Opening nights shed their opulence

At the end of the 2008-09 Broadway season, a Tony-winning producer was trashing his fellow producers’ new show.

“There aren’t any characters you care about!” the producer brayed. “Who wants to see it? And where were the elm trees? It looked like ‘Desire in the Rock Quarry’!”

His remarks were especially egregious because they were uttered very loudly. At the opening night party. In the party’s press room!

Whatever happened to legit decorum? But, almost as important, whatever happened to opening-night parties?

Gone are the days of the ebullient caftan-wearing Allan Carr, who shelled out upward of $150,000 in 1983 dollars for the “La Cage Aux Folles” party, held in the lobby of the Pan Am building. The now-defunct airline was the tuner’s national sponsor, and Carr turned the org’s marble lobby into a replica of St. Tropez complete with sand, parasols, venders, storefront facades and a revolving dance floor with 25-piece orchestra.

“It cost $150,000, but we got a million dollars’ worth of publicity,” says exec producer Barry Brown.

Nowadays, there isn’t even a few thousand dollars’ worth of publicity, much less a million, to be had from a Broadway opening-night party, most of which feature only two reporters (Variety‘s and Playbill.com’s), three video cams (NY-1, Broadway.com, Broadway Beat) and a gaggle of photogs. The New York Times dropped its Bold Faces column years ago, and the New York Post and the Daily News rarely send reporters to legit events anymore.

“Over the years there’s been a diminishment in the press exposure that an opening-night party generates,” says producer Jeffrey Richards, who has two new shows (“Superior Donuts,” “Race”) on Broadway this fall. “It’s hardly commensurate with the increased cost of some of these parties.”

A sitdown dinner at Tavern on the Green or a big hotel ballroom can easily run $75,000 and up. Most fetes these days feature a sampling of canapes at a cost of about $25,000. (For his recent “Donuts” fete, Richards served sushi in memory of his Jeremy Piven-“Speed-the-Plow” contretemps from the previous season.)

Unless there’s a major movie star present onstage or on the red carpet, producers can’t count on national coverage.

But there’s the rub. Movie people don’t do press. Not on Broadway. Not anymore.

Although there was a full dinner at the glitzy Gotham Hall for the recent “Hamlet” preem party, Jude Law eschewed all interviews.

Carrie Fisher went further. She banned photographers at her “Wishful Drinking” opening night in October. As the show’s tip sheet so delicately put it, “Please note: There will not be an opportunity for curtain call photos or photos of Carrie Fisher following the show.” Which is odd, since Fisher has been known to grant — for a small fee — autographs, quick chats and photographs at the Hollywood Collectors & Celebrity Show in Burbank.

Surprisingly, Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman did submit to a six-minute press conference for a cluster of 13 outlets and as many photographers. No matter that entertainment press conferences rarely produce one printable quote, stars of Craig and Jackman’s wattage had been expected to attract some really big celebs to the red carpet — Barbra Streisand, Josh Brolin, Shia LaBeouf, Emily Blunt, Woody Harrelson, Julian Lennon and Vanessa Williams.

For some reason, only Whoopi Goldberg and Candice Bergen actually showed. Maybe Streisand and friends didn’t find the event press-worthy enough after having gotten word that journos wouldn’t be allowed beyond the third-floor conference room to mingle downstairs in the two rooms reserved for Craig and Jackman at the Harvard Club, where, it was said, so much liquor flowed that one theater exec left his wife behind.

How different it was six years ago when Jackman was a Broadway deb and appeared on the Gotham boards in “The Boy From Oz.” That Copacabana preem party featured more than 50 news outlets, and the star gave each one of them a memorable 60 seconds of chat.

Or when Nicole Kidman opened in “The Blue Room,” in 1998, and weathered a freezing cold press line of at least 50 outlets at Pier One.

Stars still walk the press line at Broadway opening nights, but they tend to be legit troupers like the 82-year-old Rosemary Harris or the recently hospitalized Tony Roberts, both of “The Royal Family.” But since they’re not movie headliners, they attracted only the usual press suspects to their Oct. 8 fete.

Not that preem parties are all about generating publicity. Long ago, they were called “cast parties,” and today they still give lead producers the opportunity to thank the actors and creatives. In the commercial world of Broadway, the party also brings together all those lesser producers (aka investors), giving them an opportunity to meet the actors and creatives for the first time.

For nonprofit theaters, it’s a chance to impress donors and board members.

Most important, perhaps, “The opening-night party is just a tradition,” says Andre Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater. “We theater folk love our traditions and are scared to give them up. It may be true that most people just want to go home to bed. I don’t know.”

That party tradition, however, is slipping away regardless. Reporters, stars on the red carpet and good food have been replaced by BlackBerrys, which, in turn, have made the opening-night ritual of reading aloud the good reviews (and keeping the pans out of the parties) as yesterday as an Al Hirschfeld cartoon.

“Now you look around at a party and no one is looking up,” says uberpublicist Chris Boneau. “They’re all staring at their handheld device when they should be drinking. Reading the reviews in a newspaper was actually more fun. Reading it off a BlackBerry is work.”

Gordon Cox and Sam Thielman contributed to this report.

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