Off Broadway hits the road in search of lively B.O. among the big blockbusters

NEW YORK — Off Broadway has carved out a niche as a less flashy but often more thought-provoking alternative to Broadway. How far that reputation travels beyond Gotham is unclear.

“I don’t know if the public at large across the country really knows what Off Broadway is,” says Brad Simon, president of the Brad Simon Organization, which is booking “Golf: The Musical,” “Newsical the Musical” and the Stephen Schwartz family tuner “Captain Louie.”

One new company, Off Broadway Booking, is trying to boost the profile of non-Broadway shows. The agency’s principals, prexy-CEO Orin Wolf and chief operating officer Ethan Brown, both in their mid-20s, want to focus on promoting “Off Broadway” as a brand around the country.

“There’s going to be a certain market (on the road) that comes see a show because it’s a Broadway show,” says Wolf. By contrast, each Off Broadway production “has to basically rebrand itself as its own commodity.” While “Stomp” and “Blue Man Group” have been very successful, many flounder.

Promoting the Off Broadway brand is intended to help not only touring productions but shows in New York as well. Wolf feels that if auds in Iowa enjoy “Johnny Guitar” or “Matt & Ben” — the most high-profile shows he’s booking — and are aware that the shows played Off Broadway, they’ll be more likely to seek out Off Broadway shows while vacationing in Gotham.

Off Broadway has long grappled with how to promote itself as a whole. Producer Eric Krebs, a mentor to Wolf and an adviser to Off Broadway Booking, once set up an Off Broadway info center on 45th Street for 18 months, but said he couldn’t get the rest of the Off Broadway community to support it.

“In terms of running TV ads and really (backing) a campaign, it would take the entire community, and producers are losing money hand over foot as it is,” says Wolf.

The launch of Off Broadway Booking might benefit from increasing road traffic. “There are an increasing number of road presenters that have Off Broadway programming as part of their season,” says Simon.

In some situations, an Off Broadway show is on the same subscription series as Broadway titles. The spring run of “Altar Boyz” in Chicago, producer Robyn Goodman notes, is on the same series as “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”

Wolf, by contrast, envisions theaters having whole seasons of Off Broadway shows. For 2005-06, the Meyer Theater in Green Bay, Wis., is trying a season in that vein. It will host seven small-scale productions, including Off Broadway’s “Newsical the Musical,” “We’re Still Hot! The Musical” and “Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack! Adventure.”

Ken Wachter, president of Meyer managing company PMI, says the season is tailored to the venue’s size — 993 seats — which isn’t big enough for Broadway musicals. It also serves as counterprogramming to the productions that tromp through the two bigger theaters in the area: the Weidner and Fox Cities performing arts centers.

The Weidner tries Off Broadway-style shows — such as “Late Nite Catechism” and an upcoming booking of “The One-Man Star Wars Trilogy” — in its small 150- to 220-seat theater and other venues it rents out.

But the Weidner’s general manager, Joi Brown, is skeptical about Green Bay’s taste for an Off Broadway season as a whole. “I don’t know the audience for it is reliable,” she says. Off Broadway shows “tend to be more offbeat, quirky, harder to define, so you need that time for people to start talking about it.”

Wachter says the Meyer’s marketing materials use the term “Off Broadway,” but the season is advertised simply as the Meyer Theater series.

It’s those kind of seasons to which Wolf wants “Off Broadway” attached in the programs and marketing material. “We’re not going to hide the fact that we’re Off Broadway,” he says. “We’re going to celebrate it.”

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