Survivor: Off Broadway

Small shows find ways to beat competish

They’re not sexy. They don’t get much press coverage. They’re not novelty shows starring clowns or blue men. And many of them play quirky, older venues off the beaten path.

But they survive, and, in their own way, thrive. Even when they don’t fully recoup in New York, they lay the foundations for profitability on the road.

A recent spate of small-scale, traditional legit productions — among them “No Child …,” “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” and “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, and I’m in Therapy!” — are defying the odds by establishing lengthy commercial runs for themselves on what’s generally considered the inhospitable terrain of Off Broadway.

As one would expect, they’re doing it by keeping costs as low as possible and marketing as best they can to each show’s target demo.

But while all those things can extend a production’s lifespan, many productions also are finding that simply deciding to stay put can itself become part of the sales strategy.

Maintaining a New York outpost not only allows time for a Gotham audience to build, it also helps sell the show to out-of-town markets — where, for many Off Broadway productions, the real money is made.

“We want to increase the value and the visibility of the property by staying in New York as long as we can,” says Rodger Hess, lead producer of “Italian/Jewish/Therapy.” The one-man show, written and performed by Steve Solomon, has done strong enough business at the Little Shubert since it began previews Nov. 3 to turn its limited engagement into an open-ended run. Plans are afoot to take a tour out on the road this fall.

“A show can build up enormous equity on the road, even if the New York production doesn’t recoup,” adds Hess. (Capitalized at around $800,000, “Italian” has not yet made back its initial investment.) Following this model, the Off Broadway tuner “Altar Boyz,” which has been running at New World Stages since February 2005, spawned productions around the world.

That’s part of the plan for the two-man comic tuner “Gutenberg! The Musical!” Although it has announced only a 10-week run at the Actors’ Playhouse downtown (after successful stints in London, at the New York Musical Theater Fest and at 59E59 Theaters), the fact that the show will remain at the Playhouse beyond its original March 25 closing date is “kind of taken for granted at this point,” says “Gutenberg” producer Trevor Brown.

Given the production’s $50 top ticket price, “we’re not looking to recoup very quickly,” Brown says. “But the show will have a longer life at that price, and once we’ve been there a number of months we’ll be looking to send the show out on the road. To an extent, that’s where a lot of the recoupment will come from.”

Having what’s perceived as a successful run in Gotham is a valuable marketing asset out of town, and besides, keeping a production up and running can be a useful sales tool for when presenters from around the country come to Gotham to shop for potential product.

“The longer a play runs, the more good things can happen to it,” says Scott Morfee, the producer of “No Child …,” Nilaja Sun’s one-woman show about teaching in the New York City school system, which has run since July at the West Village’s Barrow Street Theater after an earlier engagement at the Beckett on Theater Row. “People find us.”

Morfee, the producing artistic director at the Barrow Street, has an impressive track record with Off Broadway plays. Over the last eight years or so, he’s managed to maintain solid runs (usually between nine and 12 months) for offerings such as “Bug,” “Orson’s Shadow,” and “Killer Joe.”

Barrow Street, where “Bug” and “Orson’s Shadow” played, has about 200 seats. “A play in my theater needs one sold-out Yankee Stadium — 50,000 people — over the course of its year to have a shot at recoupment.”

Morfee has helped keep costs down by internalizing the handling of a show’s day-to-day operations. His multi-tasking production company plays landlord as well as general manager.

With limited ad budgets, Off Broadway shows can drum up auds by targeting group sales, traditionally more of a factor for Broadway. (“Gutenberg,” for instance, is building on its Upright Citizens Brigade roots by tapping the New York comedy audience as well as more traditional theatergoers.)

And it helps to have a strong title. “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, and I’m in Therapy!” doesn’t require much explanation. Nor does “Jewtopia,” the comedy that’s been running at the Westside Theater since 2004.

The revival of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” which has been running at the Zipper since last March, also highlights its most recognizable asset — Brel’s music — in its title.

While the show, which recently added “American Idol” alum Constantine Maroulis to its ensemble, is working on other productions in cities around the country, “the plan is to run it in New York as long as we can,” says “Brel” producer Dan Whitten.

Still, despite the ancillary advantages of keeping an Off Broadway show alive in Gotham, Whitten recognizes that a production has to maintain a base level of sales to make it really worth it.

“When it’s time to go, the numbers really don’t lie,” he says.

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