Supersized stagings buck brevity trend

Epics defy legit wisdom that shorter is better

Ninety minutes? No intermission? Sold!

Brevity has become an increasingly compelling selling point in today’s legit landscape, but a number of this season’s incoming productions — following the Tony-winning revival of play trilogy “The Norman Conquests” — are bucking the trend and hoping auds still have an appetite for the epic.

After the Tony-sweeping success of Lincoln Center Theater’s 2006-07 production of the nine-hour Tom Stoppard event “The Coast of Utopia” and the soon-to-shutter limited engagement of “Norman,” the 2009-10 slate includes such heavyweight contenders as the two-play Broadway revival “The Neil Simon Plays”; a three-play, two-evening presentation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brother/Sister Plays”; and “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” nine Horton Foote plays condensed into a three-part marathon running, yes, nine hours.

Such supersized undertakings come bundled with plenty of producing challenges, ranging from finances to logistics to marketing.

Still, even though “Norman” won’t manage to recoup before the July 26 end date of its 16-week Broadway engagement, producer Sonia Friedman remains bullish on the appeal of multipart stage sagas.

“Here’s what’s clear: There is an audience for an event,” she says.

Multipart marathons, although rare, aren’t new to the Rialto. The 1981 Broadway import of the National Theater staging of “Nicholas Nickleby” (reprised in Gotham in 1986) and the 1993 Main Stem productions of “Angels in America” — each a two-part event of between seven and eight hours — rep two memorable epics of the past.

But for the current crop of marathons, the obstacles to financial viability can seem particularly intractable.

First off, with the recent economic downturn making it harder to persuade consumers to shell out for even a single play, how do you get theatergoers to buy tickets to three?

Producers can discount. The variable pricing strategy at “Norman,” for instance, enabled auds to pick up tickets to all three Alan Ayckbourn plays for as low as $170. And producer Emanuel Azenberg hopes to offer reduced-price deals for “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound,” the two Simon plays that will run in rep at the Nederlander Theater in the fall.

But such discounts, of course, limit revenue, so there’s more freedom to experiment with pricing in an open-ended run (as with the Simon shows) than in a limited stint (as with “Norman”).

As both Friedman and LCT discovered, it’s the daylong, marathon viewings that prompt the highest demand for ducats.

Part of that hot-ticket status is the result of fewer marathon days — often just one weekend day per week — due to the scheduling logistics of fitting, say, two marathons of three plays each into Broadway’s usual eight-perf frame.

There’s also the stamina issue. Even if it’s possible to sked, for instance, two back-to-back marathons on Saturday and Sunday, can the actors and production crew handle it? And can producers cope with paying out the overtime such long days add to their running costs?

“If every day could have been a trilogy, we’d have had a great time,” says Friedman of the popularity of three-play days at “Norman,” the $2.4 million import from the Old Vic in London. “We’re not going to recoup because we couldn’t have enough trilogies.”

So producers find themselves with single-perf days to sell in addition to the marathon — and wonder, then, how to pitch the whole shebang to auds. If ads play up the scheduling freedom of seeing just one, consumers will wonder why anyone would bother with all three. But if marketing pushes a purchase of the full set, that makes some of the individual perfs tougher to sell.

“How do you get the message out? And what is the message?” asks Azenberg, who plans to encourage theatergoers to see both Simon plays, two parts of the scribe’s semi-autobiographical chronicle of a Brooklyn family.

Friedman, for her part, wonders if “Norman” would have benefited from a marketing strategy that had shown a stronger hand in encouraging auds to see all three shows in the preferred order, thereby reducing consumer confusion.

Nonprofits, meanwhile, find themselves shoehorning an outsized event into a set season structure.

The performance format for the McCraney plays — three interrelated tales set in a Louisiana community — was determined, for instance, by the exigencies of season planning at Princeton’s McCarter Theater, where the shows bowed earlier this year before heading to Off Broadway’s Public Theater in October.

The trilogy is divided into two evenings: One consisting of a single play, “In the Red and Brown Water,” and the other a double-bill of “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet.”

“The format that we came up with was very much a response to our season scheduling,” says Mara Isaacs, producing director at the McCarter. “The accidental discovery has been how much the paired plays reflect on each other and make a complete evening.”

For nonprofits, the additional costs of multipart offerings can be daunting. Just as McCarter paired with the Public to present “Brother/Sister,” Hartford Stage in Connecticut and Off Broadway’s Signature Theater are co-presenting “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” Foote’s three-decade story of three Texas families in the early 1900s.

“It’s an enormous commitment in terms of scale and scope and size,” says James Houghton, a.d. of the Signature, where “Orphans’ Home” begins perfs in November. “Even with our resources collected, it’s still way beyond our normal scope.”

But producers, both commercial and nonprofit, still back such longform events because, they say, the creative rewards make it well worth it.

“There’s two major kinds of pleasure,” says Public a.d. Oskar Eustis. “The first is the narrative pleasure of epic storytelling in the theater, where usually we tend to value compression. The second is the pleasure of watching a playwright develop and expand in confidence and in range, and seeing the size and the scope of the talent.”

With the commitment in place to produce such events, now creatives much grapple with the logistics of rehearsing multiple plays at once.

Although “Orphans’ Home” only recently began rehearsals for the Hartford run that starts in September, actors are already concerned about learning all those lines, says director (and Hartford Stage a.d.) Michael Wilson.

“But right now, at least, it’s a fun kind of panic,” he says.

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