Perils of playtime

NEW YORK — Let’s forget about the reviews, the box office and the audiences for a moment.

Did you realize that we are living in a veritable golden age of new drama on Broadway?

Look at the sheer number of new plays to open in 2003-04! Thirteen will have preemed before the end of the season.

That’s almost double the tally for 1999-2000. Many of us still remember the drought of December 1999. Not one new play graced the boards until “Wrong Mountain” came along. David Hirson‘s surreal comedy opened that January, then quickly left town in February.

For the next few years, eight new plays a season remained the rule. Suddenly, the floodgates opened, and there are more than a dozen arrivals in 2003-04. (Granted, Manhattan Theater Club has produced two at its newly renovated Biltmore Theater; but the Roundabout and Lincoln Center Theater offered none this season.)

In fact, new plays are currently the Fabulous Invalid’s least endangered species: This Broadway season hosts nine play revivals, eight new musicals and five musical revivals.

And now for the other shoe. “Bobbi Boland” would have made it 14 new plays. In retrospect, the Farrah Fawcett starrer looks like the orphan exception that proves the rule: New plays make for a horrible investment.

Tellingly, the one-person shows “Golda’s Balcony” and “I Am My Own Wife” may have the best shot at recoupment. But as producer David Fishelson reports, ” ‘Golda’ is a slow and steady performer” that has recouped only 20% of its $1.3 million capitalization after 26 weeks.

“Match” has rebounded at the box office after getting mixed reviews. Its $228,630 gross for the play’s first week of regular perfs, however, looks awfully similar to what “Anna in the Tropics” and “The Retreat From Moscow” did right out of the box. Their receipts then slipped under the $200,000 mark, and the shows closed in the red.

“Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” never saw a bump. “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” never saw a second performance. And “Sixteen Wounded” closed April 25 after 12 regular perfs.

Next up, Broadway gets two last-minute additions, “Frozen” and “Prymate.”

“For a while, no new plays were being produced on Broadway,” says “Prymate” producer Michael Parva. “Now the door has been opened, and hopefully audiences will support them. One good success will encourage more plays.”

A few good successes obviously encouraged this season’s producers. The recent past saw fewer new plays but more profitable ones: “Copenhagen,” “Proof,” “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” “The Dinner Party,” “Metamorphoses,” “The Graduate,” “Topdog/Underdog” and “Life (x) 3” all made money.

Conversely, all the red ink for 2003-04 could put a damper on future productions.

“Prymate,” for instance, may rep a new low: It took in a historic $9,851 for its first four previews.

Even “Confederate Widow” did $46,734 for four. “Sixteen Wounded” did $92,197 for its first eight.

Parva and fellow producer Chase Mishkin first saw the Mark Medoff play at Florida State U. in February, and they have worked overtime to assemble the Broadway production. “We didn’t have time for a mailer, and you rely on that first mailer to sell tickets during previews,” Mishkin says.

Bryony Lavery‘s “Frozen” also will miss the benefit of an early direct-mail when it opens May 4 on Broadway. Again, it has been a sudden birth. Robert LuPone says the producers raised the $1.5 million capitalization in only three weeks.

But unlike “Prymate,” “Frozen” has the advantage of local word of mouth from to its recent downtown engagement at MCC. Lincoln Center Theater will help out with a letter of recommendation to its subscribers. And “Frozen” headliner Swoosie Kurtz looks to be a front-runner for the actress Tony.

LuPone calls the venture “risky,” but likens “Frozen” to MCC’s earlier commercial transfer, “Wit,” about a professor battling cancer.

Regarding subject matter, Broadway’s current crop of play producers can’t be accused of going the usual froth-and-fun route. Serial killers, transvestite informers, suicide bombers, gay cunnilingists. It sounds more like the movies.

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