Strike gloom spells Off Broadway boom

Audiences flock to the 'Altar'

NEW YORK — What do 1,500 audience members do when one performance of “The Little Mermaid” gets canceled? They could go to dinner. They could go to the movies. Or they could fill all 194 seats at “Forbidden Broadway” seven and a half times.

In what may have been the only silver lining of the stagehands’ strike last week, Off Broadway shows got a significant boost thanks to stranded Rialto theatergoers.

The half-price TKTS booth that services both Broadway and Off Broadway sold discounted tix to 34 Off Broadway shows for the week ending Nov. 11, totaling $134,120. That’s more than double the previous week’s sales, and sets the record for the season — even though the number of shows sold was down.

“There was a lot of walkup,” says “Forbidden” producer John Freedson, whose new “Rude Awakening” revue ironically picked up a large windfall from the temporary shuttering of its satirical targets. Freedson admits that writer-director Gerard Alessandrini’s musical parody usually does well on holiday weekends, but adds that many members of the touristy weekend aud weren’t typical attendees.

“It was interesting to the cast, because the audience really looked like a cross-section of Americans,” he says. “It was not the ‘innie-in’ crowd that often flocks to ‘Forbidden Broadway.’ ”

Though Freedson added two perfs to the show’s schedule for the first post-strike week, he doesn’t see the work shutdown as a good thing. “It sours people on Broadway, and it sours people on theater,” he says.

“Altar Boyz,” another midtown musical, also sold well; producer Ken Davenport says the acclaimed Christian boy-band mock concert usually sells out on weekends, but he was surprised by the rate at which the show quickly sold undiscounted tix to distraught tunerphiles.

“Proximity was definitely an issue,” Davenport says. “New World Stages is a block away from ‘Wicked.’ Work stoppages are not good for anybody. The one thing I’ve been pleased about is that there were crying kids and really unhappy people wanting to see ‘Wicked’ that morning and we were able to provide them with an alternative.”

Tuner auds composed the majority of Broadway refugees, but straight play aficionados needed a fix as well. Off Broadway house 59E59’s exec producer Peter Tear found that the visiting Massachusetts-based Merrimack Repertory Theater suddenly sold quite a few tix to Sunday night’s preview of “Secret Order” at the 199-seat Theater A.

“I think there were 185 people in there,” says a surprised Tear. “Really, honestly, we run a Sunday evening show because our neighborhood people like to come then, but it’s not the busiest night of the week.”

Those numbers — 200-seat houses; mere hundreds of thousands of dollars in ticket sales — may not sound like much compared with regular figures from millionaires’ club heavyweights like “Wicked,” “Jersey Boys” or “The Lion King,” but what would be a week’s gross for a moderately successful Rialto show can make or break many Off Broadway productions.

There’s give and take, of course — the plywood set of 59E59’s other box office draw “Crime and Punishment” probably cost less to build and mount than a single sight gag in “Young Frankenstein.” But spillover from the strike could make all the difference for shows that can’t afford a billboard in Times Square, especially if the unexpected exposure results in good buzz.

“In a certain sense, the uptick in sales is uninteresting for us,” says Mark Maluso, who produces the Off Broadway acrobatic comedy show “Jump,” another reluctant strike beneficiary. “But we brought the show here to see how it would do in the long run, and word of mouth has increased and sped up that process for us.”

The other producers agree, and though nobody wants to appear to profit from their colleagues’ misfortune, a number of shows have made discreet additions to their websites and ad campaigns noting that their houses remain open for business.

“It’s not about ‘Altar Boyz,’ ” says Davenport of the increased attention. “It’s about Off Broadway in general. We’re like the little brother — we get the hand-me-downs.” So what happens when Broadway shows vanish from the spotlight? “I think people are going to see that the little brother has a lot to say.”

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