally unlikely path to Broadway is the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Alan Ayckbourn musical “By Jeeves.” The show, first seen at the Goodspeed several years ago and most recently staged in Pittsburgh last season, finally arrives at the Helen Hayes Theater after plans to come in last spring were thwarted by the booking of “George Gershwin Alone.” It opens Oct. 28.

The fourth new musical of the fall season is Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “Thou Shalt Not.” Notable as the Broadway composing debut of pop/jazz figure Harry Connick Jr., the production reunites the golden talents of Susan Stroman and her “Music Man” star Craig Bierko for a New Orleans-set adaptation of Emile Zola’s “Therese Raquin.” With “Contact” still ensconced at the Vivian Beaumont, LCT execs have booked the Plymouth for the show, which opens Oct. 25.

Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” represents the first musical revival of the season, although the show hasn’t been seen on Broadway before (it played Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons in 1991).

The Roundabout Theater Co. production was skedded for the (spookily appropriate) Booth but skipped over to the larger Music Box when “The Dinner Party” announced a September closing. Directed by Joe Mantello, “Assassins” features Douglas Sills, Neil Patrick Harris, Raul Esparza and Denis O’Hare.

The roster of straight plays is revival-heavy, hardly unusual for a Broadway fall but in marked contrast to last season, which saw three new American plays open within the space of a month.

One of those was Neil Simon’s “Dinner Party,” which closed recently but will be followed in short order by the prolific playwright’s newest comedy, “45 Seconds From Broadway.” An inside-showbiz play about the Edison Hotel’s famous coffee shop, dubbed the “Polish Tea Room,” it’s produced by Emanuel Azenberg and Ira Pittelman.

The only other new play currently on tap for fall is the Lincoln Center Theater two-perfs-a-week run of “QED” starring Alan Alda. The bio-play about physicist Richard Feynman will perform at the Vivian Beaumont on the nights “Contact” is dark.

John Leguizamo’s new solo show “Sexaholix” has announced a Broadway stand at the Royale. The comedian’s Broadway debut vehicle, “Freak,” was allowed to compete as a play at Tony time. The only other possible new play in view is a transfer of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” from the Public Theater, which has been mooted as a possible new tenant for the (spookily appropriate) Booth.

Starry revivals are, as usual, more thick on the ground. For the first time in memory, a major Ibsen revival will be squaring off against a major Strindberg, as “Hedda Gabler” moves into the Ambassador with Kate Burton in the title role and Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren go mano-a-mano in “Dance of Death” at the Broadhurst.

“Dance” is a project initiated by Schoenfeld, who is confident that the right project with the right partners can succeed irrespective of similar competition. The limited-engagement, star-packed revival has in recent seasons been one of the few economic sure things on Broadway, and “Dance of Death” looks to be no exception. Capitalized at $1.75 million, the show’s advance is reported to have topped $2 million, although Schoenfeld declined to confirm that number.

The fall season’s other two revivals are lighter fare. The Roundabout Theater Co. brings back Clare Booth Luce’s “The Women,” in a production from Scott Elliott led by “Sex and the City’s” Cynthia Nixon. And in Broadway’s seasonal back-before-you-know-it category, there’s Michael Frayn’s backstage farce “Noises Off,” with an all-star cast led by Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher, Faith Prince and this year’s Tony winner Richard Easton, segueing smoothly from Stoppardian metaphysics to slamming doors.

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