Theaters eye $1 billion at b.o. next year

Billion-dollar Broadway?

It sounds like the title of a feelgood musical fantasy. But amid the harshest economic climate since the Depression, denizens of the Rialto are quietly eyeing the prospect of cracking $1 billion at the B.O. next season.

The mark is an elusive one, and seems almost counterintuitive given the tough times and Broadway’s position as one of the priciest entertainment propositions for consumers. A summer lineup with almost no new blood doesn’t help.

But the 2008-09 season did an all-time high of $943 million and pundits are beginning to wonder if that momentum can be maintained — and maybe even improved upon.

The chances of repeating last spring’s glut of top-notch draws, with opening after opening earning rave reviews and must-see status, are slim.

But the upcoming season lineup — at least on paper –offers commercial heft, with offerings such as “Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark” and “The Addams Family” both coming in the spring and the play “A Steady Rain,” starring B.O. magnets Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig in the wings for late September.

Of course, the economy looms over all projections for the season, and recent signs are not cheery. Figures up to July 19, eight weeks into the new season, show the tally at $162.6 million vs. $166.6 million the previous year.

But as new productions have firmed up plans, people in the biz have shifted into cautious optimism and even enthusiasm.

Several shows nailed down concrete plans in the last few weeks, as wary producers waited to see how Broadway B.O. fared in the spring before locking in financing for upcoming offerings.

Seventeen productions have been announced for the autumn, with a handful of other shows circling.

“It feels like there’s a lot of excitement early,” says Charlotte St. Martin, exec director of the Broadway League. “We have more shows opening in the fall than we’ve had in the last three years. I see every indication that we’ll have a terrific season.”

Scott Mallalieu, prexy of Group Sales Box Office, adds, “Now we’re excited, whereas months ago we were scared. It’s nice to have a fall.”

Certainly, there are reasons for that fear to linger. This summer has seen fewer productions to take advantage of the seasonal tourism B.O. boost: As of July 26, only 23 productions are running on Broadway vs. 27 for the same frame in 2008.

(The dip is due partly to a spate of January closings for long-running tuners, as well as a surge of limited engagements finishing up their runs mid-summer.)

Despite past August openings that boosted tallies (such as “Hairspray” and the 2007 revival of “Grease”), the sole summer launch this year is the limited engagement of dance showcase “Burn the Floor,” opening Aug. 2 at the Longacre.

Still, those deficits are offset by holdovers that are doing unusually well, including “Billy Elliot,” “West Side Story” and “Hair,” which frequently top $1 million each in weekly B.O.

“I think this past season is going to be memorable for the number of musicals that turned into hits,” says Nick Scandalios, exec VP of the Nederlander Org, owner of nine Broadway theaters.

Those productions will lend muscle to the coming season’s cume, as will consistent top grossers including “Wicked,” “The Lion King,” “Jersey Boys” and “Mamma Mia!”

The hit play “God of Carnage,” which has been SRO since opening in March, also returns in September after a summer hiatus, with its high-octane original cast intact.

Like most seasons, many of the new heavyweight commercial and awards contenders won’t hit town until spring, but it’s shaping up to be a busy fall.

At the center of the excitement: “A Steady Rain.”

The Jackman-Craig show could match the dizzying sales of such straight-play offerings as Julia Roberts starrer “Three Days of Rain,” the Nathan Lane-Matthew Broderick “The Odd Couple” and Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays.”

Even before tickets to “Steady Rain” went on sale to the general public, the cop drama racked up a $3 million advance solely from an American Express pre-sale offer.

The show, which opens Sept. 29 at the Schoenfeld Theater and bumps the top ticket price for a play to $130, looks likely to clean up in premium ticket sales. And there could be a ripple effect. Mallalieu notes that the publicity surrounding the Craig-Jackman outing has boosted Broadway focus among group ticket buyers.

“Whether they want ‘Steady Rain’ or not, it’s sparked everybody’s interest,” he says.

If Craig and Jackman don’t satiate the appetite for thinking-woman’s crumpet, there’s Jude Law, driving impressive advance sales for the Broadway transfer of the Donmar Warehouse “Hamlet.” The London import opens Oct. 6 at the Broadhurst.

The big guns on the musical front are mostly due after New Year, but the monster among them will be “Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark,” the superhero spectacle that unites director Julie Taymor with the composing team of U2 members Bono and the Edge.

