Broadway’s potential blockbusters

These four titles could turn into box office hits

Hollywood calls them “tentpoles,” those B.O. blockbusters that hold up the whole industry. Legiters don’t use that buzzword, but secretly they anticipate a few shows that will generate the kind of commercial frenzy that spills over to other shows. Here’s why four titles have the potential to hold up the whole Broadway tent:

  • “Young Frankenstein,” because Mel Brooks’ musical knocked ’em dead in Seattle and should bring back fans who loved “The Producers”;

  • “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” because after his blockbuster “Coast of Utopia,” Tom Stoppard’s cred is golden, and because the play won raves when it preemed in London;

  • “The Little Mermaid,” because even without the might of the Disney machine, this lavishly staged musical comes off a hit movie with a universally admired score; and

  • “August: Osage County,” because how often does an original American play, even one written by a Pulitzer Prize finalist, knock the socks off theatrically savvy Chicago auds and make national critics swoon? 

Fall 2007 looks great on paper. But then, so did “Lestat” and “Coram Boy” before they opened on Broadway.

“I never count my chickens before they’re hatched,” says Disney Theatricals prexy Thomas Schumacher, “and I’m still sitting on the nest.”

Bob Boyett, a lead producer on “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” wonders if Broadway shows aren’t too “independent” to perform the way that film tentpoles do. 

“August” producer Jeffrey Richards questions whether the tentpole concept can even be applied to plays.

“If there ever was such a thing as a play tentpole in my lifetime, it was Neil Simon,” he says. “If you did a Neil Simon comedy, it was a major commercial event.”

Given the quirky nature of Broadway, it may not be superstition as much as good horse sense that makes insiders wary of predictions. Who knew that an Elton John musical could bomb? Or that a literate one like “Spring Awakening” would turn a profit?

Despite its irresistible source material and sell-out weeks in Denver, “The Little Mermaid” might flop on the Rialto once theatergoers realize that the fish in this tank don’t actually … well, swim. 

“Rock ‘n’ Roll” might revert to the pattern of pre-“Utopia” Stoppard plays, winning critical kudos but no box office cigar.

As for “August: Osage County,” Richards is the first to point out the folly of predicting the B.O. for any drama. “I don’t think any straight play is foolproof, no matter what the pedigree,” he says. “Not even Tennessee Williams was a commercial tentpole.”

But even a musical can turn around and bite you in the ankle. 

While “Young Frankenstein” draws on juicier source material than “The Producers,” the press that proved so indulgent to that show — and the industry that tossed a record 12 Tony Awards at it — could turn on Brooks. Having high-hatted the journos on his first show, he is now snooting his peers, not only bumping up premium rates before “Young Frankenstein” opens but also withholding the B.O. figures that are critical to the way the industry collectively markets and polices itself.

Nothing’s a sure bet in this town and every show is on its own — except when it’s not.

“I do think of tentpoles,” says Schumacher, “but just in terms of Disney Theatricals. TV plans an evening around a tentpole show. Movies plan a season around it. Disney plans five to 10 years around a (legit) show like ‘The Lion King.’ ”

As “Young Frankenstein” producer Robert F.X. Sillerman points out, the tentpole effect that “The Producers” had on Broadway in 2001 doesn’t apply this season. 

When the first Brooks tuner opened, he explains, “there hadn’t been any musical comedies of note for years.”

Since “The Producers” preemed, movie-inspired laffers “Hairspray,” “Spamalot” and “Legally Blonde” have crowded the legit waters.

Competition, however, can be seen as a good thing.

“I love it, the whole tentpole idea,” says Boyett. “I want people to have such a great time at the theater that they come out and say, ‘Well, that was fun — what else can we see?’ “

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