Old B’way’s golden hue

A look at previous money makers and losers

You have to 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 1961-2 season could brag that all four nommed shows were running post-Tonys: “No Strings,” “Carnival,” “How to Succeed in Business” and “Milk and Honey.”

But the latter effort quickly went on to become the first show to run over 500 perfs and lose money.

“A Funny Thing/Forum,” “Oliver!” and “Stop the World” 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 and Barbra Streisand 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. 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,” says Suskin.

In a legit-unfriendly world, where only one Broadway show is allowed to break through each season, “Spamalot” has been the one anointed to suck up all the media oxygen for the 2004-05 season. For the editors at Time and Newsweek, the show had it all: a Monty Python pedigree, Mike Nichols’ return to Broadway, a $30 million advance, the Tony.

But the bigger story for Broadway is how well the tuner’s Tony competish has weathered into the summer.

The biz is so good for “Spelling Bee,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “The Light in the Piazza” that the shows’ respective producers can 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.

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 “Spam” and “Scoundrels.”

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 do it quicker, giving 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 dismissive reviews in the New York Times and other newspapers, a rave in the Wall Street Journal quickly 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,” says Gersten.

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