Fall closings balanced by splashy spring openings

It’s a bloodbath on Broadway these days. Or is it?

Every year around this time, a wave of media outlets checks in with the Main Stem to discover that several shows won’t make it past year’s end. This year the number of closings approaches 20 — which reps half of a market that’s limited to the 40 venues that qualify as Broadway.

A spate of recent closings — including the truncated runs of plays “Elling” and “A Life in the Theater” and the B.O. sputtering of ambitious tuners “The Scottsboro Boys” and “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” — adds fuel to the end-of-days pronouncements.

There’s no question that a number of the fall’s productions have had a rough go of it. But a number of factors, including an abundance of incoming fare, provide some balance to the doom and gloom.

n January is a traditional turnover period for Broadway, so a rash of closings shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Shows at the end of their life-spans tend to try to hold out through the boffo holiday weeks before throwing in the towel ahead of the annual January sales slump. Productions from prior seasons hoping to take advantage of one final B.O. spike — such as the year-old “Fela!” and the 2-year-old “West Side Story,” both closing next month — also join the pack of productions on their way out.

n Of the productions that will have closed by the end of this year, a number are limited-run plays that had been skedded to shutter all along. Nonprofit productions such as “Brief Encounter,” “The Pitmen Painters” and “A Free Man of Color” all close to make way for the next offering in a nonprofit troupe’s season. Still, a few commercial limited runs of plays — including “Life in the Theater” and the short-lived “Elling” — are disappointments, since B.O. proved too grim for the shows to survive until their target end dates.

n The musicals that opened this fall were offbeat productions of the sort that usually have a tough time at the B.O. Commercial transfers for emo-rock historical comedy “Bloody Bloody” and minstrel-show retelling of racial injustice “Scottsboro” would have repped iffy propositions in any Broadway season, with neither a star nor a well-known title to help mitigate the risky style and subject matter. Critical support may have bolstered each show’s imagined prospects, but aud response never matched that enthusiasm, and at this point in the season, a potential boost from Tony attention looks a long ways off.

n For nearly every show that’s closing, another is on the way in the spring. Even if a number of individual productions didn’t click, there’s still opportunity for the season to yield its share of hits.

n Of the shows in the wings, there’s a number of splashy big-name tuners — exactly the sort of fare that brings attention and coin to the Main Stem. “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark,” “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” “Catch Me if You Can,” “Wonderland” and “Sister Act” all benefit as adaptations of instantly recognizable properties. The revival of familiar title “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” gets a casting boost from Daniel Radcliffe, while “The Book of Mormon” has a notable hook as the latest work from the creators of “South Park.”

n As for plays in spring, there’s plenty of celeb casting to go around. Ben Stiller and Edie Falco in “The House of Blue Leaves,” Kiefer Sutherland in “That Championship Season,” Robin Williams in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” and Chris Rock in “The Motherfucker With the Hat” all have the star-driven potential to catch fire at the B.O. during their limited runs.

n Audiences are ever-willing to turn out for shows they want to see: Broadway’s aggregate attendance this season is up by 2% compared with last season at this time, with some 6.4 million theatergoers logged so far this year.

So while the fall has seen its share of notable disappointments, particularly in the brief lives of “Bloody Bloody” and “Scottsboro,” a number of legiters argue that the overall 2010-11 season still holds a great deal of potential, with more big-title musicals due in the spring than were seen during all of last season.

There are risks, of course, for any show on the slate. Several in the industry, for instance, point out that both drag-queen roadtrip “Priscilla” and nothing’s-sacred comedy “Mormon” might have issues finding support from the red-state tourists who help keep Broadway musicals afloat for years.

There’s also the competition factor to worry about. A theatergoer looking for a razzle-dazzle tuner experience this spring will have to choose from a half-dozen new offerings (as well as long-runners such as “Wicked” and “The Lion King” that consistently draw huge crowds). Playgoers also will find themselves stuck deciding among the notable casts of the spring’s nonmusical fare.

It’s nearly impossible to avoid such occasional scheduling logjams, since so many of the variables involved in getting a production on the Main Stem, including theater and cast availability, are beyond the control of producers.

In any event, the preponderance of well-known titles and big-name stars looks to attract a healthy dose of attention to Broadway in the coming months. Already “Spider-Man” has found itself in an unusually bright media spotlight — and even if a lot of that coverage has dwelt on tech problems and actor injuries, it still managed to goose advance sales the day after the show’s much-covered first preview.

With the Jan. 11 opening of “Spider-Man” repping just the start of spring fare, legiters are hoping Broadway will continue to serve as a hot topic until the season’s finish at the end of April.

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