Shows jostle for B.O. as roster expands

As the Broadway season approaches the halfway point, things look good, on paper: There were a healthy 35 shows on the boards during the 24th week of the season — seven more than this time last year — meaning just a few Broadway houses are lacking for tenants.

The grosses for the week were a strong $16,175,574, more than $1 million above the record-setting gross for the frame last year and a healthy 13.7% jump from just the week before. The season total so far is running a bit ahead of last year, at $322,251,692.

But there’s always a cloud behind the silver lining.

A large crop of shows can mean a smaller cut for each production, and Broadway economics are such that an incremental decrease at the B.O. can mean the difference between going into profit or just breaking even or, more often, between breaking even and losing your shirt.

“It’s scary and wonderful at the same time,” says “Avenue Q” producer Robyn Goodman, referring to the wealth of shows. “It defies all expectations, given the economy — despite what Mr. Greenspan says. And I do think the pie is only so big and it’s sliced up in little pieces right now. If you’re going to see a musical, you have to make a decision.”

The season has yet to produce a single breakout smash. There are several solid performers, but critical brickbats have dampened the buzz around some of the season’s most highly anticipated productions. None of the 10 shows that opened in the past six weeks has received the kind of overwhelmingly positive reception that can send a show over the top.

And while many productions have cobbled together enough positive notices to fill full-page ads, the all-important New York Times — in which those ads run — hasn’t given a positive review to a single one of the fall shows.

The season has been marked by an unusual amount of backstage turmoil as well. Cast changes during rehearsals and previews roiled Richard Greenberg’s highly anticipated “The Violet Hour”; it opened to mixed to downbeat reviews, putting a damper on Manhattan Theater Club’s move to Broadway’s renovated Biltmore Theater. And Rosie O’Donnell’s “Taboo” has generated plenty of press — none of it helpful — prior to its Nov. 13 opening.

Donna Murphy’s illness derailed several early preview performances of “Wonderful Town,” and the show’s producers, Barry and Fran Weissler, acknowledged to the Times the show’s lackluster advance sales.

Then, last week, producer Joyce Johnson pulled the plug on Farrah Fawcett’s Broadway debut in “Bobbi Boland,” shuttering the show after just a week of previews. It was the first time in a decade that a Broadway production had closed up shop during previews. (David Henry Hwang’s “Face Value” was the last, in 1993.)

With the winter doldrums around the corner and a full slate of shows vying for tourist dollars, things could get chilly indeed.

But producers of the some of the season’s major shows are sounding confident as they head into the always-cheering holiday season.

“Wicked” producers David Stone and Marc Platt are more than pleased with the progress of the show at the B.O. Although it collected quite a few raves, the show received a downbeat review in the Times.

Platt believes the reviews, in this case, don’t mean as much as the word of mouth. “You can’t fabricate great word of mouth any more than you can kill it,” Platt says.

As a movie exec, Platt notes theater isn’t dependent on opening-weekend hype, but on longevity that is fueled by happy audiences who will spread the word long after reviews are forgotten. “If word of mouth isn’t great you can still have a successful movie,” Platt notes, in contrast to theater.

Stone says the show’s advance has climbed steadily. Advance sales are at $7 million, plus $4.4 million in groups. The show was wrapping more than $200,000 a day last week.

And Stone thinks the lack of any overwhelmingly well-reviewed show is not necessarily a bad thing: “I actually think that helps us. Since no one can say that’s the show all the critics say I should see, they’re listening to their friends.”

Another musical showing steady growth is the revival of “Little Shop of Horrors,” which stubbed its toe on a dismissive Times review and took a while to gain momentum as a spate of new musicals grabbed headlines.

Producer Marc Routh agrees the show “took a little time to find its footing,” but notes the grosses for Week 24 took a big leap. The show’s advance has climbed steadily to $3.5 million, including groups.

“I do think the wealth of openings contributed to the slow build. Nobody knows what to see,” he says.

Routh thinks the season as a whole could benefit from a headline-generating hit like “The Producers” or “Hairspray.”

“I think if there is a big breakout hit — and there isn’t one so far — that raises the tide of people’s consciousness about going to the theater, and that’s a good thing. Right now nothing is really permeating the consciousness of the casual as opposed to regular theatergoers,” he says.

As for the Hugh Jackman vehicle “The Boy From Oz,” a spokesman says the advance is at $8 million, with just under $2 million in group sales.

And Goodman reports that despite its summer opening, “Avenue Q” is holding its own among the fall onslaught. The small-scale, satiric tuner also is benefiting from good word of mouth.

The show has made money every week, she reports, and had its best week ever during Week 24.

“We have no brand name, no star, we’re a musical without any of those easy marketing tools,” she says. “So in a way we have a tough row to hoe.”

But the fall tide hasn’t been as damaging as she might have thought. Goodman proudly notes that, with the Broadway year approaching its halfway mark, “What we do have is the best reviews of the season so far.”

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