Off Broadway blues: A tale of two tuners

'Avenue Q,' 'Men' take alternate routes

The Off Broadway musical may soon be an endangered species.

As legit lawyer John Breglio bluntly puts it, “You can’t really intelligently structure, from an economic point of view, an Off Broadway musical.”

And that’s why, on July 31, little “Avenue Q,” with its cast of seven and its decidedly East Village vibe, opens on Broadway at the 805-seat Golden Theater after a successful run at the Vineyard this spring.

Soon after that, one of the most successful musicals in Off Broadway history returns to the New York stage — but this time it, too, is heading to Broadway.

Twenty years ago, “Little Shop of Horrors,” with its own cast of seven (plus one puppeteer), ran forever at the 299-seat Orpheum Theater. Now it resurfaces as an $8 million (and counting) musical set to open Oct. 2 at the 1,275-seat Virginia Theater.

“We didn’t have much choice economically for doing ‘Avenue Q’ Off Broadway,” says Robyn Goodman, one of the show’s producers. “Looking at the numbers, it just didn’t make any sense to go to a 499-seat theater.”

“Avenue Q” may have a small cast and an even smaller orchestra (six musicians) but its race-specific cast requires five understudies, and with its parade of puppets it is a physically complicated production.

The list of musicals that have failed economically Off Broadway in recent years could fill this page. Most recent B.O. burial was the critically acclaimed “Zanna, Don’t!,” which shuttered June 29 after an 18-week run, losing its $750,000 capitalization.

“Everyone agrees Off Broadway is broken, and no one knows how to fix it,” says “Zanna” producer Jack Dalgleish.

Even though “Zanna” operated at $60,000 a week, it rarely took in more than $50,000 at the 299-seat John Houseman.

Despite that money hemorrhage, Dalgleish is in the process of putting together the another $3 million-$4 million to move “Zanna” to Broadway with some “American Idol”-type stars.

“An original musical is a rare commodity on Broadway,” says the producer. Like Goodman, Dalgleish mentions the greater visibility, branding, resources and ad dollars that make Broadway more hospitable to musicals.

Certainly the window between break-even and gross potential on a small musical is healthier on Broadway than Off.

The ratios for some of Broadway’s smaller-scaled tuners stack up, give or take those ever-fluctuating ad dollars, as $250,000 break-even/$430,000 potential for “Avenue Q”; $275,000/$570,000 for “Rent”; and $310,000/$560,000 for “Cabaret.” (Not that big windows automatically translate into profits: “Frog and Toad” had a ratio of $225,000/$505,000, but most weeks grossed just $150,000 in its short run this spring.)

Off Broadway, the potential weekly profit shrinks to about $100,000.

“On paper it makes sense, but in reality it just doesn’t work,” says one producer who has sworn off doing musicals Off Broadway.

Goodman, who produced the money-losing Off Broadway tuners “Bat Boy” and “Tick, Tick … Boom,” says she would try another Off Broadway tuner. “But not if I couldn’t get the break-even down to $60,000 a week,” she cautions.

If produced Off Broadway, the weekly nut on “Avenue Q” would have been considerably higher, possibly hovering at six figures.

And yet, for all the glum talk about making Off Broadway sing, the month of August brings two milestones on the tiny-tuner front: No sooner does the long-running “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” celebrate its seventh anniversary at the 299-seat Westside Theater than its producers and creative team (Joe DiPietro, Jimmy Roberts) defy the odds with followup “The Thing About Men,” to open Aug. 27 at the 399-seat Promenade Theater.

Jonathan Pollard, lead producer on both musicals, doesn’t buy the argument that a show that can’t succeed Off Broadway will make it on Broadway.

“You only need more tickets if you can sell more tickets,” says the producer. “If we had put ‘I Love You’ in a larger theater, like the (499-seat) Union Square, it wouldn’t be running today. What we learned from ‘I Love You’ is that intimacy matters in shows where the comedy and laughter comes from recognition.”

Pollard sounds positive, but he is equally sobering when he turns talk to the economics of his new show.

A huge 30% of his $1.3 million capitalization for “Men” is reserve. “For a musical, it takes 28 weeks to build an audience Off Broadway,” he says.

“Men” is a slightly larger show than “I Love You,” which breaks even at around $55,000. The new show hits the magic number closer to $90,000 against its gross potential of $200,000-plus at the 399-seat Promenade.

Promotion-wise, “Men” has the headstart of a huge mailing list culled from seven years of “I Love You” fans in the Tristate area.

Can one legit team make lightning strike twice in a stormy climate?

Pollard thinks so, but remains cautious. “As smart as you are,” he says, “the theater gods always have a lesson to teach you.”

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