Skip Kennon's 'Herringbone'
With the announcement that “Avenue Q” will reopen Off Broadway after its Sept. 13 shuttering on the Main Stem, it’s tempting to imagine that the lines between on-Broadway and off it are starting to blur.
That’s not quite the case: There are still clear differences in the two arenas. Take the lower running costs possible Off Broadway, due to union salary minimums adjusted downward to take into account the lower gross potential of houses with a smaller number of seats.
Maybe producers are starting to think of the dividing line as more porous than they once did.
“Off Broadway continues to be a place where a show can come and live and be successful, or where a show gets its start,” says Beverley D. Mac Keen, exec director of New World Stages, the Off Broadway complex where “Avenue Q” begins perfs Oct. 9. “Now maybe it’s also a place that Broadway comes home. And maybe it’s a place where, post-Tony and you don’t win it, people can bring their shows.”
Observers have for years noted that productions that once would have seemed naturals for Off Broadway runs — “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” say, or “Avenue Q” itself — have carved out significant runs on Broadway, thereby avoiding the tricky economics of Off Broadway and taking advantage of the publicity spotlight and tourist appeal of the Main Stem.
At the same time, Off Broadway has seen its share of large-scale productions — “Rock of Ages,” “In the Heights” — that seemed far too hefty to make it off the Main Stem, despite producers’ arguments to the contrary.
“Avenue Q” makes its unusual return to Off Broadway (after its initial 2003 run at the Vineyard Theater) with a nearly unheard-of advantage for most shows starting up off the Rialto: It’s already established as a Tony-winning Broadway brand, with a profile raised by a recent national tour and a current run in London.
Costs, ticket prices and the number of seats — 499 at New World, vs. 800 at the Golden, the Rialto home of “Q” — will all go down. So will the ad budget, but producer Kevin McCollum says the hardest part of marketing — educating the consumer about the product — has already been accomplished.
“We’ve done all that. Our job is to stay in the conversation,” he says.
In the best-case scenario, a profile boost from “Avenue Q” will benefit all the Off Broadway offerings at New World Stages, including “Altar Boyz” and “The Toxic Avenger Musical.”
And at some point in the future, there are likely to be serious conversations about turning New World’s 499-seat theater, the five-venue complex’s largest, into a Broadway space with about as many seats as the Rialto’s smallest theater, the 600-seat Helen Hayes.
“It comes up all the time,” Mac Keen says.
Over the past couple of years there’s been something of a revival of “Herringbone,” with B.D. Wong performing the idiosyncratic 1982 solo tuner as a season offering at orgs including the La Jolla Playhouse, Princeton’s McCarter Theater and the Williamstown Theater Fest.
Music for the wacky-sounding show, about a young vaudeville performer possessed by the soul of a dead midget, comes from Skip Kennon, who’s well known among legiters who follow musical theater — but less as a composer and more for his 20-year career as a teacher at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop.
As a former head of the program, he’s taught a slew of Tony winners including Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and “Next to Normal” duo Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. As a composer, his work includes “Time and Again,” seen at Manhattan Theater Club in 2001, and the tuner adaptation of 1984 sci-fi pic “The Last Starfighter,” seen in the New York Musical Theater Fest in 2007.
But Kennon is finding it tough to shift the industry’s perception of him. “A lot of people think of me as a teacher only,” he says. “It’s been difficult.”
“Herringbone,” which has introduced his work to a number of nonprofits, should help. He’s composed a few short tuners, one of which was seen during the Summer Shorts fest, and he’s working on putting together an album that showcases his songs, to be released by Kritzerland Records. Plus, the “Starfighter” project could get a useful boost from a proposed bigscreen sequel.
Kitt and Yorkey, who created the initial version of “Normal” during the BMI workshop, remember Kennon as a knowledgeable, and very tough, teacher.
“We’d bring things in and Skip would tear them apart — in a loving way,” Yorkey says. “And then help us build it back up again.”
“He was one of those presences that both intimidated and inspired you,” Kitt adds.