'Brooklyn' starts cookin' on Broadway

Nothing but the empty Royale Theater separates “Brooklyn” and “Avenue Q,” on West 45th Street. Can the little guy do it again without the drawing power of stars, special effects and a movie tie-in?

Most agree: If nothing else, the new kid on the block has the advantage of the more accessible title.

” ‘Brooklyn’ is a great title,” says “Avenue Q” producer Jeffrey Seller. “When you say Brooklyn, it has positive connotations: soul, gritty streets, romantic history. All they need to do is capture the imagination of the audience and put butts in the seats.”

Certainly, the title “Brooklyn” doesn’t need to be explained, unlike “Avenue Q,” which stands for the mythical continuation of Manhattan’s Alphabet City across the East River into Queens, never New Yorkers’ most beloved borough.

Beyond their titles, both shows are not only decidedly small (five actors on stage for “Brooklyn,” seven for “Avenue Q”), they are aggressively, almost foolhardily, low-concept.

“It was hard to figure out the essence of ‘Avenue Q,’ ” admits its producer Robyn Goodman. “The only way to convey it was through word of mouth.”

She almost took the words right out of John McDaniel’s mouth. ” ‘Brooklyn’ is really difficult to describe,” the producer says of his own show. “When you read the script, you go, ‘What is this?!’ It is an e-ticket ride, 95 minutes, no intermission.” When pushed, he repeats a synopsis derived from consensus: “We’ve come to say it is about a troupe of street entertainers who tell us fairy tales under the Brooklyn Bridge every night.”

By comparison, “Hairspray,” with its bouffanted icon, has it so much easier. So does “Wicked,” with its tagline, “So much happened before Dorothy dropped in.”

Jeff Calhoun, who is directing and co-producing “Brooklyn,” isn’t bothered by taking the low-concept road. ” ‘Big River’ was the same thing,” he says of his previous legit venture. “You couldn’t begin to explain how you were doing a musical with half the cast being deaf. You just had to see it.”

He does, however, admit to breathing “a sigh of relief” when “Avenue Q,” a fellow midget musical, won the Tony over the brobdingnagian “Wicked.” “I love when a show relies on imagination and wins out over scenery,” adds Calhoun.

Where most musicals’ capitalizations nowadays top $10 million, “Avenue Q” came in at $3.5 million. The equally scenery-challenged “Brooklyn” is capitalized at $6.75 million. Not that it necessarily shows onstage.

“Much of that money was development,” Calhoun says. Two years ago, he and McDaniel gambled $250,000 of their own money to stage “Brooklyn” at the Signature Theater in Arlington, Va. A year later, they raised another $1.25 million to bring it to the Denver Civic Theater.

Along the way, its backstory captured the imagination of an increasingly legit-phobic press. The Sunday New York Times even immortalized its middle-aged newcomer creatives, Barri McPherson and the formerly homeless Mark Schoenfeld, with a Harvey Pekar cartoon strip.

“Homeless,” however, is a word no one associated with “Brooklyn” uses to describe the show. “Soaring with big emotions,” is how marketing guru Drew Hodges puts it. It’s no coincidence that his Spotco team also markets “Avenue Q.”

Of the two shows, Hodges calls the Queens show the greater challenge, “because it has puppets,” he says. Outside of a Disney show, puppets are a legit liability. But then, so are the homeless.

“With ‘Brooklyn,’ we’re using the music rather than the plot to pull in people,” says Hodges. “We’re not telling what will happen, but how the evening will make you feel.” In other words, in place of a catchy one-liner, the show’s poster goes for the heart, literally, coated with lots of “Rent”-like urban grit.

In some ways, “Brooklyn” is closer to “Rent” with its romantic sentiments of urban life lived on the edge and a pop-rock score utilizing “American Idol”-style screamers. In a Broadway first, the “Brooklyn” Web site lets viewers download no fewer than four songs. And almost better than winning a Tony, Entertainment Weekly made “Brooklyn” the first legit tuner to be featured in its Download This column.

Also, 500 CDs sent to “buzz makers” nationwide contained four songs from the show plus ticket-buying information.

Press-wise, it also helps to be the only original musical of fall 2004. “We have been blessed with that,” says “Brooklyn” producer Benjamin Mordecai. “It gives us a chance to create our own position before ‘Spamalot’ and ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ open in the spring.”

But will 90,000 downloads (and counting) put people into the seats?

In its first full week of eight previews, “Brooklyn” at the Plymouth Theater grossed $208,896, which is about $60,000 more than “Avenue Q” did with its first full session of previews at the smaller Golden Theater. In its first year, “Avenue Q” broke even at about at $250,000 a week. (This summer, that sum increased significantly when its cast reupped their one-year favored-nations contracts, which gave them $1,800 each per week, to more lucrative ones.) “Brooklyn” goes into the black at a headier $300,000.

Except for its preview period, “Avenue Q” has never experienced a week in the red. And yet, despite strong reviews, the show ran about $100,000 under its gross potential for nearly five months before the Clintons arrived to pump up the buzz last December. “You can point to key press moments, and they are rarely at the beginning of a show’s life,” says Hodges. And then, of course, there were the Tonys.

Mordecai isn’t overly fond of comparisons to “Avenue Q” (“We have to create our own reality”), except the one regarding box office. “With good luck, I would not be surprised if our trajectory doesn’t follow the same pattern as ‘Avenue Q,’ ” he says.

There are worse scenarios. Drew Hodges asks the question: “Do you want Hugh Jackman for a year and then nothing, or the long slow build?”

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