B'way play still profitable despite cast change

Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” could be the first branded play of the new decade.

It doesn’t happen very often on Broadway. In the 2000s, only “Proof” and “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” really pulled off the branding thing.

Last autumn, legiters became a bit spoiled thanks to the drawing power of Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in “A Steady Rain,” Jude Law in “Hamlet” and the original “God of Carnage” clan, all of which brought in tuner-like B.O. figures. It was a starry alignment that pushed all three — count ‘em three — plays onto Broadway’s top 10 box office chart. These were play “events,” dependent on star casting.

Then, in mid-November, the “Carnage” producers gambled on Jimmy Smits, Christine Lahti, Annie Potts and Ken Stott — a recasting that resulted in an immediate 50% drop from the nearly $1 million that the production starring James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis was pulling in each week. A 50% drop is steep, but in this case, even a decline to a half-mil per week for a play with a weekly running nut of less than $300,000 is still very profitable.

January biz will seal the production’s longterm fate, but until then, the producers have certainly recouped the standard $250,000 it costs to recast a Broadway play. (The show made back its estimated $3 million capitalization back in May.) So far, so very good.

Branding a musical is much more the norm on Broadway. In fact, it’s the essence of a longrunning success, especially when you have a potential star vehicle like “Wicked,” “Jersey Boys,” “Hairspray” or “Mamma Mia!” Those tuners never became about Idina Menzel, John Lloyd Young, Harvey Fierstein or Louise Pitre. Instead, they are their logos: two witches gossiping, a male quartet bathed in bright lights, a boufant hairdo and a young brunette bride who smiles on the Winter Garden billboard even when the young actress inside is a blonde.

The most famous failure to extend a brand is “The Producers,” with its identity so bound to Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick that the show never created an equally powerful symbol to sum up its appeal when those two stars left the theater.

Plays are more pervious to cast changes for the simple reason that there’s less cast and much, much less in the way of production — music, sets and costumes — to back them up.

“Proof” and “Allergist’s Wife” achieved brand-name status by substituting actresses of basically equal B.O. wattage, going from Mary-Louise Parker to Jennifer Jason Leigh in the case of “Proof” and Linda Lavin to Valerie Harper with “Wife.” And both plays continued to crank out a profit well into their third casts, headed by Anne Heche and Rhea Perlman, respectively.

Branding, however, is not exactly what happened with the successful cast switches for “August: Osage County” and “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia.” In those cases, producers were able to up the star power and the box office by subbing Estelle Parsons for newcomer Deanna Dunagan and movie star Sally Field for Mercedes Ruehl, although the Edward Albee drama never did completely recoup. And “August” tumbled completely when Phylicia Rashad replaced Parsons.

“Carnage” is different, and here’s where the branding helps. Its new cast is far less starry than the original — nor have the reviews been as ecstatic. And yet, despite those bumps, “Carnage” remains profitable and actually increased its B.O. during the Thanksgiving and Christimas sessions — something that plays rarely do over holiday weeks. The upshot: “Carnage” is not just for the locals; out-of-towners know and like it. Also, during the tourist-laden 2009 NYE week, “God of Carnage” ($571,122) virtually matched the biz for David Mamet’s new play, “Race” ($588,110), starring James Spader.

The “God” branding process began early, before the show opened last March. Despite Gandolfini & Company, the play’s poster assiduously avoided featuring the actors’ likenesses, and instead opted for a childlike scrawl of the title and a battered boy. In tandem, the ads played up the show’s comic underpinnings with lots of crix quotes that trumpeted the word “fun!”

Back in London, before the play opened on the West End nearly two years ago, producer Robert Fox got asked about the title a lot. “You’re putting on ‘God of Carnage’? It doesn’t sound like you’re going to have a great night out,” people let him know.

“Now that it’s a hit, ‘God of Carnage’ is a great title,” he says.

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