B’way tuners: Fantastic 4

For first time in over 40 years, quartet of musicals are SRO

While the 2005 Broadway summer is awfully short on preems, it’s long on B.O. holdovers.

Right before the traditional July 4 lull, all four Tony-nommed tuners — “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “The Light in the Piazza” — were performing at or near capacity.

Dare we call it a golden age at the box office?

Not since the 1960s, the so-called Golden Age of Musicals, have all four nominated tuners carried over their B.O. biz after the lights had dimmed on the kudos stage.

Forty-three years ago, the 1961-62 season boasted “No Strings,” “Carnival,” “How to Succeed in Business” and “Milk and Honey” all running post-Tonys.

What’s remarkable about the 2004-05 season is how much momentum the nominees have all gathered as they steamed into the summer.

While “Spamalot” emerged as the one anointed tuner to break through this season, sucking up most of the media oxygen for 2004-05, the Tony-winning show’s competish hasn’t suffered because of it.

Biz is so good for “Spelling Bee,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Light in the Piazza” that the shows’ respective producers can even afford to be gracious to each other.

” ‘The Light in the Piazza’ has expanded from the serious-musical audience to the romantic-musical audience,” says “Spelling Bee” producer David Stone.

” ‘Spamalot’ is a hard ticket to get,” says “Scoundrels” producer Marty Bell. “I don’t mind being second choice.”

“Each of the four shows is built for a different audience,” says marketing guru Drew Hodges of Spotco. “And each has found its niche.”

Much of the media pitted “Scoundrels” against “Spam” in the beginning. The assumption was that the Monty Python juggernaut would cannibalize the Riviera con-man romp in much the same way “The Producers” did with “Scoundrels” composer David Yazbek’s “The Full Monty” a few seasons earlier.

But obviously, there is enough room for two guy-oriented tuners. It doesn’t matter that 66% of Broadway tix are sold to women. As Hodges explains, “In focus groups, we hear women say, ‘I’ll bring my girlfriends to that, my daughter to that, and I’ll bring my husband to that.’ ”

The third “that” is “Spamalot” and “Scoundrels.” The rabid fan base of male Pythonheads ensured that the first show attracted the elusive guy audience, while memories of the Steve Martin-Michael Caine movie appear to have boosted the cachet of “Scoundrels” with men.

Bell says “Scoundrels” has repaid 30% of its $11 million capitalization, with another 5% going back to investors every two-to-three weeks. February 2006 is the target date for complete payback. “Spelling Bee” will recoup more quickly, earning back its $3.5 million investment this September.

Produced by Lincoln Center Theater, “Piazza” appears to have escaped the quick-exit fate of the previous season’s class entry, “Caroline, or Change.”

A year ago, “Caroline” director George C. Wolfe complained that the Gotham media pegged his show as “the musical that wasn’t supposed to be on Broadway.”

Although “Piazza” was initially plagued with reserved reviews, a steadily growing chorus of approval helped to turn things around, as did several awards noms and six Tony wins. And no one could accuse it of “not belonging at Lincoln Center.”

“It’s an artful musical rather than the slam-bang musical,” says LCT’s Bernard Gerstein. “Being at Lincoln Center gives it the aura of high art.”

Just over 100,000 people have seen “Piazza” so far. Nonesuch has already shipped 40,000 CDs. That 10:4 ratio is astounding. Unless a musical is super-successful, CD sales don’t impact tix sales. “This one did impact,” Gersten says.

Summer 2005 stacks up admirably even against the 1960s.

“It’s especially remarkable, since everyone was calling (2004-05) such a horrible season early on,” theater historian Steven Suskin says.

Go back 40-plus years to find the Golden Age of Musicals.

The bumper season of 1959-60 produced “Fiorello!,” “Gypsy,” “The Sound of Music” and “Take Me Along.” But the Tonys tempted fate that year with a fifth nom, “Once Upon a Mattress,” which did not make it to July 4, 1960. (Despite its short run, “Mattress” made money, while “TMA,” with Jackie Gleason, lost a little.)

The 1961-62 season approached the success of this season’s crop, only to have one of its nominees, “Milk and Honey” ultimately become the first show to play more than 500 perfs and still lose money.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Oliver!” and “Stop the World I Want to Get Off” all made money the following season, but “Little Me” struggled at 70% capacity in spring/summer 1963 and, like “Mattress,” closed a few weeks after the Tonys.

In 1963-64, “High Spirits” with Beatrice Lillie and Tammy Grimes was supposed to be the big hit, but ultimately lost money in the wake of “Hello, Dolly!” and “Funny Girl,” and saw its auds quickly shrink to 75% capacity during the dog days of June-August. The fourth nommed show, “She Loves Me,” became a classic, but had already closed, a financial loser by the time of the Tony awards.

The Carol Channing (“Dolly”) and Barbra Streisand (“Girl”) starrers were quickly followed in 1964-65 with “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Golden Boy” and “Half a Sixpence,” but the fourth nommed show that season, “Oh, What a Lovely War,” ran less than four months, closed pre-Tonys and failed to recoup.

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