Broadway eyes big hits

Smash successes benefit overall industry

You hear it a lot around Broadway these days: The rising tide lifts all boats.

It’s the belief that a monster smash — the kind of can’t-get-a-ticket hit that “The Book of Mormon” is shaping up to be — benefits not just one show but the entire legit industry, both in New York and around the country.

Legiters believe the last one of that kind was the 2005 powerhouse “Jersey Boys,” and had thought Broadway long overdue for the next one.

Now it’s looking like this season’s B.O.-busting critical fave “Mormon” is the flood those in the industry were waiting for. But even if it turns out to be just a thunderstorm, theshow still has raised the hopes of everyone in the biz — because a megahit can have a far-reaching effects on the rest of the Main Stem, on the road, and on the cultural currency of Broadway entertainment itself.

“When you get a big, big megahit, all of Broadway benefits,” says Philip J. Smith, chairman of the Shubert Organization.

The first and most obvious of the trickle-down rewards: A high-profile production puts the entire Main Stem back on a prominent cultural perch more often dominated by the wider reach of film and television. “It all puts Broadway back in the conversation,” says Nancy Coyne, head of ad agency Serino Coyne.

The 2010-11 lineup was in the unusual position of having not one but two such hot-button productions, since press coverage of much of the season was dominated by the extended travails of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

Both landed Broadway fare in an array of non-theater-centric media outlets, with mentions running the gamut from the merciless latenight ribbing inflicted on “Spider-Man” to the gushing praise Jon Stewart lavished on “Mormon.” A recent Newsweek cover story used a modified version of the key art from “Mormon” ads to tout a story about the sudden cultural currency of the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

The increased attention to Broadway sparks interest in crowds that aren’t habitual theatergoers. “It opens up a dialogue with a new audience,” says Stephanie Lee of Group Sales Box Office.

Further, when theatergoers can’t score a ticket to Broadway’s hottest show, they might purchase another one instead. Given the “South Park” angle of “Mormon” and the comicbook origins of “Spider-Man,” both productions attract a rare demo — the straight male theatergoer — no matter what the tone of the press coverage.

“Either way, having them both here on Broadway is good for the marketplace,” says Drew Hodges of marketing company SpotCo.

A super-smash also gives a sizable boost to the touring industry. For regional presenters, having a must-see on your subscription slate paves the way to stronger sales for an entire season’s worth of offerings.

“The big hit is what helps create demand,” says Al Nocciolino of the Independent Presenters Network. “You can look at our subscription numbers across the country and see they spiked every time we had a ‘Wicked’ or a ‘Jersey Boys.’ ”

In New York, meanwhile, a juggernaut can attract a new pool of financiers, suddenly attuned to the profit possibilities of a stage sensation.

“Post-‘Producers,’ there was a whole new crop of investors looking at Broadway,” says Jordan Roth, topper of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns both the O’Neill and the St. James, where “Producers” played.

Whether”Mormon,” which opened in April and swept the Tony noms in May, joins the pantheon of mega-smashes remains to be seen. But legiters agree the potential seems to be there.

In a strong, crowded season that offered well-regarded (but short-lived) arthouse tuners “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “The Scottsboro Boys” last fall, and a springtime spate of potential crowdpleasers including “Sister Act” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” — as well as a robust crop of plays such as “War Horse” — “Mormon” stands out as the runaway success.

With the show’s link to enduring TV brand “South Park,” the brainchild of “Mormon” co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the musical almost instantly nabbed a high national profile that’s only been pushed into the stratosphere by media attention, critical raves and awards heat.

Ticket demand is further elevated by the fact that “Mormon” plays the Eugene O’Neill Theater, a Broadway venue which, at about 1,100 seats, is one of the smaller houses for musicals on the Main Stem. And a ticketing frenzy creates it own hype: One industry insider joked about having a T-shirt made that bore the slogan, “No, I can’t get you house seats to ‘The Book of Mormon.’ ”

The history of these legit tentpoles is generally thought to begin with 1975 tuner “A Chorus Line,” which burst onto Broadway at a time when the entire Street was struggling. Suddenly, a stage musical had achieved undeniable must-see status, even outside Gotham — where road presenters could suddenly look forward to attracting subscribers with a touring version. ” ‘A Chorus Line’ lifted everything,” Smith remembers.

The 1980s brought the rejuvenating jolt of Brit megahits “Cats,” “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” followed in the ’90s by shows including “Miss Saigon,” “Rent” and “The Lion King,” leading up to the 2001 double-header “The Producers” and “Mamma Mia!” through to “Wicked” in 2003 and “Jersey Boys” two years after that.

There have been other notable hits on Broadway, including, in more recent years, “Monty Python’s Spamalot” in 2005 and “Billy Elliot” in 2008. But “Spamalot” exited the Rialto in 2009, and “Billy Elliot” hasn’t consistently played to packed houses the way “Wicked” and “Lion King” still do.

“Looking back, you never go more than five or six years without a blockbuster,” notes John Gore, CEO of Broadway Across America, which produces and presents both on the Main Stem and on the road. “This season, everyone was looking around going, ‘Where is it?’ ”

So the sky-high sales and national attention brought to the Street by “Mormon” has largely been welcomed, even by those not involved in the show.

It all feeds into the belief, shared by many legiters, that Broadway is able to withstand harsh economic downturns, including the most recent one, thanks to the fact that even in a recession, people will still pay the freight for the entertainment value promised by a smash hit.

“Yes, Broadway is impacted by a negative economy,” says Charlotte St. Martin, exec director of the Broadway League. “But it’s more impacted by what’s playing.”

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