Broadway bows to bottom line

Producers try to trim without losing pizzazz

The new economy will force Broadway producers to think smarter, legiters say.

But how much does thinking smarter equal downsizing productions? And if shows get smaller, will auds notice?

Many in the industry agree the bloated business model will need to be trimmed, with everything from longstanding backstage practices to the specifics of physical productions coming under scrutiny.

“All the economic participants, all of them, have to rethink their excesses,” says Emanuel Azenberg, producer of the upcoming revivals of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound.” “Just like the guys on Wall Street, we have to stop taking our bonuses, too.”

But with labor arrangements locked for now by contract agreements and defended by stalwart unions, it’s the productions themselves that will be easiest to trim.

So megabudget tuners with high running costs such as “Young Frankenstein,” “Billy Elliot” and “Shrek the Musical” are bound to become a rarer breed as producers grow more cautious.

Many producers are hoping auds won’t necessarily notice a shift — in large part because impresarios are tweaking their broad creative strategies for upcoming offerings so that it’s less a matter of cutting back on what’s already there and more about new criteria for proceeding with fresh projects.

“I think a lot about differentiation,” says Kevin McCollum, a lead producer for this season’s revival of “West Side Story” (opening March 19) and for new tuner “Minsky’s,” aiming to bow on the Rialto this summer or fall. “If there are seven shows about disenfranchised teenagers running at the same time, that’s not smart producing.”

In any event, cheaper is better these days.

That explains why the Rialto already has seen an influx of star-driven shows like Will Ferrell’s “You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W Bush” and “All My Sons,” which co-starred Katie Holmes. Plays are less costly than tuners, since casts are smaller, there’s no orchestra to pay, and set demands are often far less complicated.

But cost-cutting is not just about capitalization. Perhaps even more important is the weekly pricetag of keeping a show up and running.

A key is finding the right threshold for breaking even.

Producer Hal Luftig learned that firsthand with “Legally Blonde.” “If you look at our numbers, we rarely did below $550,000 a week,” he says. “The problem was, we had a show that cost $650,000 a week.”

So for the post-Broadway tour, producers and creatives retooled the physical demands of the show, scaling it back more than usual for a road production. Luftig estimates the road show now costs a little more than $300,000 to run every week.

Producers had cause to worry that auds would notice the scale-down: The tuner’s Broadway incarnation aired several times on MTV. Even so, the tour has done strong biz.

“I promise you, nobody’s walking out going, ‘Oh, we miss the stair unit,’ ” Luftig says. “Find me someone who says their emotional experience is tied to the scenery.”

A producer of the upcoming tuner adaptation of “Catch Me if You Can,” Luftig adds he’ll aim to keep a tighter rein on finances from the beginning, as creatives begin to conceptualize the staging of a new project.

“You have to start with everybody and explain the economics of this, and assure every department we’re not going to let them look bad,” he says. “Inexpensive doesn’t mean cheap.”

Meanwhile, some producers would like to re-evaluate labor deals. McCollum, for instance, wants unions and producers to hammer out a contract for limited engagements of musicals, such as his recent holiday offering, “White Christmas.”

But changes to labor deals can only happen gradually as existing contracts come up for renegotiation, and unions will fend off any cost-cutting measures that cut too deep into their members’ livelihoods.

Besides, the fallout from the economy, many legiters say, still isn’t fully understood.

“I think the biggest influence will be what people conclude from spring and summer, April through July, about how the economy is affecting audience turnout,” says Bob Boyett (“The 39 Steps,” “Minsky’s”).

Most producers agree some things have to change, even if it’s not clear yet how the specifics of those changes will shake out in an industry that has seen its share of inflated costs and rewards.

“All of this has to be dealt with in a way that’s more than cosmetic,” Azenberg says. “Everybody has to give up something.”

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