Broadway plays battle for box office

Productions open quickly to make up for strike

Will all this drama turn into tragedy?

With Broadway hustling to recover its stride in the wake of the recent stagehands strike, four commercial productions of straight plays have opened over a single busy week in West 45th Street theaters.

And for four shows working to gain traction with ticket buyers — “The Farnsworth Invention,” “August: Osage County,” “The Seafarer” and “Is He Dead?” — the accelerated sked could dilute the box office benefits of opening-night press attention and jeopardize the survival of one or more of the new entries.

“It’s harder for a great review to have an effect you like, if there’s another great review for another show in the paper the next day,” said Drew Hodges, prexy of Broadway ad agency SpotCo.

Even before the strike hit, the fall was unusually crowded with a dozen nontuners set to open before the holidays. Most of those shows lack major stars to attract auds and are thus particularly reliant on press attention to drive sales.

But given the five recent play openings in rapid succession (starting with Lincoln Center Theater’s nonprofit staging of “Cymbeline,” which opened Dec. 2) and one more on the way (“The Homecoming,” bowing Sunday), it’s even more difficult now to stand out from the pack.

For the commercial plays that have opened so far this month, the critical report card has been largely favorable. While several major Gotham notices for “Farnsworth,” Aaron Sorkin’s take on the invention of TV, were downbeat in the wake of its Dec. 3 opening, the overall balance of regional and national reviews tipped toward the positive. “The Seafarer,” Conor McPherson’s supernatural-tinged tale of redemption, drew raves for its acting ensemble after its Thursday bow, and early buzz on “Is He Dead?” has been upbeat.

Both “Farnsworth” and “Seafarer” reported boosts in ticket sales the day after opening, with “Farnsworth” having its best day ever.

But right now, the belle of the ball looks to be the “August: Osage County.” The Steppenwolf Theater Company production of Tracy Letts’ ensemble family drama already had been anointed by the Chicago press and the New York Times during its summer preem in Chi, and the glowing notices were almost unanimously echoed in Gotham once the Rialto transfer opened Tuesday.

The day reviews hit, the show sold tickets worth a walloping $650,000 — a figure more common for a crowd-pleasing tuner than a straight play.

“The strike had mitigated interest in advance stories on ‘August,’ ” said producer Jeffrey Richards. “But I think we’ll get our share of attention now.”

The plays that opened around “August,” however, now run the risk of being overshadowed. And the rapid-fire press attention, all coming a couple of weeks later than originally intended, also could render the individual shows a blur in ticket buyers’ minds.

“It’s harder to build a show’s individual personality, which is what you have to do for each of these plays to succeed,” said Hodges, whose company handled the advertising for “August” and “Is He Dead?” “And, of course, the closer we get to the holidays, the harder it is to get people to think about anything other than gift wrap.”

Legiters suspect the fortunes of the winter plays will become more apparent later this week, as the review frenzy subsides and sustained sales trends can be better assessed.

In order to combat attrition, the League of American Theaters and Producers is pulling together a play-centric marketing push as part of a broader strike-recovery initiative. “We are working on something especially for the plays that will drive traffic into the winter,” said league prexy Charlotte St. Martin.

There is the potential, too, that the spate of press coverage could turn consumers’ heads with the surge of activity. Plus, play audiences, though much smaller than musical crowds, are famously reliable customers for the nontuner fare they love.

“Some people think now there’s a thirst, and people are anxious to get back in the theater,” said Philip J. Smith, prexy of the Shubert Org, the Rialto landlords of theaters occupied by “Farnsworth,” “August,” “Seafarer” and “Is He Dead?” “If that’s true, we’ll be OK. But if it’s not, these plays are bound to cannibalize each other.”

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