Tuners grab all the houses

There’s a new wrinkle in the Broadway real estate wars. While the industry has been distracted by the big musicals duking it out for the big musical houses, a number of smaller-scaled musicals have been quietly gobbling up the legit dramatic houses.

At the start of the 2006-07 season, no fewer than six small to midsize tuners are skedded to open or are already ensconced in playhouses that traditionally host straight plays. Set to join “Avenue Q” at the Golden and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Circle in the Square are “Grey Gardens” at the Walter Kerr, “Spring Awakening” at the O’Neill, “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” at the Booth Atkinson and “Company” at the Barrymore.

Giddy at the prospect of all those brightly lit houses, the industry at large seems inclined to bask in the robust health of the musical theater and let it go at that. There are those in the biz, however, who are taking a more sober look at the real estate pileup and giving serious thought to what the musical occupancy of legit stages might mean for the future of the straight play, not to mention actors who don’t sing and dance, on Broadway.

“We cannot remove the plays from Broadway,” says Alan Eisenberg, outgoing exec director of Actors’ Equity. “Plays belong on Broadway.”

Commercial producers are quick to point out that the designation of “musical theaters” and “playhouses” has always been an arbitrary one. Going back to the 1960s when “Little Me” and “She Loves Me” played at the O’Neill, continuing through the 1970s with “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” at the Longacre, and into the 1980s with “Sunday in the Park With George” at the Booth, dramatic houses have routinely hosted modestly scaled musicals.

“It’s not so unusual for musicals to be in smaller houses,” says “Spring Awakening” producer Jeffrey Richards. “What is unusual is the sheer concentration of these musicals and the longer and longer runs that are turning the hits into permanent tenants.”

The laws of attrition that normally keep the traffic moving on Broadway didn’t break down overnight. And, to some extent, they are still functioning. As producer David Stone (“Wicked,” “Spelling Bee”) points out, even if musicals were booked into every last theater on Broadway, the “natural balance” of life and death would still apply. “I don’t believe there are 38 musicals that can run in a season,” he maintains. “Not that many could survive.”

But plays and musicals operate on different life-and-death cycles, with the former being the gnat to the latter’s elephant. Obviously, theater owners prefer the animal that runs almost forever with few breaks for a funeral. So do most theatergoers.

“It has to do with changing audience tastes,” says marketing maven Nancy Coyne, who notes tourists now make up 70% of that audience. “The public that comes to Broadway today wants entertainment, which means musicals.”

Having sampled shows like “Spelling Bee” and “Avenue Q,” today’s audience has no bias against modestly scaled musicals on Broadway, according to Coyne. “The public would be perfectly happy going to small musicals in small houses. In time, every last one of the Broadway playhouses will have musicals in them: the Belasco, the Cort, the Kerr, the Lyceum,” she says, listing some of the smaller theaters.

Anticipating that day, some producers already have declared their determination to buck the trend. “If my partner Manny Azenberg and I found a straight play we were passionate about, we’d do it in a heartbeat,” says Ira Pitelman (“The Odd Couple,” “Spring Awakening”). “We would find a theater.”

Even producers like Richard Frankel, whose commercial projects skew to musicals large (“The Producers”) and small (“Company”), are alarmed by the prospect of plays being edged out of the market. “I think everyone is disappointed that the only way you can do a play on Broadway these days is with a star in a limited run,” Frankel says, “or a show with a pedigree that transfers with rave reviews and a lot of buzz.” (Think Julia Roberts in “Three Days of Rain,” or “The History Boys.”)

Breaking that cycle has some producers entertaining ideas for radical change.

“We do not have enough state-of-the-art musical houses,” says producer Elizabeth I. McCann (“Well,” “Virginia Woolf?”). “New York needs at least two or three major new houses.” None have been built since the Lindsay administration granted generous zoning variances to skyscrapers that incorporated theaters on their ground floors.

With an eye to “all the construction that Mayor Bloomberg is so thrilled about going up on the West Side,” McCann can see incorporating theaters into buildings being constructed north of the Javits Center, which has bus service and eventually will get a subway extension.

In the meantime, McCann wants producers and theater owners “to get together with the unions and take a hard look at the real estate and the costs” of converting Broadway’s small theaters into state-of-the-art Off Broadway houses.

“Since just about every dramatic house has a second balcony, it would be easy to do,” says the producer. “Just convert the second balcony to studios and rehearsal space, reduce capacity and operate under different terms.”

Coming at the problem from a different angle, others in the biz would like to see larger Off Broadway theaters (New World Stages, Little Shubert) converted to Broadway houses. “That opens up a Pandora’s box,” says one mainstream producer, echoing a sentiment heard up and down the industry. “If shows that play those houses become eligible for the Tonys, what about the shows playing in all those other Off Broadway houses?”

Besides, says Frankel, going Off Broadway is no answer, because “nobody goes to Off Broadway.”

Indeed, even an Off Broadway booster like producer Ken Davenport (“Altar Boyz”) admits, “Something is wrong with the Off Broadway economic model,” which is feeling the squeeze from both Broadway and the burgeoning nonprofits. “We’re working on a new model,” he says about the monthly think-tank sessions of producers and managers who call themselves “the Brainstormers.” But there’s no quick fix, he says, for the varied reasons contributing to the functional breakdown. “It needs total investigation.”

“Off Broadway is struggling right now,” says David Stone, who recalls a time when “perfect Off Broadway plays” like “Three Tall Women” and “Wit” were able to “win prizes, go on tour and have enormous subsidiary lives without moving to Broadway. …

“But the economics aren’t working anymore. What compelling pitch can Off Broadway make to straight plays coming from the nonprofit sector that are looking to transfer?”

While Off Broadway visionaries can beat the drums for converting the largest of its handsome new theaters into Broadway venues, that is one tough sell.

As one union rep puts it, any such move would be “fraught with all kinds of financial problems,” beginning with the bottom-line question of whether these theaters can sustain the bump-up in ticket prices to Broadway scale.

Actors’ Equity already has a number of mini-contracts under which its members currently work Off Broadway. But new salary structures or different working conditions would mean sit-downs at the bargaining table with the League of American Theater Owners & Producers. That org’s new exec director, Charlotte St. Martin, has had some informal discussions with Beverley MacKeen, board member of the Off Broadway League and manager of the five theaters at New World Stages.

But according to one member of the League’s board of governors, “There’s no League committee studying the needs of the straight play on Broadway” — let alone one examining the feasibility of reconfiguring theaters.

“We should all be in the process of reinventing the whole theater concept,” says Coyne, who envisions Broadway as a tourist mecca for musicals and Off Broadway as a complex of “neighborhood regional theaters” that serve the needs of their specific communities. “It would require restructuring, but there ought to be room to do that.

“There really should be a way to produce plays again.”

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