Off B’way gets back onstage

Recent upstarts might be turning things around

NEW YORK — Is Off Broadway back?

While the commercial Off Broadway arena has struggled over the last few years, it finally might be turning a corner. The now-closed “Bug” and still-running “Jewtopia” recouped their capitalizations; “Modern Orthodox,” “Cookin’ ” and “Slava’s Snowshow” are good bets to do the same; and some high-profile new projects have just begun.

“I thought it was just a matter of time that Off Broadway was going to rejuvenate,” says Robyn Goodman, who produced two Off Broadway shows — “Bat Boy: The Musical” and “Tick, Tick … Boom!” — that closed in the red after Sept. 11. She’s is now producing “Altar Boyz” at Dodger Stages.

Off Broadway suffered more from the World Trade Center attacks than Broadway did. Many of its theaters are downtown, and NYC & Co.’s subsequent tourist promos and subsidies focused on Broadway.

Also, smaller theaters don’t have enough seats available to sell to offset rising costs. “Avenue Q” was “not producible Off Broadway” for just that reason, producer Kevin McCollum said at the time, and it opted for Broadway instead.

Off Broadway commercial flops over the last few years include “The Joys of Sex,” “Rounding Third,” ‘The Thing About Men,” “Fame on 42nd Street,” “My Old Lady” and “Zanna, Don’t!”

But some recent upstarts might be turning things around. “Jewtopia,” which began Sept. 28 at the Westside Theater, recouped its $625,000 after just 20 weeks. Exec producer Bill Franzblau says the play has never had a losing week, grossing between the mid-$60,000s and the low $100,000s each frame. The advance stands at more than $250,000.

The play’s marketing gimmicks, such as its “Just Jew It” slogan and its Jdate.com-sponsored singles nights, have sought to capitalize on Gotham’s Jewish population.

Another Jewish-themed play, “Modern Orthodox,” has recouped more than half of its $900,000 capitalization and has never had a week in the red, producer Jon Steingart says. Play benefits from having just four characters and one set, not to mention stars Jason Biggs and Molly Ringwald.

“Slava’s Snowshow” also has not had a losing week since opening Sept. 8, says producer David J. Foster, despite relatively high running costs of $100,000. Foster says the advance is $271,000, and predicts the show will recoup “in the next few months.”

Since creator-performer Slava Polunin and his cast hail from Russia, marketing has targeted the Russian community, which has bought 15% of the tickets, Foster estimates. Producers also have spent huge amounts on network and cable TV ads.

“Cookin’ ” exec producer Simone Genatt says the production has made money “most weeks” and has recouped “about half” of its capitalization since opening at the Minetta Lane Theater last March. With an advance of around $100,000, it likely will finish the job within six months. The property as a whole is already quite profitable, with seven current worldwide companies and 8 million tickets sold.

Genatt estimates auds for “Cookin,’ ” which could be described as “Stomp” meets a Korean kitchen, are about 25% Asian. The show has partnered with the Korea Times, which runs two full-page color ads a week and has written about 25 features on the show, Genatt says. Tickets are sold at Korean grocery stores and the Korea Times offices.

Even a tiny one-man show like “Thom Pain (Based on Nothing)” is generating a profit. The New York Times ran a rave review, and two days later the play had sold out the rest of its skedded run at the 99-seat DR2 Theater (it later extended). With a weekly running cost of only $10,000, the play will recoup its $180,000 capitalization after only eight weeks.

Helping Off Broadway’s cause is the Internet, which “has revolutionized theater marketing,” says Foster. An Off Broadway show’s quarter-page ad in the Friday New York Times, for example, can be as high as $18,000 — a bit pricy for smaller shows. But it costs between $1,000 and $9,000 to send an email blast to registered users of Playbill.com, Telecharge.com, TheaterMania.com, BroadwayBox.com or the New York Times TicketWatch list.

Slick, new venues with multiple theaters, well-traveled concession areas and convenient midtown locations — such as Theater Row and Dodger Stages — might also help Off Broadway in the long run.

“You get the benefit of the multiplex,” says Steingart, whose “Modern Orthodox” is at Dodger Stages. “You see ‘The Aviator’ but you also see the poster for ‘Sideways.’ ”

Promising shows are on the horizon. “Shockheaded Peter,” which opens Feb. 22 at the Little Shubert, snagged two Olivier Awards in London and got a rave from Ben Brantley when it stopped at the New Victory in 1999. “Altar Boyz,” which opens March 1, has running costs of $62,000 and a capitalization of $1 million.

“The Musical of Musicals: The Musical!” got good reviews both at the York Theater Company last year and when it reopened Feb. 10 at Dodger Stages. The show has only four actor-musicians and $30,000 in weekly running costs, but an advance of only around $50,000. General manager Tom Smedes predicts it will take 30 weeks to recoup its $400,000 investment.

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