The new Broadway season is only eight weeks old and already we have a winner.
On July 16 at around 10:30 p.m., “The Blonde in the Thunderbird” star Suzanne Somers nabbed the award for best entrance at a Broadway opening-night party, pulling up at Shubert Alley’s new sidewalk restaurant Bolzano’s in a 1957 white T-Bird, accompanied by police escort with sirens blaring.
Somers also may have secured the award for the season’s swiftest exit. Her one-woman show was scheduled to close July 23, far ahead of its announced Sept. 3 end date.
Inside the party, the show’s producer (and the star’s husband), Alan Hamel, told well-wishers, “I’m so proud!” But he may have felt differently when the blistering reviews appeared July 18.
At the box office, the Somers autobiog show had been playing through previews and into its opening week more like “The Prymate in the Thunderbird.” Legit ambulance chasers will remember “Prymate” as the play by Mark Medoff (“Children of a Lesser God”) that grossed a historic $9,851 for its first four previews in April 2004. In its next 15 perfs, the drama about a sign-language-trained gorilla, played by Andre de Shields, took in $64,756 before being yanked off the stage.
Mr. and Mrs. Hamel can relax with the knowledge that their effort topped that cume with a $71,173 gross for the week of July 11-17. But despite a top ticket of $90, the average-price ducat for “Blonde” is another story — an astonishingly low $11, when comps are factored in. That registers as a virtual movie ticket compared to the $32-$36 “Prymate” brought down.
In an increasingly rare gesture these days, when a dozen or more producers have become the norm on Broadway musicals, Hamel took a solo producer credit on the show, and he’s proud of it.
“We decided going into this that we wouldn’t bring in outside investors,” he says. “This way, we can tour when we want to. We’re not ‘Kiss Me, Kate.’ We don’t have to go out and tour for nine months straight.”
Hamel put capitalization at $1.6 million, the standard going rate for a solo show on Broadway. Running costs each week, however, were extremely high, at $250,000. Those “Sex and the City”-like bus ads and other promos are expensive, as is the “Blonde” band and backstage crew of 25. Add it all up, and there are probably reasons Somers limited her costumes to one black leotard.
“We will have spent $4 million before it’s all over,” says Hamel.
Like Everest, they played Gotham because it is here. “Broadway is one place we’ve never been,” Hamel says. “It felt right.”
Like “Prymate,” they got clobbered by the critics, who found “Blonde” not just bad but awful — and awful in the true sense of the word, which means “inspiring awe.”
But the truism “so bad it’s good” applies to movies, not the theater. All-media screenings of such legendary bombs as “Showgirls” (1995) and Madonna starrer “Body of Evidence” (1993) became audience roasts, provoking torrents of guffaws. In the theater, it’s different: The live participation of the actors induces embarrassment, in effect dampening an audience’s natural response to explode with laughter or exit the theater.
In “Blonde,” by the time Somers rolled out her QVC cart of products (sugarless jam, ThighMaster, jewelry, etc.), the opening nighters at the Brooks Atkinson Theater had already endured nearly two hours of nonstop self-promotion.
“Blonde” will now take its place on the walls of Joe Allen’s dedicated to legendary Broadway flops, where its lessons can live on.
As legit industryites start in on their post-mortem, it’s important to remember that casualties like the Somers show and “The Mambo Kings” do not a trend make. July-August can be a perfectly respectable time to open on Broadway, as the summer 2002 box office for “Hairspray” and “Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune” shows.
The chief lesson, however, might be that having 20 producers listed above the title can be a good thing. Maybe the other 19 would have talked Mr. and Mrs. Hamel out of climbing Mount Broadway and setting themselves up for a fall.