Broadway plays it safe

Producers skirt risk with brand names

Broadway’s getting ready to nosh on the legit equivalents of mac ‘n’ cheese and Ben & Jerry’s.

Even though B.O. is robust and the season has minted new sales juggernauts (including “Billy Elliot” and “All My Sons”), the global economic crisis has unnerved legiters — just like everyone else.

With a large number of empty theaters anticipated in the spring, there looks to be a surge in offerings that mitigate financial risk. Cue tuner adaptations of well-known properties (“9 to 5”), revivals (“West Side Story,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Blithe Spirit”) and marquee talent (Jane Fonda, Will Ferrell). There will also be a fair share of small-scale, low-cost productions with one or two thesps.

This trend stands in contrast to the edgier, more commercially uncertain fare of recent seasons such as “Spring Awakening,” “Grey Gardens” and “Passing Strange.”

“I think we’re going to see some of that ‘comfort food’ factor,” says Hal Luftig, producer of the recently shuttered tuner “Legally Blonde.”

Many think the true test of the economy’s impact on legit will come during the holidays. If there’s a dent in those traditionally boffo tallies, it’s time to worry. And producers have begun to encounter resistance from habitual investors who would rather hold onto their money just now.

In hopes that auds will find a reason to loosen the already tight grip on their own wallets, producers are betting on a bevy of familiar titles — as well as faces — for the spring.

  • The revival of “West Side Story” that opens March 19 at the Palace Theater has the advantage of being, well, “West Side Story,” the universally acclaimed 1957 tuner that hasn’t played Broadway in nearly 30 years.

  • Similarly, “Guys and Dolls,” opening March 1 at the Nederlander, brings back the 1950 gangster fable widely considered one of the classics of musical theater.

  • The Public Theater revival of ’60s flower-power tuner “Hair” begins perfs at the Al Hirschfeld Theater in February with a prior stamp of aud approval from its wildly popular run of free perfs in Central Park this summer.

  • Then there’s Ferrell. The high-wattage star’s Broadway debut in a show he co-created, “You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W Bush,” seems a good bet to draw crowds. Plus, it’s a one-man show, making it relatively cheap to run.

  • There’s also the Fonda factor. The thesp returns to the Rialto this spring after 43 years to topline “33 Variations,” the latest from writer-director Moises Kaufman.

  • Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen also look to pull in Broadway auds, who haven’t seen either thesp on the Rialto since stints in the 1980s. The duo topline Michael Jacobs’ new play “Impressionism,” soon to announce a theater for its spring run.

  • “Blithe Spirit,” beginning perfs at the Shubert Theater in February, looks to join the season’s spate of strong-selling, star-driven revivals (“All My Sons,” “The Seagull,” “Equus,” “Speed-the-Plow”). The show brings back the 1941 Noel Coward comedy with a cast topped by Rupert Everett, Christine Ebersole and Angela Lansbury.

  • Another revival, “Mary Stuart,” arrives in Gotham after winning raves in London in 2005. Original stars Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter reprise their roles in the show, opening at the Broadhurst in April.

  • The tuner version of 1980 comedy pic “9 to 5” punches the clock at the Marquis in April, powered by country superstar Dolly Parton, who penned the score and prominently appears in the show’s TV ads.

  • There’s also a string of modestly scaled productions confirmed or circling, including the three-femme tuner “Vanities” (beginning in February at the Lyceum), musical two-hander “The Story of My Life” (rumored to be going into the Booth) and Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show, “Wishful Drinking” (another possibility for the spring).

Of course, most of these productions were in motion months before the economy became a hot topic this fall. The real fallout will likely hit further down the line.

“The effects on the ability of producers to raise money are going to show up in the spring, or definitely in the fall,” says Emanuel Azenberg, whose next project, autumn revivals of Neil Simon’s comic autobio hits “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound” playing in rep, is another upcoming offering that stands to benefit from pre-existing popularity. “Already there’s one major investor I know who said, ‘Not this year.’ ”

If cautious backers become the norm, many legiters worry producers will be less inclined to take a chance on nontraditional fare cultivated by Off Broadway nonprofits.

But in general, no one will cop to shifting their tastes to fit what may or may not work in economically hard times.

“I’d still do ‘Avenue Q,’ ” says Kevin McCollum, producer of “Q,” “In the Heights” and “West Side Story,” as well as the disappointing Rialto run of “[title of show].” “And I’d still do ‘West Side.’ ”

Economics, after all, are always part of the equation.

“You always gravitate to things you love that you hope also will be able to secure an audience,” says Jeffrey Richards (“August: Osage County,” “Speed-the-Plow”). On his slate of incoming shows is the Broadway transfer of Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to Be Pretty,” a riskier bet as a new play with no big-name stars attached, and a revival of “Look Homeward, Angel” — not exactly a show everybody knows well.

On the other hand, Richards also has “You’re Welcome America” and “Blithe Spirit” on his roster. “I’m banking on people wanting to laugh this spring,” he says.

If an audience shift toward more familiar fare does materialize, some producers are already primed to take advantage of it. Take Disney Theatrical Prods., whose trio of Broadway offerings (“The Lion King,” “Mary Poppins,” “The Little Mermaid”) are based on three of Disney’s hit pics.

“We think people would gravitate toward the known and the successful,” says David Schrader, exec VP of Disney Theatrical. “We’re definitely paying attention and being a little more aggressive on the marketing front.”

Legiters agree that megahits like “Wicked,” “Jersey Boys” and “The Lion King” will remain blockbusters in the face of hard times. And at least on the evidence of this season, limited runs of straight plays with stars still have a good shot at making a profit.

Many say it’s the midlevel successes that are vulnerable. Both “Monty Python’s Spamalot” and “Hairspray” had their day in the sun, but recent months of moderate sales were capped by closing notices posted for January.

On the other hand, several industry watchers argue that shows like 6½-year-old “Hairspray” and 4-year-old “Spamalot” were approaching the end of their shelf lives anyway. A few can see a silver lining to a harsher economic climate in that it may force producers to rethink the economics of the Rialto in general after several years of bounty.

“We’ve done so well for so long, we’re all a little spoiled,” says McCollum. “Hopefully, people will get smarter about how they produce.”

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