As shows fall through trap door, producers try alternative measures

There’s nothing harder than making a buck Off Broadway.

Just look at the commercial productions that opened and swiftly shuttered this fall: “Dr. Sex,” “Cycling Past the Matterhorn,” “A Woman of Will,” “A Mother, a Daughter, and a Gun,” “Captain Louie,” “The Ark.”

The latest casualty is “The Great American Trailer Park Musical,” which closed Dec. 4 after three months on the boards.

Still, there are a handful of Off Broadway shows — among them “Altar Boyz” and the six-year-old “Naked Boys Singing” — making a go of it, and doing so by starting to think outside the Off Broadway box.

“The economics at this point don’t make sense,” says Marc Routh, prexy of the League of Off Broadway Theaters & Producers. “We have trouble hitting the numbers we need to keep a show running and to recoup.”

Just look at “Altar Boyz,” the closest thing to a hit to arrive Off Broadway recently. Producer Robyn Goodman says the tuner, which opened March 1 at a 360-seat theater at Dodger Stages, is hardly raking in the dough.

“We’re just barely making it,” Goodman says of the five-thesp musical, capitalized at $1 million with a weekly break-even of $62,000. “We make $8,000 one week, we lose $3,000 the next.”

Just as there’s no shortage of Off Broadway venues hoping for tenants — the five-theater Dodger Stages opened late summer 2004 and the three-stage 37 Arts followed this spring — there’s no shortage of obstacles to Off Broadway success.

Rising production costs have driven up ticket prices, so it’s not uncommon for an Off Broadway ducat to cost $65. Theatergoers can get into Broadway for less than that, thanks to tiered ticket prices and rampant discount offers.

Given the choice, most ticketbuyers will go for Broadway over Off Broadway, and not just for its old-fashioned legit glamour. Patrons are simply more likely to know more about offerings on the Stem than those off it, since the press focuses the majority of its attention on Broadway.

And the reduced economic scale of most Off Broadway productions means most shows don’t have the funds to mount an ad blitz that can compete with Broadway campaigns.

That leaves word of mouth to keep a show going. But it takes money to allow buzz to grow, since smaller houses mean fewer people seeing a show every night — and fewer mouths telling friends to come see your show.

It’s also becoming increasingly unclear what the distinction between Broadway and Off Broadway really is, ever since the Fringe-spawned “Urinetown” moved to the Henry Miller in 2001 for a Tony-winning run of two and a half years. Ten years ago, smaller-scale tuners such as “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and plays like “Doubt” would have been perfect candidates for Off Broadway — but both shows have proven they can make it work, and work well, on Broadway, reaping all the benefits of increased exposure and Tony Award eligibility.

“If Off Broadway shows can now cost $1 million or $1.5 million, why not raise $3 million, put your show on Broadway and give yourself a better chance?” asks producer and general manager Roy Gabay.

All of that helps explain why, when asked to describe the producing climate Off Broadway, denizens of the scene most often used the word “challenging.”

And why Ken Davenport, a producer of “Altar Boyz” and “The Awesome ’80s Prom,” says, “It’s time for Off Broadway to start thinking creatively.”

Artistically, Off Broadway has been thinking creatively for years. Long-running stalwarts include such unconventional offerings as the 14-year-old “Blue Man Group” and the 11-year-old “Stomp.”

“Shows like those appeal to all ages, all languages,” explains Margaret Cotter, prexy of Liberty Theaters, which owns the Minetta Lane, the Union Square and the Orpheum, home of “Stomp.”

Davenport has gotten innovative by running shows less often than the industry standard of eight times per week — a flexibility he achieves by putting productions in nontraditional venues. His play-cum-high school dance “The Awesome ’80s Prom” runs once a week at concert venue Webster Hall.

“For many shows, I don’t think there’s a demand for eight performances a week Off Broadway,” he says.

Producer Jordan Roth found similar success with “The Donkey Show,” a disco retelling of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that makes its home in the Chelsea nightclub El Flamingo. The show started out performing six shows per week in 1999 and now plays two.

“Because we were in a nontraditional venue, we were able to listen to our market, which is something we don’t often have the luxury of doing in the theater,” Roth says.

“Naked Boys Singing,” which requires no scenery, has been able to jump from venue to venue Off Broadway. It now plays three shows per week at Dodger Stages, around the traditional performance sked of another show that performs on the same stage. (Until recently, that show was “The Musical of Musicals: The Musical,” which just closed after a 10-month transfer from the York Theater.)

“We call it the piggyback model,” says Carl D. White of the producing-general management company Martian Entertainment. The org worked out a deal with Equity to pay “Naked” actors pro-rated salaries based on the reduced sked.

Another place White and partner Tom Smedes see flexibility is pricing. For their upcoming project, the commercial transfer of the Fringe hit “Silence! The Musical,” they are “seriously considering” pricing all seats at $40.

“We’ll have to negotiate some hard deals, but on paper, it’s possible,” White says.

Producer Daryl Roth, who owns the eponymous Off Broadway venue and its companion space, the DR2, says, “The curtain times of productions Off Broadway need to be examined. They should be tailored to the audience.”

Roth has seen the value in unconventional curtains with “De La Guarda,” which played for seven years at the Daryl Roth, and with “Thom Pain (based on nothing),” the current occupant of the DR2 whose unusual Saturday sked is 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. The strategy also works for “Naked Boys Singing,” which plays at 10 p.m. on Fridays and 6 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on Saturdays.

Off Broadway insiders also would like to see greater press support as well as reduced advertising costs based on the size of a show’s house. Several producers want landlords to help out to a larger degree, not only with breaks in rent but also by producing or investing more in the shows that play their stages.

But even with all the producing ingenuity in the world, right now the prospect of recouping an investment in an Off Broadway show — much less making a profit — is seriously iffy.

So why do producers keep at it? Every one of them cites a passion for Off Broadway as a place that was once known as “a cauldron of exciting new work,” in the words of “Trailer Park” producer Jeffrey Richards.

To keep it alive, they say, changes have to be made. “If our model consistently doesn’t work, there’ll be no product,” says Goodman. “And we’ll lose all our playwrights to film and TV.”

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