Legiters are fond of saying that Broadway’s a tough market for a straight play. This season, though, there were more than 20 of them on offer.
The only catch? You had to catch ’em quick. The overwhelming majority of those 20-plus productions are, or were, limited engagements.
The prevalence of the short-and-sweet run can be attributed in part to nonprofits presenting plays on Broadway as entries in their seasons. Manhattan Theater Club (“Rabbit Hole,” “Shining City”) and the Roundabout (“A Naked Girl on the Appian Way”) have Rialto outposts with shows rotating in and out, and even Lincoln Center Theater (“Seascape,” “Awake and Sing!”) temporarily uses a midtown house when its on-site venue is booked with a hit like “The Light in the Piazza.”
But what’s the advantage of a limited run for a commercial production? A shorter run means less time to recoup or turn a profit.
For starters, a limited run can attract an A-list star. Julia Roberts would commit to appearing in “Three Days of Rain” for 12 weeks only.
“If you can get somebody who can sell out 12 to 15 weeks, you can make economic sense of it,” says Emanuel Azenberg, the veteran producer involved in the current hit revival of “The Odd Couple,” a limited run (although it’s been oft-extended) starring Broadway darlings Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
Another handy advantage that comes with having a star big enough to sell out a short run? “You don’t have to advertise,” Azenberg says.
A limited run can also create a sense of urgency for the ticket buyer. Elizabeth I. McCann took to advertising the last weeks of the play “Well,” despite the fact that she still considered it, at the time, an open-ended run.
“It seems like every play on Broadway these days calls itself a limited run. I don’t consider 16 weeks limited,” she says. “I decided I’d put ‘final weeks’ in the ads for ‘Well’ and see if it had any effect.” It did, but not enough to save the production, which closed May 14.
In the case of Broadway transfers of U.K. shows, the limited engagements of productions are dictated by Actors’ Equity, which only allows a castful of Brit actors to work for so long on Gotham stages.
Those sorts of shows usually arrive on the Rialto on the wings of Blighty raves, as did “The History Boys” and the Ralph Fiennes starrer “Faith Healer,” both of which are now doing strong biz. The Anglo model is so commonplace that some Yankees are beginning to despair. But not all.
“Broadway might be a little more inhospitable for new American plays right now,” says “Doubt” co-producer Roger Berlind. “But there are still a lot of producers out there who are willing and able to put a play on Broadway” — which is to say, flush enough to afford the hefty financial risk.
“There have always been limited engagements,” he adds. “These things wax and wane.”