Fringe stages’ pricey gamble

'Divine madness' of building boom leads to expansive facilities

Stage shows
340 W. 50th St.
Opened: Sept. 9
First preview: “Symphonie Fantastique,” Aug. 31
Size: 61,300 square feet. Five stages: two with 499 seats; two with 360; one with 199.

450 West 37th St.
Opened: April 11
First preview: “Hurlyburly”
Size: About 50,000 square feet, with 35,000 square feet for three theaters and 15,000 square feet for the Baryshnikov Arts Studios on the upper floor. And three stages, with 499, 399 and 290 seats.

The Dodgers got a new home this season, right here in New York. Not the former Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, of course, but Dodger Theatricals — which moved into a $23 million Off Broadway complex — big news for theater lovers.

Fittingly, development itself has been the most significant development in commercial Off Broadway in recent years. A severe shortage of spaces, particularly larger houses, afflicted the scene earlier this decade, notes Marc Routh, president of the League of Off Broadway Theaters and Producers. “So many shows were fully financed and ready to go (but) couldn’t find a home. It spurred this building rush.”

The Dodger facility, a five-theater complex on West 50th Street, joins 37 Arts’ new three-theater space on West 37th Street.

“As the commercial theater business gets more expensive, producers find possibilities other than Broadway more appealing,” says Michael David, Dodger president. “Building this (facility) required a certain amount of divine madness, but we believe that with this amazing location and the capacity to serve bigger audiences, we can make the math work.”

The two new complexes — along with the Little Shubert, which opened in 2002, and the Zipper, the first theater in the West 30s — are crowding the fringes of Broadway, even as the Off Broadway scene has evolved from experimental to more mainstream plays. “We all want proximity to the center of the theatrical universe,” says David, adding that he hopes to attract not just tourists, but the downtown crowd that rarely ventures above 14th Street.

Ben Sprecher, who owns the uptown Promenade Theater and manages the Little Shubert, observes that another incentive for cozying up to Broadway is the strong marketing campaign that helped the Great White Way bounce back after 9/11.

The question now is whether swank new facilities will pull shows and audiences to Off Broadway. Sprecher recently closed his downtown Variety Arts Theater, after its landlord, reportedly offered some $15 million for the building, “paid me to go away,” he says.

New construction on 42nd Street means at least a temporary demise for the Douglas Fairbanks and John Houseman theaters. Still, with Dodger Stages and 37 Arts adding a total of 3,105 seats and eight stages, Gotham has all the Off Broadway spaces it needs, and maybe more.

“A few years ago there were not enough spaces, but I think the city has balanced itself out,” observes veteran producer Daryl Roth, who says she doesn’t think the pendulum has swung too far.

But Routh thinks it might be healthier if one of the two new complexes had stayed out of the game. “The cycle has now gone in the other direction,” he says.

It’s a different market, according to Routh and some others, with spaces that once charged producers for dark time during rehearsals now eager to deal on terms beneficial to producers.

Says Sprecher, “it has gone way too far, (the owners of the new venues) are out of their minds. I know Off Broadway economics, and I don’t know how a $23 million complex makes any money.”

Meanwhile, the endless real estate boom makes further theater construction unlikely in the near future. “Until the economics change,” says Sprecher, “any other commercial use is better. To build another (theater) is a bad business idea.”

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