‘Grease’ gets Broadway boost

Reality show caters $14.2 million advance

How much is a primetime-TV casting competition worth to a Broadway musical?

So far, about $14.2 million in advance ticket sales.

That’s how much “Grease” has in the bank, thanks in part to the NBC casting competish, “Grease: You’re the One That I Want,” which had a winter run that began in January.

The revival begins previews at the Brooks Atkinson Theater July 24 for an Aug. 19 opening.

Sure, some of that advance can be attributed to the extraordinary popularity of “Grease” itself. After all, ratings for the “You’re the One That I Want” didn’t impress, and its populist casting approach — in which viewers voted on the two thesps to score lead roles — provoked grumbling from legit purists.

But “You’re the One” repped the first U.S. attempt to link a theater production to the craze for performance-oriented reality TV like “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance.”

And the box office afterglow of such legit-based TV fare, both in the U.K. and Stateside, looks likely to prompt theater producers and creatives to explore other ways to tie the brand of Broadway to the marketing muscle of the tube.

Producers had been discussing a revival of “Grease” when the idea for the TV show was sparked by the success last year of the BBC’s “How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?” That show chronicled the casting process of a West End revival of “The Sound of Music.” And the audience-chosen star, Connie Fisher, won unexpected critical raves for her perf when the show opened in November.

” ‘Sound of Music’ has been a humongous success at the box office,” says David Ian, the Brit producer involved with both “Sound” and “Grease,” which he co-produces on Broadway with Nederlander Presentations, among others.

Ian also is behind a West End production of “Grease” that will open later this summer following the recently aired U.K. version of the casting show. (“We have a very significant advance,” he says.) Also in Blighty, a West End production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” was cast with a similar TV show (see story, page 43).

“Each time a stage production has gotten that kind of help from TV, it’s been hugely successful,” Ian contends.

Viewership for the American version of “You’re the One That I Want” averaged a mediocre 8 million or so for its 11 episodes. Still, that’s a major boost in visibility for Broadway, where even a consistent sellout in a large theater can’t top more than 800,000 people a year.

“How many Broadway shows can say that an average of more than 8 million people tuned in 11 times?” asks Nederlander Org exec VP Nick Scandalios. “That’s a lot of eyeballs.”

It’s impossible to know how much credit for the strong advance sales can be given directly to the TV show and how much to the popular vehicle itself. The 1972 stage original of “Grease” is constantly performed regionally, and the 1978 pic remains the most successful movie tuner to date, with domestic sales of $188 million. The show has been revived once already on Broadway in a 1994 production that ran four years.

The current, $9.2 million revival is the first on the Rialto to include hit songs added for the movie: “You’re the One That I Want,” “Hopelessly Devoted To You,” “Sandy” and the title tune.

The production pulled in an impressive $1.3 million in advance ticket sales in the two days following the Jan. 7 preem of the NBC series.

“Do I know whether that would have happened without the show? No,” says Ian. “But do I think the TV show helped? God, it’s got to have done. We certainly wouldn’t have that advance with two complete unknowns leading the cast.”

Those unknowns — Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, playing bad boy Danny and good girl Sandy — were judged by Ian, helmer Kathleen Marshall and “Grease” co-creator Jim Jacobs. The stars were chosen by viewers who logged a total of 29 million votes, according to Scandalios.

When the TV series was announced, many theater folks rolled their eyes at what they perceived as the amateur-ization of Broadway (although few of the contestants were complete stage tyros). But there can be creative merits to an audition process expanded into a reality TV production.

“Because I staged the musical numbers for the TV show, I was in a room working with all the contestants every week,” says Marshall (“The Pajama Game,” “Wonderful Town”). “That’s something you don’t get in regular auditions. I’ve had more prep time for this Broadway show than any I’ve ever done.”

The initial sales success of “Grease” looks poised to inspire similar media cross-pollination.

“It’s on the radar of a number of people in the community,” Scandalios says. “I hope someone else will explore TV in their own way. Only by doing it again will we learn more as a community about how we want the theater reflected on TV.”

A casting skein like “You’re the One” won’t work for every tuner, however.

“It can work if the show is so iconic and so known that the public has a real opinion about these characters,” Ian says.

Like “Sound of Music,” “Grease” fits the bill. “It has two of the more well-known characters ever created for the theater,” Scandalios says. “What made the TV show enticing is you didn’t have to be a theatergoer to actually know who Danny and Sandy are.”

But strong advance sales don’t guarantee a hit show.

“TV gives you a great start,” Ian says, “but the usual rules apply. If we don’t deliver with the production, that advantage won’t be enough.”

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