It's Not Just Hollywood That’s Hot

Spoofs of hot properties are a big driver of Off Broadway biz

It’s not just Hollywood that’s hot for “50 Shades of Grey.” The mom-porn phenom has the live-entertainment biz whipped into a lather too.

Three separate stage parodies of the BDSM tale are in varying stages of production in Gotham and on the road. The competition has propelled each into a race to tap audience enthusiasm before the other two can — and before the clock on the property’s 15 minutes runs out.

We’re not talking Broadway here. The language may be raunchy, but the budgets are all chastely modest, with shows capitalized at less than $500,000 each and falling into the small, Off Broadway-scaled niche where the tension between production costs and potential revenue make it tough to make a buck.

(From the pages of the March 26 issue of Variety.)

But producers of all three shows are betting the Shades fervor reps a real opportunity in a constricted market. It’s a cultural touchstone that can sell by proxy, and in a producing model with little for ad budgets, that’s a big advantage.

“(The title) pretty much determines how much a show this size will succeed,” says Tim Flaherty, prexy of Entertainment Events, the company behind “Cuff Me: The ‘50 Shades of Grey’ Unauthorized Musical Parody” (pictured above).

There’s also potential profit in the demographic overlap of “50 Shades” fans and legit ticketbuyers. Just like on Broadway, sales for these smaller productions are most often purchased by women between 40 and 60 years old — the same women panting over “Shades.”

These ladies enjoy a girls’ night. “This is a demo that likes to go out en masse, in groups,” says Michael Mills, producer of “Spank! The ‘50 Shades’ Parody.”

As spoofs, all three productions expect to be shielded from rights issues under the laws protecting parody and satire, free from the kind of legal action that Universal, producer of the upcoming “50 Shades” bigscreen adaptation, has undertaken against a porn version of the story. (Universal and author E.L. James declined to comment on the live shows.)

The “50 Shades” phenomenon took off early last year when a trilogy by James that began as “Twilight” fan fiction was published as an e-book by a small Australian publisher. As the books logged impressive e-sales, Random House nabbed rights. The “50 Shades” trilogy has now shifted more than 65 million copies.

Producers of each of the Off Broadway hopefuls see the benefit in arriving first to market. But each can make its own claim to the title.

The first to bow, technically, was “50 Shades! The Musical,” which premiered in a one-act version at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in summer 2012, before it was further developed in a Chicago run in the fall and then a three-perf stint in New York in January.

According to producer Andrew Asnes, who’s trying to pull together an Off Broadway run to play simultaneously with a tour set to launch April 2 in Raleigh, “50 Shades!” looks to stand out from the pack as the only offering with an original score, favorable notices from Chi critics and the fanbase of the comedy troupe that created it, Baby Wants Candy.

Asnes sees revenue potential in merchandising, including an original cast recording he hopes to produce and, ultimately, in licensing the original musical.

First to the road market, however, was “Spank!” which already has two touring companies out and productions set to bow in Brisbane, Australia, later this month and in Las Vegas in April.

Producer Mills sees the cost structure of the road as far more favorable. “On the road, the gross can be comparable to Off Broadway, but the net is substantially better,” he says. That’s because producing costs can be prohibitive in New York, where $40,000 reps a good B.O. week for an Off Broadway show. Still, there’s a branding opportunity in being able to tag something as “direct from New York.”

That’s what producer Flaherty is banking on for “Cuff Me,” which begins Off Broadway previews March 27. “We’ll be the first to have a sit-down Off Broadway run,” he notes. He’s also readying a tour for the 2013-14 season.

As with any title spawned by a pop-culture phenomenon, the shelf life for these productions is anybody’s guess. For now, “Shades” still generates plenty of heat among fans, and producers count on the eventual release of Universal’s movie adaptation to stoke the flames.

Besides, as Asnes points out, the appeal of “50 Shades” has proven surprisingly broad. “A senior community wants to book our show,” he says.

That’s one shade of gray producers may not have expected.

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