Counterprogramming Lures Summer Sales Off Broadway

'Murder Ballad,' 'Potted Potter' aim to tap audiences beyond warm-weather tourists

With tourists pouring into Gotham, summer can be a great time to be on Broadway. Off Broadway? The jury’s still out.

It’s the big, splashy musicals that pull in the majority of warm-weather tourist biz — but producers of a couple of upcoming Off Broadway shows are betting summertime is the right time for a little smaller-scale counterprograming.

In May the commercial transfer of rock tuner “Murder Ballad,” for one, launches a nine-week run that could, if successful, stake out a more permanent spot in its downtown venue. Not long thereafter, the kid-friendly, comically condensed, unauthorized version of the “Harry Potter” novels, “Potted Potter,” will kick off a 13-week engagement.

Both “Potted” and “Murder Ballad” hope to join a small handful of other shows, including “Old Jews Telling Jokes” and “My Name is Asher Lev,” in carving out a niche for themselves in an Off Broadway economy that’s become increasingly difficult to navigate as limited gross potential butts heads wtih high production costs.

The challenges of drawing theatergoers away from Broadway to Off Broadway can be heightened during the summer, since so many tourists arrive in New York with Broadway on their checklists of things to see. For visitors like these, the big-name, razzle-dazzle Rialto musicals (“Wicked,” “The Lion King,” “The Phantom of the Opera”) are far more likely to turn heads than a little-known title at a fringe venue.

“Potted Potter,” however, has a prior track record to bolster its confidence. The show, which has toured in the U.K. and Stateside and is currently playing in London, had a run in New York last summer, and did well enough to prompt producers to bring the show back for a second lap.

As “Potted Potter” found last year — and “Murder Ballad” is hoping to discover this year — a show can sustain itself Off Broadway if it’s got an audience to target beyond the traditional Broadway-going tourist.

For “Potted Potter,” that demo is family audiences.

“I wouldn’t be tempted to put on a serious drama in New York or London in the summer,” said James Seabright of U.K.-based Potted Prods., who produces the show with Corey Ross of Starvox Entertainment. “But we attract a family audience, and the summer holidays is when family audiences are most available and looking for things to do.”

The show benefits, too, from its link to the fan-fave “Harry Potter” property, which Seabright said attracts visitors both from the New York tri-state area and from elsewhere around the country. Prominent outdoor advertising — in subway stations, on Gotham municipal garbage cans — helped drive sales to those visitors last summer, he said.

“Murder Ballad” isn’t tied to a big-name franchise, but it does arrive at the Union Square Theater following a buzzmagnet six-week run that played to packed houses at Manhattan Theater Club earlier this season.

With its indie rock tunes and downtown vibe, the tuner skews younger than the traditional Broadway demo. The commercial producing team — including MTC Prods., Niclas Nagler, Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel, Steven Baruch and Marc Routh, among others — hope to capitalize this summer on the youthful following that developed last year for the love-triangle tale by playwright Julia Jordan and indie rocker Juliana Nash.

Revenue can also get a boost from the show’s environmental staging in a bar setting, with drinks on sale to the patrons before and after the show.

Although the Union Square location might not benefit from theater-district proximity, producers contend the spot helps position the edgy musical for the crowd to which it will appeal. “The show is cool, and cool is downtown,” says MTC’s Mandy Greenfield.

The drinks-and-a-rock-show aesthetic seems like a natural fit for a summer evening, Greenfield adds. And Routh notes that opening after the late-April frenzy of Broadway openings can have its own benefits in terms of reaching the locals.

“Opening in the summer allows you to get attention from the press that you can’t get in the Broadway season,” he says, having experienced the phenomenon for himself last year with “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” the Off Broadway comedy that opened last year during the same “Murder Ballad” window and is still running at the Westside Theater.

In another mark that counterprogramming has its benefits, “Potted Potter” found that alternative curtain times proved extremely popular last summer. “The more unusual the time, the more successful the show,” Seabright said.

He added that the Saturday 5:00pm curtain was among the week’s strongest performers last summer, largely because auds could slot the show in between other theatergoing outings. “Murder Ballad,” meanwhile, can target the nightlife crowd with 9:00pm shows on Saturdays.

Both productions launch in the Broadway lull between the Tony nominations (April 30) and the awards themselves (June 9). “Murder Ballad” starts previews May 7 prior to a May 22 opening, while “Potted Potter,” created by and starring Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, beings previews at the Little Shubert May 30 and opens June 4.

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