Who says Off Broadway is dead?
Commercial producers used to, certainly. And some still do, bemoaning the impossibility of making a buck there given Off Broadway’s limitations of money, space and media profile.
But a recent string of offerings propelled by strong reviews and promising sales are working to prove that an extended stay on the scene isn’t unattainable.
A lengthy run doesn’t always equal profitability, of course. But the spate of attention-getters suggests that not all producers have given up on Off Broadway.
Take the producers behind the current revival of “Our Town.” After winning critical raves in February, they flirted with the idea of Broadway, but decided to stick it out off the Main Stem, where the show has now extended through the end of January.
Off Broadway musical “The Toxic Avenger,” which opened in April, is selling tickets through Feb. 21, and play “The Temperamentals,” a transfer of a spring production that’s been playing since June, is vacating its current space later this month only because the venue has a prior commitment.
Meanwhile, nonprofit production “Next Fall” has parlayed stellar press into a summerlong stint with a commercial future in the offing. And Pulitzer winner “Ruined” will, when it ends its 260-perf run on Sept. 6, become the longest-running production from Manhattan Theater Club to play on the org’s Off Broadway stage.
Clearly, some producers still believe long-term Off Broadway viability isn’t just a thing of the past.
Part of their general producing strategy is, unsurprisingly, an extreme frugality that encompasses everything from cast size and set demands to day-to-day running expenses such as dry cleaning. Naked Angels’ nonprofit preem of “Next Fall,” for instance, was capitalized at just $138,000, while Man Underdog’s commercial staging of “Temperamentals” rang in at $125,000.
“We cut the budget a great deal and pieced it together,” says Brittany O’Neill, managing director of Naked Angels. “We were constantly having to make sacrifices.”
For some shows, the roadmap to profitability includes a long spell that allows a production to slowly build word-of-mouth while inching its way into the black.
“Our Town,” for one, aimed to balance the costs of its hefty 20-member cast with a sustained engagement that gave the show the time to recoup.
“There was no way this show would work without a long run,” says Scott Morfee, who produces the Thornton Wilder revival with Jean Doumanian. Morfee also operates the show’s venue, the Barrow Street Theater, which allowed some flexibility in the deal between the show and the theater.
A potential move to Broadway’s Circle in the Square was considered, but producers instead opted to stay put at Barrow Street, which had been reconfigured to accommodate the production, which plays out in and around the audience in the 151-seat space.
That intimacy has proven important to the aesthetics of the piece, Doumanian says, adding that a small house can also help ensure a longer run for the kind of buzz-magnet that “Our Town” has become.
“There are a lot of regular theatergoers in New York City, and we only have 150 seats,” she says. “By the time we get in all those theatergoers, I think we’ll run a long time.”
“Our Town” hasn’t yet recouped its capitalization of around $400,000, but producers hope to do so by the end of calendar year.
Longevity was part of the plan for “Toxic Avenger” as well.
“You have to be around long enough for people to find you,” says producer Tom Polum. “We entered into it thinking that for 20 weeks, half the tickets would sell at half the price, and we built a substantial reserve into the capitalization.”
The five-actor musical comedy, based on the 1984 cult pic and capitalized at $1.2 million, recently passed the 20-week mark at New World Stages, and sales have slowly begun to snowball, according to Polum.
On the other hand, “Temperamentals” can’t stay too long at TBG Theater, the 99-seat space it’s occupied for the summer, following a successful spring stint in a 40-seat black box. The well-reviewed play about the pre-Stonewall gay movement has to be out Aug. 23 to make way for another tenant.
Future commercial life for the show is in order, says producer Stacy Shane, although the exact next step has yet to be confirmed. The modesty of its staging could help with a relocation: “There’s six chairs and some hanging light bulbs,” he says. “That’s why the play can work anywhere.”
Even with good buzz, it can be tough to pull in crowds for eight shows a week, particularly on weekdays. “Temperamentals,” for one, aims to attract auds with related events including a singles night and a series of post-show discussions with well-know gay rights activists.
Daryl Roth, who produces “Temperamentals” with Shane, is also at work on an upcoming Off Broadway production of Nora and Delia Ephron’s “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” planning to drum up buzz with a rotating cast of high-profile thesps including Tyne Daly and Rosie O’Donnell. “The idea is to keep rolling it over, and just keep running it,” she says.
Even if a long-running Off Broadway engagement isn’t often the most profitable of ventures, longevity can eventually become a selling point, making licensing rights more valuable.
Plus, a lengthy run can allow for momentum-building press opportunities that a shorter spell wouldn’t.
MTC found that to be the case with “Ruined,” which, thanks to the season’s sked, was able to sit down at City Center for an unusually extended run. “You begin to have word of mouth that grows out of town as well as in town,” says MTC exec producer Barry Grove.
Still, while prolonged engagements are certainly one indicator a show’s success, it’s not the sole, or even main, marker of a hit.
“Long-running doesn’t necessarily mean successful,” says Ken Davenport, whose enduring Off Broadway fare includes “Altar Boyz” and “Awesome 80s Prom.” “Until my investors get their money, it’s not a success.”