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Broadway Plays It Cool Until Spring Season Thaw

With Broadway boxoffice slammed by what insiders are calling the Triple Whammy – the usual January to February slump aggravated by the Persian Gulf war and a recession – legit marketers are falling back on age-old military advice: Hurry up and wait.

“I’m not advising my clients to do anything more than they would be doing during any January or February,” says Matthew Serino, president of Serino Coyne Inc., an ad agency specializing in legit productions. “You could spend $50,000 to $100,000 on television ads every week, but the money won’t come back to you.”

Fred Golden, president of the Golden Group agency, concurs. “More money spent on ads will only increase expenses, and nothing will happen with grosses.”

While at least a half-dozen productions will have fallen victim by winter’s end, the thinning-out could make the fittest even fitter. The trimmed roster means less competition for the shows that hang in until spring.

“Show like ‘Prelude To A Kiss’ and ‘Once On This Island’ are staying around thinking they’ll win by default,” says one source.

One pressagent notes that, if there had to be a war, it couldn’t have come at a better time of year – for Broadway investors.

While others might argue with that assessment, production budgets do assume the traditional winter slump; and, if this winter is harsher than most, at least the trenches were in place.

“The plays that heighten their television ads during these periods are the hits that have just gone a little soft,” the agent says. “The plays that really need help can’t afford it.”

One production that’s coming on line when others are falling off is “Mule Bone,” the new comedy by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. The Lincoln Center production previewed Jan. 20 at the Ethel Barrymore Theater and is set for a Feb. 14 opening.

With strong subscriber interest in the show, “Mule Bone” has little hope of getting off to a strong financial start. Subscribers can attend for a modest $10 per seat.

“As a not-for-profit institution, we’re always prepared to lose a certain amount of money each week to get a show started,” per a “Mule Bone” spokesman. “The time of year and the stressful circumstances in the world haven’t forced us to change that marketing plan.”

The pre-spring doldrums could prove a tough testing ground for the much-discussed Broadway Alliance Plan. The first play produced under the plan, Steve Tesich’s “The Speed Of Darkness,” previews at the Belasco Theater Feb. 14, opening Feb. 28.

The plan, designed to encourage the production of straight plays on Broadway, involves salary and royalty cuts agreed upon by labor and management groups, as well as concessions from theater operators, producers and suppliers. Production budgets are limited to $400,000, with top ticket prices not to exceed $24.

Robert Whitehead, a producer of “Speed,” says the marketing budget is in keeping with the scaled-down economics of the plan. Advertising costs will be limited to $15,000 per week.

Whitehead’s chief marketing concern is in preventing public perception of “Speed” as anything less than “the highest Broadway quality.”

Though the low ticket price will allow producers to target a broader audience, Whitehead says ads will identify the show as a Broadway Alliance production in an attempt to avoid equating the reduced prices with reduced quality.

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