Are gay auds trading B’way for TV?

Critic's Notebook

Does gay no longer pay on Broadway?

With the premature closing of Douglas Carter Beane’s gay-themed “The Little Dog Laughed,” on Feb. 18 after only 112 perfs, it appears that one of legit’s built-in auds, Gotham’s gay theater-going crowd, is suddenly missing in action.

Plays are always a risky commercial proposition, but didn’t “Bent” (1979), “Torch Song Trilogy” (1982), “M. Butterfly” (1988), “Angels in America” (1993), “Love! Valour! Compassion!” (1995) and the tangentially gay-themed “The History Boys” (2006) all recoup? “Take Me Out” might have lost money in 2003, but it nonetheless ran an impressive 355 perfs.

If the failure of “Little Dog” is any indication, it appears the so-called gay play on Broadway has gone the way of lawyer dramas and frothy sex comedies, and likewise, been usurped by television. This is thanks not only to “Will & Grace” but more important, the constant homophilic output of Bravo, Logo, Showtime and even HBO and IFC with their airing of films like “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Celluloid Closet,” respectively.

The business minds behind Beane’s stage comedy about an in-the-closet movie star clearly were blindsided by the sea change in audience taste.

“I thought a comedy would be a big draw,” says Susan Dietz, a lead producer on “Little Dog.” “When we first started marketing, we called it the funniest show in town.” After all, the production had not one but two rave reviews from the New York Times’ Ben Brantley, who compared Beane to Noel Coward and Philip Barry.

The play’s satirical take on our culture’s media-manipulated icons made it a hot ticket in its original Off Broadway run at Second Stage in fall 2005 and gay auds were certainly a large constituency among ticket-buyers. “I know, because the lines to the men’s room were really long and that never happens,” says S.S. artistic director Carole Rothman.

But on Broadway, “Dog” played to less than 60% capacity most weeks.

“Maybe I don’t know the gay audience as well as I thought,” says the show’s publicist, Richard Kornberg. “Gays appear to be more supportive of a camp figure like Edie Beale than actual gay characters,” he adds, referring to the new Broadway musical “Grey Gardens,” known among Rialto wags as “Gay Gardens.”

As Rothman and Kornberg agree, however, the obvious difference here is that 1) unlike Broadway, Second Stage produces limited engagements in a small theater, and 2) “Little Dog” is a play while “Grey Gardens” is a musical, the last legit animal not to be cloned ad nauseam on cable TV and in cineplexes everywhere.

While online theater chat sites bemoan the Oscar snub of “Dreamgirls,” Broadway producers should pray that movie tuners continue to struggle in Hollywood. Aside from the very occasional screen hit, the experience of the musical can still only be satisfied by going to the theater.

The hunger of gay men to see their lives reflected onstage and in other entertainment forms has been diminished by increased visibility in mainstream culture.Rothman isn’t so sure gays are a natural bet anymore. She compares the shift to casting trends: “I’ve noticed recently that actors don’t want to be labeled as black, Hispanic, gay, whatever. I’m seeing that now a bit with audiences, too. They don’t want to be ghettoized. It’s a feeling of ‘I’m just a person. Don’t label me.’ ”

Comedy? Not Tonight!

In the final analysis, “Little Dog” might have succumbed to a more pervasive marketing liability than either “gay” and/or “nonmusical.”

According to Dietz, her record-producer friend Clive Davis cautioned her about promoting Beane’s play as a laugh riot. “If I want to go to a comedy, I’ll go to a movie,” he opined.

Charles Busch’s “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” from the 2000-01 season, is the last flat-out comedy to recoup.

“It’s difficult for a play that’s just a fun evening,” says Busch, who returns to the fray this March with his new laffer, “Our Leading Lady,” at Manhattan Theater Club. “It’s hard for people to spend that kind of money.”

Meanwhile, many recent original dramas, from “Proof” and “Doubt” to “Topdog/Underdog” and “The Pillowman” crossed into the black. In some cases, there were stars involved. Or buzz from London. Or awards exposure. (Think about it: When’s the last time a comedy ever won the Tony, much less the Pulitzer?)

Over at the Theater Development Fund, exec director Victoria Bailey offers a sobering observation on comedies, gay or straight: “If audiences want just to be entertained, they go to a musical. You go to plays for something meaty. It plays into that prestige thing.”

That view is echoed by the continued appeal for Broadway auds of Eugene O’Neill, for example, and of the high-minded fare often imported from Britain.

” ‘The History Boys’ was successful because it married the intellectual with the really entertaining,” Bailey notes.

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