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Auds hungry for originals

'Producers' producers seeing stars as ticket demand soars

A few thousand ticket buyers and no tix to sell.

That’s the bizarre dilemma the producers of “The Producers” found themselves in Aug. 6 following reports that Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick would once again fill the con-artist fedoras of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom on Broadway. If all goes as planned and contract negotiations are successful, the show’s original stars will return in January for 90 performances.

The St. James Theater box office is currently selling tix for “Producers” perfs only through November. But that didn’t stop hundreds of potential patrons from jamming the sidewalk outside the home of the hit Mel Brooks tuner.

The premature publicity creates a lousy environment for current sales to “The Producers,” now starring Lewis J. Stadlen and Don Stephenson. It’s expected that patrons will take a wait-and-see approach before shucking out their $99.

If the Lane/Broderick engagement materializes, it will carry “The Producers” through the B.O.-challenged months of January-March. Lane and Broderick left the production in March 2002.

B.O. fell after stars’ exit

Last year, the producers of “The Producers” saw ticket sales drop significantly in the wake of the two stars’ departure, and they were forced to launch an expensive TV campaign to bolster sales during winter 2003. Weekly receipts fell to around $925,000, nearly $125,000 under gross potential. Those numbers have not improved with the onset of summer, a time when most long-running musicals receive a B.O. bump, but they are good enough to put the production about $300,000 above its weekly break-even costs.

No longer one of Broadway’s hottest tickets, “The Producers” consistently ranks No. 4 on the weekly box office chart, under “The Lion King,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Hairspray,” despite playing at a larger venue than the latter two. Capacity for weekday perfs often hovers around 60%.

No longer a sellout

It should have been smoother sailing after “The Producers” nabbed a record 12 Tony Awards, including best musical, back in June 2001. But nothing is a sure-fire thing, especially in the theater.

Lane developed a throat ailment due to the strenuous Bialystock role and cut back on his scheduled eight-perf weekly sked. A top price ticket of $480, available through the newly created Broadway Industry Circle, bolstered B.O. but created resentment in the industry. Lane’s first replacement, Henry Goodman, was fired in previews. Subsequent cast changes have received lackluster reviews.

Most significant, perhaps, the show has failed to successfully develop a brand image such as a mask (“Phantom of the Opera”), a smiling bride (“Mamma Mia!”) or a wild hairdo (“Hairspray”). Instead, the show’s poster of two men standing beside a stage door, their faces altered to reflect each new cast, only succeeds in telling potential ticket buyers that Lane and Broderick are no longer in the show.

By the time the two stars return, of course, “The Producers” will be sold out again. Come April 2004, however, the big question makes an unwanted comeback: What actor wants to replace either Lane or Broderick in his signature role?

Tickets for the Lane/Broderick perfs could go on sale as early as this week, and they should be an immediate sell-out. Ninety perfs at gross potential represents about $13 million, which certainly would be an industry record for single-day sales. But even that awesome sum is a conservative estimate. An expected run on those long-languishing $480 tickets should send sales significantly higher.