Deadline stirs waters for ‘Mermaid’

Announcement of closing spurs ticket sales

Execs at Disney Theatrical Prods. have often said that one of the obstacles faced by Mouse tuners is the public perception they’re all perennials, so there’s no sense of urgency prodding theatergoers to buy tickets.

Which sounds like a dubious rationalization for a sales slowdown at “The Little Mermaid” — until evidence comes along suggesting it might be true.

Ever since producers announced earlier this summer that “Mermaid” would shutter Aug. 30 after a run of less than two years, sales have spiked, with the tuner now posting weekly grosses of more than $1 million.

That kind of last-minute sales rush is less common than you might think for a show that has seen receipts dwindle — and it’s even more rare for sales to jump so noticeably and stay so high for multiple weeks.

The decision to announce the closing with an eight-week lead time was part of the strategy to overcome the why-buy-now hurdle, says David Schrader, exec veep of Disney Theatrical. “It maximizes the period we have,” he says, adding that the final weeks of the musical look likely to come close to selling out.

The production might even eke out a recoupment of its capitalization costs, said to be in the realm of $15 million or more.

The tuner won’t extend, likely due to an unconfirmed production to be slotted into the Lunt-Fontanne Theater between “Mermaid” and “The Addams Family,” which begins perfs there in March. Because Disney was planning conservatively when it announced the show’s final days, the musical isn’t even sticking around through Labor Day weekend, often a last gasp of robust Broadway B.O. before the back-to-school drop-off.

It was that streetwide September slump that hit “Mermaid” particularly hard last year, with the tuner — which had spent much of its initial months on the boards reporting million-plus weeks — seeing sales drop a walloping 40% in the week after Labor Day.

Buoyed by the consumer interest evident in the recent flurry of sales, “Mermaid” is gearing up for a fall 2010 tour — although in a scaled-down version more feasible for the road than the lavish Rialto staging. (Similarly, the current tour of “Mary Poppins” has a reconfigured set by original designer Bob Crowley.)

Had it been mounted more recently, “Mermaid” — well into production long before the economic downturn prompted producers to start keeping a tighter rein on capitalization and running costs — might have bowed in a leaner production more akin to what will go out on tour.

“If we were producing it today, I think we would have solved some of those problems we didn’t think we needed to solve,” Schrader says.

Light expense

Newspaper listings for a little show called “Gauguin/Savage Light” bill the offering as one of the longest-running shows not on Broadway.

This is not untrue — the musical has been running more or less since May 2006. But it’s undergone a few radical reductions: First it had a cast of six, then that was scaled down to three.

And since September 2007 it’s been a one-man show performed by its writer, composer and producer, George Fischoff.

Anyone who’s gotten a self-promotional phone call from Fischoff, who co-wrote 1960s hits “98.6” and “Lazy Day,” knows the 71-year-old is tireless and tenacious. He’s been eking out money from the two weekend perfs of “Gauguin” in large part by keeping costs virtually non-existent: He doesn’t have a cast to pay, and the show is performed in a small studio whose nominal per-hour rental fee reps the production’s only running expense.

Fischoff now hopes that “Savage Light,” an hourlong look at the life and work of the post-Impressionist painter with songs performed by the composer at the piano, can be parlayed into commercial success, possibly with a new production of his 1987 tuner “Sayonara,” for which he is organizing a backers’ audition.

Fischoff, whose musical “Georgy” had a short Rialto run, wants another shot at the Main Stem. “I was the youngest composer on Broadway for one week in 1970,” he says.

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