Can a star’s name as an above-the-title producer of a Broadway show bring success with legit auds?
It worked for Oprah Winfrey and “The Color Purple” in 2005, but last season’s addition of Elton John to the producing team of “Next Fall” couldn’t prevent the show from shuttering after four months of disappointing sales. Similarly, the presence of Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith on the marquee of “Fela!” has not propelled that show into the sales stratosphere.
Latest test will come with Bette Midler, who’s attached to produce “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” opening March 20 at the Palace.
Judging from the past few years, it seems a celeb producer alone isn’t enough to attract crowds. But a big name plus a highly recognizable title can notably enhance a show’s aud appeal — especially when there’s a canny overlap between the star-producer’s public persona and the show in question.
That beneficial synergy appears to exist between Midler and the drag-queen road trip tale “Priscilla,” based on the 1994 movie. If Midler’s name conjures associations with flamboyance and showmanship, then it’s in perfect keeping with the cross-dressing fabulosity of “Priscilla.”
A similar kind of overlap was in evidence for “The Color Purple” — a title already associated with Winfrey since she acted in the 1985 Steven Spielberg screen adaptation. Of course, Winfrey also had a nationally televised talkshow on which she could — and did — tubthump for “Purple.”
It’s not clear yet what Midler will do to promote “Priscilla,” according to James L. Nederlander, one of its producers. She’s also still deciding how much money she’ll kick in.
But Nederlander said along with the publicity boost, Midler could bring some legit acumen to the team thanks to her years of stage stints.
“If a star producer has an instinct about live performance as Bette does, she can certainly have an instinct about how an audience is going to respond to a musical,” he said.
It’s arguable whether “Priscilla” — a big-budget tuner adaptation of a well-known movie title — is getting promotional help it doesn’t much need from Midler. The show, now playing in Toronto, had its world premiere in Sydney in 2006 and has played successfully in New Zealand and London since.
In general, the B.O. effects of a star producer are up for debate.
“As far as dollar figures in terms of tickets, I really don’t know how much it helps,” said Richard Willis, the “Next Fall” producer who’s also onboard “Priscilla.” “Unless a celebrity is in the show, they really don’t sell any tickets. But it’s an added layer of marketing and PR.”
That can be useful in terms of bringing publicity to a little-known show, as happened in the case of John and “Next Fall,” an ensemble-cast play with no well-known topliner to attract attention.
But as one legiter pointed out, “It’s input-output. However much a star producer puts into promoting the show, that’s how much you’ll get out of it.”
It’s a common perception along the Main Stem that while the endorsement of Jay-Z and the Smiths could only help “Fela!,” the trio didn’t do enough to really give the ambitious, nontraditional musical a leg up.
Although Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong isn’t a producer of “American Idiot” (he’s the songwriter and co-book writer), his enthusiasm for touting the show at every opportunity on seemingly every national platform — including the Grammys and “Monday Night Football” — set a high bar for celeb endorsement of a Broadway production.
Still, sales for “Idiot” have been generally decent but not spectacular since opening in the spring. That is, until Armstrong appeared in the show for a single week — and weekly grosses rocketed to more than $1 million.