NEW YORK — Broadway hits are increasingly tied to big names: Among the spring season’s celebrity-spiced fare, Antonio Banderas in “Nine” and Helen Hunt in “Life (x) 3” are proving hot sellers, the latter despite distinctly discouraging reviews.
So how does the low-profile show break through?
The old-fashioned way — good reviews — could be working for “A Year With Frog and Toad.”
Prior to its Broadway opening, Gotham’s newspapers held off writing much about the show, despite good word from previous incarnations at the New Victory and the Children’s Theater of Minneapolis.
The new tuner by Willie and Robert Reale might have seemed a vanity production. Based on the stories of Arnold Lobel, the show’s translation to the stage began with the author’s daughter, Adrianne Lobel, who designed the sets and is a co-producer with Bob Boyett. And Lobel’s husband, Mark Linn-Baker, is Toad.
Then the reviews came in. Sure, they were upbeat, but the one by Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal could have been written by the show’s marketing guru Nancy Coyne.
“I took it for granted that I was in for a night of mush. Boy, was I wrong,” Teachout wrote. The critic went on to call the show “smart, sweet, fast, funny and altogether suitable for adult consumption.”
Those kind adjectives were seconded by several other crix, (the reliably curmudgeonly John Simon being an exception). In a cheery notice, Ben Brantley gently goosed the show for its Broadway prices. As the Times critic explained, “It is a musical that hopes to tap into a mostly overlooked market: preschool theatergoers with large disposable incomes.”
Boyett and Lobel actually considered staging the show Off Broadway, where the top ticket price would have been significantly less than the current $90.
“The cost to mount it on Broadway is only $500,000 to $1 million more,” explained Boyett. “We thought it would be great for kids to have their first theater experience be in a Broadway theater.”
The producers have, however, set up the nonprofit Friends of Frog and Toad to distribute tix free of charge to inner-city children.
Administered by Camp Broadway and the Educational Theater Assn., the org receives blocks of discounted $35 ducats, which are in turn purchased by corporations and individuals. “And they’re not second-balcony seats,” offers Boyett.
As for general ticket sales, the show’s B.O. saw a big boost in the week after the reviews came out. It more than doubled, going from $86,272 to $195,743. That’s still less than half its $500,000 potential at the Cort, but at least the grosses are headed in the right direction.
Producer Boyett had the opposite problem with his other major production this season.
” ‘Dance of the Vampires’ opened strong during previews then started going downhill,” Boyett recalls. “I like this direction better.”
The show is capitalized at just under $3 million. Weekly break-even is around $200,000.
Time will tell if the B.O. splurge signals the entry of that increasingly rare legit phenom: a press-driven, word-of-mouth hit.
Maybe the Friends of Frog and Toad needed to make more tix available to the Outer Critics Circle. The org ignored the show in its annual noms announced last week.
But then “Frog and Toad” is in respectable company. The org also snubbed Fiona Shaw in “Medea,” Bernadette Peters in “Gypsy” and the casts of “Movin’ Out” and “La Boheme.” (Hey, they’re not actors. They’re just dancers and singers!)
In another surprise move, “Enchanted April” took no fewer than nine noms. Producer Jeffrey Richards did not rush to ballyhoo the noms by taking out expensive ads in the Times.
“I did not think it was appropriate to trumpet the nominations before the show opened,” Richards says.