Season sees few breakout bits, critical smashes

There are about two more weeks until the May 5 Tony nomination cutoff point, and a little more than a month left in the official Broadway season. But industry watchers looking ahead at the light sprinkling of last-minute openings — or back at the year as a whole — may well be asking, “Is that all there is?”

With six more weeks of grosses to tally, the Broadway box office as a whole is in a relatively healthy state. The total B.O. for the season so far reached $660,507,762 during Week 46 (April 5-11). That puts it ahead of last season, and on course to reach a new high note by the time the season ends officially on May 30. (Particularly since this year is a Broadway “leap year”; as it does every seven years, the Broadway season runs 53 weeks instead of the standard 52.)

The figure for attendance — a more reliable barometer of the health of the business — is less rosy, however. Total attendance through the first 46 weeks of the season was 9,879,286, representing a 1% drop from the same period last year.

That more earthbound figure reflects the pervasive feeling that Broadway hasn’t had an exciting — let alone stellar — time of it in the past 12 months. The season lacks the kind of defining hit show that lands it a permanent place in the history books, or even the memory.

There was no “Hairspray,” no “Producers.” Indeed, the season’s also-ran status can be measured by the avalanche of ink — and ticket sales — that greeted the brief return to Broadway of the latter’s original stars.

Interestingly, without a lot of new competition, that reprise seems to have given the show a lasting lift, although it’s too soon to tell how long it will last: The week after the stars departed, “The Producers” still took in north of $1 million, well above the level it had been averaging in the months prior to their return.

While the current season hasn’t had any monster hits that suck all the oxygen from the room, that may not be such a bad thing for producers with “niche” shows or shows that need some time to develop their audiences.

“Wicked” is a case in point.

The Oz-before-Dorothy tuner was probably the most highly anticipated new musical of the fall season. Also the most expensive, at $14 million. But it received mixed to negative notices, including a downbeat review from the New York Times.

Had another new musical come along and opened to glowing reviews, “Wicked” might have become the season’s underdog. But two of the other new tuners of the fall season crashed and burned (“Taboo,” “Never Gonna Dance”), while “The Boy From Oz” is considered notable only as a showcase for star Hugh Jackman.

As a result, “Wicked” easily weathered the assaults of those flying monkeys, the critics, and has proven to be a real hit with audiences. It regularly tops $1 million a week now, selling out most nights at the famously hard-to-fill Gershwin Theater.

It’s also a top contender to win the coveted best musical Tony, particularly since two smaller-scale shows in contention — “Avenue Q” and the yet-to-open “Caroline, or Change” — could split the underdog vote.

“Wicked’s” splashy success at the B.O. has slightly overshadowed the solid success of “Avenue Q,” the quirky musical that uses the techniques of kids’ TV shows to grapple with adult dilemmas. The small-scaled tuner seemed a long shot for the Great White Way, but it is hands-down the best-reviewed new musical of the Broadway season, and has seen solid, steady growth at the B.O. that suggests ongoing good word of mouth. In recent weeks it has been bypassing the TKTS ticket booth and playing to 90% capacity.

Playing for time

If there are no bona fide smashes — with critics and audiences — among the season’s musicals, the landscape for plays has been even grimmer.

With Manhattan Theater Club arriving permanently on Broadway this season, the story should have been different. But MTC’s ill-starred season at the Biltmore featured two of the more resounding play flops of the year: “The Violet Hour,” from last year’s Tony winner Richard Greenberg, which was hampered by backstage drama, and the hip-hop Chekhov experiment “Drowning Crow,” which had MTC subscribers wheezing toward the exits at intermission.

But MTC wasn’t alone in finding the going tough last fall. The 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner “Anna in the Tropics” got ho-hum notices and shuttered as a flop. John Lithgow and Eileen Atkins couldn’t turn the dour “The Retreat From Moscow” into a hit. One new play closed in previews, another on opening night: It’s been a while since either of those phenomena occurred on Broadway, let alone both in a matter of weeks.

The spring season brings a few more contenders, but neither “Match” nor “Sixteen Wounded” looks likely to either tear up the box office or dislodge the clear front runner for the crucial best play Tony, Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife.” Two more last-minute entries — Mark Medoff’s “Prymate” and the transfer of the well-received “Frozen” — aren’t likely to change perceptions that it’s been a tough — and tedious — season for new plays on Broadway.

Even “I Am My Own Wife,” far and away the best-received new play of the season, has not exactly been setting the box office on fire, Pulitzer or no.

It grossed $170,336 of a potential $416,804 at the Belasco during Week 46, after the win was announced. That was a healthy jump of $48,660 from the previous week, to be sure, but the play still might need the added oomph of a good showing at the Tonys to have a chance of recouping on Broadway.

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