Paydays and box office can defy expectations

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick were worth every zero in the historic $100,000-a-week paycheck that each earned for returning to “The Producers” in 2003. Since then, many Broadway pundits have often assumed that every superstar pockets that sum as well: Julia Roberts in “Three Days of Rain,” Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig in the upcoming “A Steady Rain” and, of course, Lane and Broderick again in the 2005 revival of “The Odd Couple.”

In almost all cases, even the biggest stars are not guaranteed six figures but rather a five-figure sum plus a percentage of the gross and, following that, a percentage of the profits, if there are any. In the end, the star’s take can, indeed, dance around that magical $100,000 a week, if not top it.

But there’s a whole other issue of marquee names: Not just what the stars earn, but what the stars bring in. This past season offered reminders that a big name alone is not enough to guarantee sales. And that stars who appeared in top-grossing films sometimes were outshone by actors who are from the pay-cable realm.

Lane and Broderick certainly proved they were worth it with “Odd Couple.” Despite mixed reviews, the play grossed like a musical (in excess of $800,000 a week), and extended its six-month run to nine. Roberts, despite negative reviews, produced sales of more than $12 million for the 12-week run of “Three Days of Rain,” a production that entered the black during is fifth week.

“A Steady Rain,” or the Wolverine Meets Bond play, as it is known along Shubert Alley, should generate similar numbers in a similar size theater, the only difference being how many tix get sold at a premium price. Those added dollars could depend on the reviews. Recoupment might take a week or two longer than “Three Days” since there aretwo big stars, not one. Jackman and Craig have the added challenge of appearing in a relatively unknown drama, about two cops, by a Broadway deb, Keith Huff.

On the strength of Roberts’ name alone, the 2006 Amex ad for “Three Days of Rain” produced $7 million in sales in 48 hours. The Amex ad for “A Steady Rain” brought in $3 million in two days. Was it the recession? Or could Roberts rake in another quick $7 million for her sophomore effort after a disappointing legit debut? (Elizabeth Taylor, who proved to be B.O. gold in the 1981 revival of “Little Foxes,” tanked two years later in “Private Lives” despite the added wattage of her most famous ex-husband, Richard Burton.)

With the exception of those withheld house/premium seats, “A Steady Rain” can be expected to sell out prior to the show’s first preview Sept. 10. In this case, Jackman’s movie pedigree may impact sales less than his previous Broadway outing, 2003’s “The Boy From Oz,” which showcased a Tony-winning perf that has acquired a legendary patina.

Certainly Jackman and Craig, headlining a two-hander, can expect to earn more than fellow movie star Jude Law, who appears alongside 20 other actors in the upcoming “Hamlet.” Such a mass effort necessitates a deal closer to that of Denzel Washington, who was guaranteed a lowball weekly sum (plus percentages of gross and profits) for his stint in the equally populated “Julius Caesar,” which turned into a B.O. winner despite mixed reviews.

Speaking of the Bard, bad reviews completely scuttled the 2000 “Macbeth” starring Kelsey Grammer. While auds wanted to see Washington (and hopefully Law) perform Shakespeare, TV’s Frasier might have had more B.O. clout if he’d returned to the boards in, say, “Charley’s Aunt.”

It’s that strange alchemy of title and actor. John Leguizamo made $75,000 a week in his solo “Sexaholix” in 2003, but last season closed in “American Buffalo” after only eight regular perfs.

Even amidst a huge ensemble, Washington and Law do better money-wise in a commercial production than stars like David Hyde Pierce, Laura Linney or Broderick who appear in nonprofit productions that invoke a favored-nations deal where all actors get the same salary: about $2,000 a week.

In its June issue, a Vanity Fair photo spread proclaimed “Broadway’s Starry Season” even though most of those film actors failed to pack them in. Daniel Radcliffe in the buff was not enough to fill those “Equus” seats with his “Harry Potter” fans — at least those old enough to be admitted. And perhaps their Oscar gold was a bit too old, but Jane Fonda, Jeremy Irons, Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon headlined B.O. disappointments with, respectively, “33 Variations,” “Impressionism” and “Exit the King.”

Then again, imagine how those shows would have done if they’d been stocked with the actors who populated “Mary Stuart,” “The Norman Conquests” and “Reasons to Be Pretty” — all critically acclaimed plays that lost money. (Producers take note: auds are a lot less friendly these days than crix.)

There’s a crass, often broken B.O. rule for plays. To find success at the box office, producers need to fill at least two of the following three slots: stars, good reviews and a popular title.

“Blithe Spirit,” which recouped one week before closing, failed to deliver raves, but it did have Angela Lansbury and a popular Noel Coward title. “God of Carnage” had the reviews and James Gandolfini. And before he succumbed to his sushi attack, Jeremy Piven sold tix to “Speed-the-Plow,” buoyed by good reviews.

If there’s any new wrinkle in the Broadway B.O. sweepstakes, it’s the emergence of the HBO star as a potent legit force.

Thanks to “The Sopranos” and “Entourage,” Gandolfini and Piven mean something to that older TV viewer who also buys Broadway tix. It’s a phenom that has been taking shape for a few years now.

Back in August 2002, Edie Falco’s name over the title (coupled with that of Stanley Tucci’s and good reviews) immediately pushed the revival of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” to the Belasco’s Theater gross potential.

A more clear-cut example of HBO’s star-making power came in the form of “Six Feet Under’s” Michael C. Hall, his 2002 appearance in the long-running “Chicago” revival causing a huge 32% (or $121,680) uptick there. And during the 2001-02 season, Cynthia Nixon of “Sex and the City” headlined “The Women,” turning it into the Roundabout’s highest-grossing play to date at its American Airlines Theater.

Falco’s name, however, failed to ignite the box office in her followup effort, a poorly received 2004 revival of ” ‘night, Mother.”

Again, it was proof that stars sell, but at least one other ingredient — the reviews or the title — has to be in place. Roberts was the exception that proves the rule: She sold tix regardless. Jackman and Craig look on track to do the same. How nice for everybody if “A Steady Rain” actually turns out to be good theater as well.

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