Ambitious play competing for attention

A cast of 20. Another 20 performers in the choir. Seven musicians. No big-name stars.

And did we mention it’s a play?

“Coram Boy,” the Broadway incarnation of a National Theater production, qualifies as the most ambitious nonmusical offering on the boards in a spring season crowded with straight-play competition. But Boyett Ostar Prods. (“The History Boys,” the upcoming “LoveMusik”) is taking the risk, laying the groundwork for what it hopes will mirror the snowballing word of mouth that made the London production a hit.

“It’s a very extensive undertaking, to say the least,” says Bill Haber, who with partner Bob Boyett makes up Boyett Ostar. “It’s the most financially challenging straight play I’ve ever done. Everyone said I shouldn’t do it now.”

A Dickensian tale of orphans, aristocracy and the slave trade, “Coram Boy” would be a daunting prospect in any season. First off, it’s not a musical, and as any Rialto producer will tell you, it’s far harder to make money on a play than on a tourist-pleasing tuner. The sweeping 18th-century storyline requires an enormous production of nearly 50 performers, including the choir and musicians who perform the music of Handel (a character in the tale) as well as original tunes inspired by the composer’s work. And the source material is a British book of young-adult fiction (by Jamila Gavin) little-known on this side of the Pond.

This spring, with a solid dozen straight plays among the 18 new productions on the Broadway slate, it’s even tougher to stand out and attract crowds.

Take “Journey’s End,” another Boyett Ostar production, which earned glowing reviews when it opened in February but has struggled at the box office. The show brought in just $150,827 for the week ending April 8. “It’s too tough of a show to market, where every day we pick up a paper and read about war,” Haber says of the WWI-set play. Still, he hopes to keep the production open through June.

Haber and Boyett also are involved in this spring’s “Inherit the Wind.” That revival is faring better at the B.O. — $416,728 for the week ending April 8 — and has a cast that, at 34, approaches the size of the “Coram Boy” ensemble. But unlike both “Coram” and “Journey’s End,” “Wind” has the marketing benefit of two marquee-name thesps, Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy.

Still, for logistical reasons, the time was now for “Coram.” “It has a major facility problem,” Haber notes — which is to say it’s so big it needs a musical house — and the Imperial Theater became available with the quick folding of “High Fidelity” in December.

Plus, producers Scott Rudin and Alison Owen are developing a movie version of “Coram” with Miramax and the BBC. That, too, added to the ticking clock.

So the Broadway sked was set to kick off previews April 16, with producers hoping to capitalize on the pedigree of the National, which yielded last year’s Tony-sweeping hit play “History Boys.” In London, “Coram Boy” had an initial four-month run (beginning in November 2005) which became so popular the National brought the show back for another four-month engagement that closed in February.

In the U.K., though, the 2000 novel is a known quantity that won the Whitbread Children’s Book Award. “Here, they don’t know the book, so we have to start from scratch,” Haber says.

Along with the usual direct mailings and email blasts, invitations are being sent out to drum up biz in Gotham’s education sector.

Looking for other ways to attract attention in a competitive season, marketers also are playing up the traits that make “Coram Boy” such a risky venture in the first place.

“The very scale of it is a reason to go,” says Drew Hodges, prexy and creative director of ad agency SpotCo, which handles “Coram.” “It’s almost like a musical. Our ads have been telling people how many actors are in it, how many musicians.”

Those pushing the show — which, like the book, follows a complicated plot that does not shy away from the unsavory dastardliness of its villains — must try to warn away children who may be too young for the subject matter while avoiding the overemphasis of the tale’s darker elements.

“We wanted the advertising art to be uplifting most of all, because people were concerned that it not be seen as dark or grim,” Hodges says. As happened in London, producers are recommending the show for ages 12 and up.

New York producers are hoping that once previews begin, the show will catch on with auds the way it did with Brit theatergoers — and the way “History Boys” did in Gotham. In the meantime, they’re trying to keep costs as low as they can. Haber says “Coram” will recoup at 80% capacity in 24 weeks.

As is often the case with play producers, backers invest because they love it, and because they can afford it. “A lot of people in the theater are very wealthy,” Haber says. “If they lose the money, it doesn’t affect them much.” (Haber, a founder of CAA, and TV vet Boyett made their money in Hollywood before becoming Broadway regulars.)

But with a successful London track record, “Coram” gives Haber cause for optimism. “It has a history, this play,” he says.

Besides, that choir is worth it. “One of the themes of the play is the power of music to transform and transport people,” says director and co-designer Melly Still. “There’s something really powerful about having a live choir and seeing those baroque instruments. It has a very different impact than when you’re listening to it on a CD.”

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