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‘Avenue Q,’ ‘Oz’ set the pace

First half of new season off to slow start, but has potential

Broadway is different from film, television, music or the rest of the world. It measures its success on a calendar that runs from June to June.

And there are signs that the first half of the 2003-04 season is hardly the disaster that many critics have called it.

Elizabeth I. McCann, for one, is not worried. And as managing producer of the Tony Awards, it is McCann’s job to worry about such things.

“We’ll have no problem putting together a great Tony show,” says the producer, looking ahead to June.

The annual Tony Awards telecast sinks or swims on its musical numbers, and McCann can already count off five impressive numbers from original tuners “Avenue Q,” “The Boy From Oz,” “Wicked,” “Taboo” and “Never Gonna Dance.”

The latter two may be long shots for recoupment (or for this world), but with or without the critics’ approval, “Boy” and “Wicked” continue to hover around the $1 million mark at the box office each week, and “Q” runs about six figures above its break-even at the tiny Golden Theater.

Those titles may not have the instant cachet of such past Tony winners as “The Producers” (2001) or “Hairspray” (2003), but one doesn’t have to look back very far (“Thoroughly Modern Millie,” 2002) to find a weaker Tony winner for musical.

All this talk of tuners ignores the other side of the Broadway quotient.

But then, plays are not the engine that drive today’s legit machine. For example, “Take Me Out” won the Tony for best play, but it still won’t have recouped its $2 million investment when it shutters Jan. 4.

Revivals laden with stars tend to do better. “Salome” with Al Pacino recouped. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” with Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Dennehy drew capacity auds during the summer, putting the revival on the Top 10 list of box office hits.

No other play this year has joined that lustrous company, although the current “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” comes close despite lackluster reviews.

“It is an indication that the public is not so influenced by the critics anymore,” the Shubert Organization’s Gerald Schoenfeld says of hit productions that get bad reviews.

Yes and no.

The low-profile “Avenue Q” needed good reviews and got them. “Taboo” got trounced and has paid the price.

And where would the poorly received “Boy” be if Hugh Jackman hadn’t received historic raves? Ditto the star notices for Donna Murphy in “Wonderful Town,” Bernadette Peters in “Gypsy” and Antonio Banderas in “Nine.”

As for producing a long-running hit, 2003 might best be remembered as the year of “Wicked.”

According to marketing guru Nancy Coyne, the tuner caps a major trend in the theater. “There is a very healthy and growing audience of young girls who enjoy seeing their role models on stage,” says Coyne.

Call it the “Titanic” crowd: Parents bringing daughters to “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aida,” “Mamma Mia!” “Hairspray” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” now can add those singing witches from “The Wizard of Oz” to their list.

Overall, 2003 set a B.O. record of $726.4 million, up $21.2 million over 2002.

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