Recently pushed back to an unspecified March opening date at the Hilton, the production’s pricetag is believed to be in the $40 million range and climbing, a new high for Broadway. First cast members to be confirmed are Evan Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming.

Pundits also have high expectations for “The Addams Family,” penned by the “Jersey Boys” team of Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with music by Andrew Lippa. Bypassing the movie and TV adaptations to craft a new story directly from Charles Addams’ iconic cartoons, the show is helmed and designed by the “Shockheaded Peter” team of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth as Gomez and Morticia. Opening date is April 8 at the Lunt-Fontanne, following a Chicago tryout in November.

Also promising is “Catch Me If You Can,” the new tuner based on the 2002 pic about 1960s career conman Frank Abagnale Jr. While no Broadway plans have been announced, the show is a good bet to segue from its summer premiere in Seattle to a New York berth, should the West Coast bow prove a hit.

The project adds book writer Terrence McNally to the “Hairspray” squad of composer Marc Shaiman, lyricist Scott Wittman, director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell. Rialto It-boy Aaron Tveit (“Next to Normal”) steps into Leonardo DiCaprio’s shoes, flanked by Kerry Butler and Norbert Leo Butz.

The path of “Catch Me” will factor into the ETA in Gotham of O’Brien’s other musical project, “Love Never Dies.” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to his unstoppable “Phantom of the Opera” was originally planned for a fall bow but is now on track to bow in London in the spring, likely bouncing its New York opening to fall 2010.

Another tryout to be watched closely is “American Idiot,” the stage adaptation of Green Day’s rock-opera album about a 21st century suburban misfit, which bows at Berkeley Rep in September. Michael Mayer directs, with his “Spring Awakening” producers Tom Hulce and Ira Pittelman again shepherding the project.

Also high on the radar is a musical adaptation of Pedro Almodovar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” being developed by Lincoln Center Theater resident director Bartlett Sher (“South Pacific”) with composer-lyricist David Yazbek and book writer Jeffrey Lane, who last teamed on “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

Following a recent reading for the Spanish auteur, LCT has scheduled a fall workshop. If the material works, the show might sneak in under the wire in spring, just before the cutoff for Tony consideration.

Among shows with firm plans in place, “Bye-Bye Birdie” is back after almost 50 years. John Stamos, Gina Gershon and Bill Irwin head the cast of the Roundabout revival, which inaugurates the Henry Miller’s Theater with an Oct. 15 opening.

The Miller’s brings the tally of Broadway venues up to 40 — and that addition could also bump up the Broadway cume.

Other incoming musical revivals include “Finian’s Rainbow,” opening Oct. 29 at the St. James; “Ragtime,” Nov. 15 at the Neil Simon; and Brit imports “A Little Night Music” and “La Cage aux Folles,” dates and venues for w
hich have not yet been set. Roundabout also is working out details for “iSondheim,” a new compilation revue of the composer’s work, in which beloved singer Barbara Cook has been in talks to appear.

Still unconfirmed is London hit “The Pitmen Painters,” a play from “Billy Elliot” scribe Lee Hall, telling the true story of a group of 1930s miners who defied expectations by showing a flair for art. Likewise awaiting confirmation is the first American-set play from Irish iconoclast Martin McDonagh, “A Behanding in Spokane,” which reportedly is being circled by major marquee names.

Among the highlights of the 2008-09 season were high-end play revivals such as “The Seagull,” “Waiting for Godot” and “Mary Stuart,” but the upcoming stretch looks more low-key on that front. However, the inventive work of Chi-based director David Cromer on “Adding Machine” and the “Our Town” revival means anticipation is high for his take on vintage Neil Simon. The double-bill of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound” opens at the Nederlander Oct. 25 and Dec. 10, respectively, before playing in rep.

Overall, the wide array of autumn offerings runs from dance-intensive Afrobeat tuner “Fela!,” which accumulated a hefty cache of buzz in its Off Broadway preem, to a revival of David Mamet play “Oleanna” starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles. That range also encompasses a new Mamet play, “Race,” headlined by James Spader, and “Superior Donuts,” Tracy Letts’ follow-up to his Pulitzer-winning “August: Osage County.”

Theater-owners are feeling gung-ho.

“Every theater we have is booked, and we have an enormous number of backups,” says Philip J. Smith, chairman and co-chief exec of the Shubert Organization, which owns or operates 17 Broadway venues. “It’s about on par with last season, or maybe an inch better.”

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