Tony win, Obamas spike musical's appeal

During the first week of August, the Tony-nominated Montego Glover took a well-deserved vacation from “Memphis” — and the box office jumped $26,723 for a $923,397 gross, the second-biggest tally to date for the tuner. No offense to the talented but relatively unknown Glover, Broadway tuners generally dip at least a hundred thou when the star takes a vacation; in the case of Catherine Zeta-Jones and “A Little Night Music,” receipts slipped nearly 50%.

“The star of the show is the show,” say “Memphis’?” lead producers, Sue Frost and Randy Adams of Junkyard Dog Productions. Their words may seem like a legit cliche, but here they ring true: Ten months into its run, “Memphis” finally secured back-to-back sessions on Broadway’s top 10 B.O. chart, despite the star’s vacation.

Like “Wicked” and a few others, “Memphis” is a Broadway show that has slowly built buzz and box office, helped by attention from first lady Michelle Obama and Hollywood types like Zac Efron and Oliver Stone. (The Tony best musical winner is even leading Manhattanites to give the tuner a try.)

“Memphis” may be the ultimate Broadway survival story. After the tuner’s tryouts at La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theater last year, it created so little buzz despite good biz on the coast that Amex nixed a full-page ad in the New York Times; department stores and high-end boutiques passed on doing tie-ins — “the ‘in’ stuff,” as Frost says.

When “Memphis,” loosely based on the life of deejay Dewey Phillips, opened on Broadway in October, pans in the local newspapers seemed to confirm the tuner’s status as a stopgap show — that is, a born-to-fail production that fills a theater for a month or two, paying rent, until a bigger fish swims into town to swallow up its high-profile venue.

All of which translated to a total lack of interest in “Memphis” from the rank-and-file Manhattan theatergoer.

Despite that, “Memphis” targeted tourists to soldier through the cruel winter.

Plus Frost and Adams were able to trumpet an unexpected rave (“sensuous, soulful, tuneful”) from the late critic Michael Kuchwara of the widely circulated Associated Press.

For a hit musical like “Billy Elliott,” half its group sales in the first months can come from locally based charities and fundraisers. “But with ‘Memphis,’ it was close to zero percent,” says Janette Roush, director of ticket services for Type A Marketing. “The theater parties passed us over completely.”

But with the spring weather came the first lady, who chose “Memphis” as the first show on Broadway to take her two daughters.

“Michelle Obama’s bringing the kids sent out a huge message for families to come,” says Adams. “We never had that before her visit.”

In her wake, 40% of the show’s group sales this spring came from students.

Then, in a season filled with jukeboxers, “Memphis,” with its original book and score by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, won the big one: the Tony for best musical. Grumblings were that out-of-town presenters, wanting a crowd-pleaser for the road, put “Memphis” over the top against the wishes of Gotham insiders and a bunch of “Fela!” and “American Idiot”-touting journos who’d been disenfranchised as Tony voters.

No matter. A Tony is a Tony.

“Many groups are kicking themselves now that ‘Memphis’ won the Tony,” says Roush, who projects that a fifth of the show’s group sales this autumn will be charities/fundraisers, with the rest coming from retail tour operators who service theatergoers making a day trip into New York. “One-fifth is a lot. You generally don’t see any” in a show’s second year.

“The Tonys made it OK for everybody to see the show, including the New York tried-and-true/show-me audience, who still care about the New York Times,” Frost says.

“They didn’t see us last fall, so maybe they’ll come see us this fall,” Adams says. (If you note a slightly defensive attitude, that edge in their collective voice is entirely intentional.)

Of all the tuners to debut on Broadway last season, the “Memphis” producers took the biggest gamble, coming to town sans stars with a totally original score and book and title unassociated with a movie, TV show or bestseller.

So how’s the show’s bottom line? Ten months into its Broadway run, “Memphis” needs many more $900,000-plus sessions like the first week of August to recoup. Frost and Adams won’t say how much the show has paid back. Translation: Investors can wait until well into 2011 to see profits.

In some ways, “Memphis” brings to mind “Avenue Q” and “In the Heights,” shows that started slow and built at the box office on their way to the Tony.

Spotco prexy Drew Hodges, who does advertising/marketing for all three tuners, rejects the comparison.

” ‘In the Heights’ and ‘Avenue Q’ were boutique musicals. They started small. ‘Memphis’ started as a big musical from day one,” he says of the show’s 28 cast members, multiset changes and $10.5 million capitalization. Equally important, says Hodges, ” ‘In the Heights’ and ‘Avenue Q’ were critical darlings, with critics (touting) ‘a brand new voice.’?”

“Memphis,” on the other hand, was the popular choice, “with audiences going, ‘You’ll love it!’?” says the marketing guru.

“Memphis” continues to build its box office and clock in its successes. Film folk have expressed interest in a movie version. Certainly “Memphis” fits into that time-honored stage-to-screen tradition of “Cabaret,” “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls” where most, if not all, of the songs can be performed in the “natural” setting of a club or recording studio.

“Memphis” the movie — it would be the ultimate end-run around the show’s Broadway naysayers.

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