Hit parade redux

2005's four tuner nominees are still running. Will the legs of B'way 2006 be equally long and strong?

Last year’s four Tony-nommed musicals created history this year: “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “The Light in the Piazza,” “Spamalot” and “Spelling Bee” are still up and running 12 months later. In its first 60 years, the Tonys have never left so many tuners so blessed at the box office.

And who knows? It just might happen again with 2006’s quartet of tuner nominees. “Jersey Boys,” “The Color Purple” and “The Drowsy Chaperone” are currently pulling in grosses near or at capacity.

The underdog here, of course, is the fourth nominee, “The Wedding Singer,” which, playing to 62% cap, most needed the awards push and got it with five noms, including the big one. Such artist recognition is great for the egos, but the real prize here arrives at the June 11 telecast.

“From a commercial point of view, to have a number on TV is so important,” says “The Wedding Singers” lead producer Margo Lion. “It sets the tone. ‘The Wedding Singer’ is a younger demo.” Translation: Under-35 auds, who traditionally don’t go to the theater, take much longer to develop, making TV exposure essential.

It’s the first ‘SNL’/Jon Stewart musical,” Lion boasts. Although some observers might put “Avenue Q” into that same category, the point is taken: While “Q” did well in its first weeks, the show took nearly six months to achieve sell-out status. “I hope it doesn’t take us that long!” says Lion.

If it does and Lion’s show falters post-Tony Awards, there is always Disney’s “Tarzan,” currently selling out and virtually snubbed by the Tonys, to take “The Wedding Singer” ‘s place in the Hit Parade Redux.

Scott Sanders, lead producer of the Tony-nominated “Color Purple,” can appreciate the industrywide benefits of having holdover winners from last season and packed houses for so many of this year’s big tuners. “It certainly makes people much more open-minded about investing in Broadway,” he says. Acknowledging the healthy $22 million advance for his own show, he expects to recoup in less than a year, with or without a Tony boost.

“But I don’t think many shows have the ability to create a huge advance in two or three months,” he says, pointing out that both “The Color Purple” and “The Woman in White” were forced to wait until mid-summer to get theaters. “That was way too late to do a presentation for group sales.”

Sanders notes “The Drowsy Chaperone” had the same problem this season, latching onto the Marquis “at the last minute,” when “Woman in White” folded. “When you get your theater can make a critical difference in when you can get your sales campaign together,” he says.

Finding itself in that pickle, “The Drowsy Chaperone” was practically forced into a heavy word of mouth campaign, running ads that urged the show’s auds to become cheerleaders.

“It’s a show about a man who sits in a chair giving out his opinions on musical theater,” says lead producer Kevin McCollum. “So we tried to create an environment that asks everyone who sees the show to discover their inner Man in Chair and get their own opinion out.”

Thanks to good buzz in previews, McCollum didn’t have to touch the half-million he had set aside as a cushion, and projects break-even in 30 weeks — helped along by the affectionate to ecstatic reviews the show picked up.

“If people are liking your show, the reviews won’t matter; if they aren’t buying tickets, the reviews won’t help,” says SpotCo. marketing guru Drew Hodges. But while monster crowdpleasers like “Mamma Mia!” and “Wicked” can override negative notices, he says, “Anything artistically risky needs the reviews.

“If you go back and look at the reviews, ‘The Light in the Piazza’ got disappointing notices and ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ was absolutely annihilated by the New York Times,” says Hodges. “That’s what makes their success so amazing.”

The New York Times’ bludgeoning review of “Scoundrels” was, indeed, an “obstacle we had to overcome,” acknowledges lead producer Marty Bell, who reports the show has earned back 80% of its investment and projects turnaround in June or July. The Tonys helped, even though the show lost to “Spamalot.” “I think we looked very good on the awards show,” Bell says. “More important than the awards, we came on early, when the TV ratings were the highest and we came off looking good.”

According to Nancy Coyne, who has monitored the market for 30 years at Serino-Coyne Advertising, it is no longer considered a smart bet to pitch your show to a niche audience. “The niche is only the low-hanging fruit, those people who have an affinity for this particular material,” she says. The challenge is “to grow that niche of people who already love Frankie Valli into a huge demographic of people who have never heard of Frankie Valli.”

“Every show is desperate to reach that anchor audience in those first six to eight weeks when you can lose everything,” says Dodgers producer Michael David, who was grateful for the Jerseyites who showed up in droves when “Jersey Boys” was in its early days. But he couldn’t relax until his niche audience leveled off and the show began to reach “an ecumenical audience” of young people, families and seniors. “We even have the literati,” he jokes.

An institutional setting and a name brand can also boost the launch of a show.

“I’m sick of hearing about the ‘protected environment’ of the institutional theater,” says Andre Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center. “These Broadway types thinks it costs us nothing, but the costs of producing in the Beaumont are not that far different from Broadway.”

Bishop calculates the $3.6 million capitalization of “The Light in the Piazza,” which he calls a “modest musical,” is roughly 80% of the $4.2 million it would have cost on Broadway. The difference, he says, is reflected mainly in the theater’s LORT artist contracts.

And while Bishop acknowledges the Beaumont’s 40,000-member subscription base helped establish a beachhead for the show, he sounds like every Broadway producer when he enumerates other factors — some good reviews, a well-received cast album, six Tonys and several other awards — that made it a hit “in a very charged, very competitive musical season.” In the fall, “The Light in the Piazza” is going out on national tour to 40 cities.

The 2005-06 season might best be remembered as the time of the big brands. Some scored, others didn’t. “The Woman in White” and “Lestat” didn’t get much traction from the names Andrew Lloyd Webber and Warner Bros., respectively. Oprah Winfrey, however, definitely goosed “The Color Purple.” As Sanders puts it, “She gave us national awareness overnight.”

And of course there is the Mouse. “Tarzan” came swinging into town, but like Disney’s “Aida,” the ape tuner failed to be nommed for musical. Still, it seems a likely bet to be running a year from now. Whether the show can return its hefty estimated $12 million-$15 million capitalization is another story.

Robert Hofler contributed to this report.

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