B’way seeks some spring warmth

Tepid reception for shows adds to war woes

As producers lament the limp box office, and industry wags chatter about the about-face at “Urban Cowboy” and the sudden deletion of “The Miracle Worker” from the spring schedule, most are laying blame for the lackluster season on the distractions of war and the weak economy.

But Broadway’s current lackluster B.O. may also, in part, be the result of ho-hum reception for the product in the marketplace.

There may be a real problem when the best-reviewed new play of the Broadway season is a British music-hall dustup that resembles a rehash of Red Skelton skits.

“The Play What I Wrote” got a rare nod of approval from the New York Times’ Ben Brantley, among mostly positive notices. (Even so, the producers had to be scratching their heads on opening night, wondering how to delete his depressive references to “Dante’s inferno” and “a collective nightmare” in the key paragraph from their display quotes.)

But pity the producers of “Take Me Out.” After the downtown production secured raves from the Post’s Donald Lyons and the Daily News’ Robert Dominguez, their respective first-string counterparts, Clive Barnes and Howard Kissel, gave cool notices to Richard Greenberg’s play on Broadway. Brantley, too, was considerably more enthusiastic about star Denis O’Hare than the play itself.

Also receiving mixed to downbeat reviews are new plays “Vincent in Brixton” and “Life (x) 3” and, of course, the one tuner in the bunch, “Urban Cowboy.” The revival of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was dismissed by critics and will close two months before it was expected to.

Biz lawyer John Breglio looks back to the not-for-profits, which sometimes provide commercial transfers for the spring Broadway season.

“There isn’t anything there that has been received critically in a major way,” he says.

There is a corollary here in the current movie landscape. After great year-end product bolstered 2002 sales, first-quarter 2003 has underperformed due to six critically reviled B.O. losers and only one winner, the Steve Martin/Queen Latifah comedy “Bringing Down the House.”

Broadway box office aside, hotel occupancy remains the best indicator of tourism. Last month, it came to a comfortable if not robust 70%. That’s down from 77% a year ago, but the March 2002 figure was bolstered by an early Easter holiday (March 31). Back then, Broadway put in a record-setting $15,166,060 for 33 shows, as opposed to $12,571,947 for the current 27.

“People are not obliged to see everything that comes down the Broadway pike, and most of it isn’t very interesting,” Kissel says. “The things people want to see are still doing well.”

With a boost from the movie’s Oscar wins, “Chicago” is doing sellout biz, alongside bona fide hits “Hairspray,” “The Lion King,” “The Producers” and “Mamma Mia!”

But well-received shows from the fall are having trouble: “La Boheme” and “Movin’ Out” are doing decent business, but there are plenty of empty seats.

As for “Urban Cowboy’s” bumpy ride, “It may be the dumbest thing I’ve ever done,” says producer Chase Mishkin, referring to her decision to keep the show open after initially announcing it would close after just four perfs. Mishkin and other investors have poured in another $1 million to keep it afloat.

She had counted on a core audience of tourists. “And they’re afraid to come to the city now,” the producer laments.

Marketing chief Nancy Coyne, for one, would like to call a moratorium on the Fabulous Invalid view of Broadway.

“The Season of Savings discounts ran out mid-March, that’s what happened,” Coyne says of the current B.O. doldrums.

Others aren’t so sure there will be the usual spring pickup.

“Most producers have pulled back on advertising. You can’t spend your way out of this one,” Spotco’s Drew Hodges says of the war in Iraq. The marketing guru says TV and radio ads will be reintroduced slowly.

“Caution is everywhere in all things,” says Disney’s Thomas Schumacher. Reporting from overseas, he worries, “There is certainly no shortage of parking in London this week, and you can’t give all the credit to the new traffic controls here. (In New York) we are in spring-break season, so walk-up isn’t dreadful. But who is buying for the future?”

Fewer customers will have fewer choices this month, since Barry Weissler pulled the plug on his incoming “The Miracle Worker.” (“The production needs reworking,” he says; sources also report a very low advance.)

In the recent past, 36 to 38 shows buoyed the overall spring B.O. tally, but they often struggled individually in that overcrowded field. At present, there are only eight more shows yet to open before the May 7 Tony-nom cutoff (including Bill Maher’s solo stand at the Virginia).

But there may be comfort in low numbers.

“Broadway is usually chock-a-block with new productions in April, and that’s not the case now,” says producer Jeffrey Richards, who will bring in “Enchanted April.” “New shows tend to draw well initially from the metro audiences, and there are fewer to choose from.”

And perceptions can change overnight. The season began with the one-two punch of “Hairspray” and “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.” It could end with a double bang.

David Richenthal remains upbeat, claiming an advance of just under $3 million for his star-studded revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

“It only takes two productions to invigorate a season,” the producer says. “And being totally selfless, I hope ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ provides one of them.”

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