Noises Off: Legit revivals doing boffo box office

NEW YORK Broadway continues to thrive on revivals, and the current season offers further proof.

While there have been a pair of key exceptions — “Wicked” and “Avenue Q” (the latter recouped last week) — most of the season’s new plays and tuners have fared poorly.

But this season there’s another twist: The play revivals are doing significantly better business than the musicals.

The season began with “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” racking up weekly figures in excess of $600,000 throughout the summer.

Critical hosannas sent that one into the stratosphere, and they sure helped “Henry IV” with Kevin Kline and “King Lear” with Christopher Plummer.

The recipe for success is familiar: Starry casting, which this season has proved to be box office insurance — against even the worst reviews.

Ashley Judd‘s widely derided Maggie in “Cat in a Hot Tin Roof” didn’t stop that production from turning a profit. Now, look for the weekly receipts on “A Raisin in the Sun” to equal the $500,000-plus of “Cat” — despite the fact that reviews for Sean Combs recalled George W. Bush‘s notices after the first 2000 presidential debate: “Hey, not bad. He got through it.”

The revival of Larry Gelbart‘s “Sly Fox” is likewise doing solid biz despite mediocre to bad notices for stars Richard Dreyfuss and Eric Stoltz.

The show hums along at $400,000-plus a week, except when Dreyfuss is out for four perfs (as he was recently) and then it drops a good six-figures.

The jury is still out on “Jumpers.” With a first-week gross of $328,305, it’s doing nicely so far. But Simon Russell Beale isn’t the star in New York that he is in London (if he was, sophisticated theatergoers wouldn’t keep inverting his names).

And with its 20-person ensemble (understudies included), the show’s nut is more like that of a musical. The $2.6 million capitalization is big for a play.

That could spell bad news: Lately musical revivals are faring significantly worse than plays.

The well-received “Gypsy” is about 40% in the red and is set to close May 30.

And its newer sisters look even weaker: Eight weeks out of the box, “Fiddler on the Roof” did just under $600,000 (April 26-May 2); in comparison, “Gypsy” brought in more than $800,000 two months into its run.

“Wonderful Town” dropped below $400,000 for the last week of April; “Little Shop of Horrors” fell below $300,000. Each show has a low break-even, but not that low.

One dispiriting conclusion that could be drawn: Theater stars such as Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters and Alfred Molina simply aren’t the draws that big TV and movie names are. Big media stars prefer limited runs; tuners require longer commitments. And musicals also require performers with real theatrical (and musical) chops.

There have been some successful musical revivals in recent years. “Kiss Me, Kate” is one example.

Asked to compare the fates of “Kate” and “Wonderful Town,” Roger Berlind, a producer of both, says, “I don’t have a theory. But ‘Kiss Me Kate has been done all over the country in high schools. ‘Wonderful Town’ hasn’t. There’s better name recognition.”

Also, the Broadway landscape has changed radically from fall 1999 when the “Kate” revival opened. “There weren’t as many big musicals then,” says Berlind.

There weren’t as many tuner revivals, either. “Kate” opened with only three others on the boards: “Cabaret,” “Annie, Get Your Gun” and “Chicago.”

Today, there are seven. Many won’t survive past the Tonys, much less Labor Day.

Waiting in the immediate wings are “Pacific Overtures” and “Sweet Charity,” with “La Cage aux Folles” ready to follow “Aida” into the Palace.

But “Camelot,” with Liam Neeson, is no longer a summer possibility. Producer Elizabeth Williams now looks to fall 2005.

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