Broadway broadens its auds

'Color Purple' reps latest show to boost B.O. by attracting nontraditional crowds

On Broadway, you gotta get a niche.

Take a look at recent hits, and you’ll see a batch of shows that each tap a demo rarely drawn to Broadway.

“Jersey Boys” attracts the Holland Tunnel crowd, “Monty Python’s Spamalot” pulls flannel-shirted straight guys, and “Wicked” has become known, much to the irritation of its producers, as the tuner powered by teen girls.

But it’s reductive to believe that Broadway programming is fragmenting in the same way that TV broke apart into a broad array of pinpoint-appeal cable channels. A big-budget musical cannot live by niche alone.

Case in point: “The Color Purple.”

The Oprah-approved tuner, which earned middling reviews when it opened Dec. 1, has found a niche of its own, logging an impressive percentage of African-American theatergoers — 50% and sometimes more, according to producers, vs. the 3.8% averaged by Broadway overall during the 2004-05 season.

The success with black audiences may not seem surprising, given the show’s all-black cast and storyline. But received wisdom along the Great White Way says that those black auds aren’t simply uninterested in Broadway, they’re intimidated by it and its high ticket prices.

And recent shows that proved the maxim wrong — “Julius Caesar” starring Denzel Washington, “A Raisin in the Sun” with Sean Combs — were, unlike “Purple,” limited runs with big-name black stars.

“It’s an absolute fallacy that African-Americans don’t have the money to go to the theater,” says Scott Sanders, lead producer of “Purple.” “We’re living proof.”

Doubtless, those unusually plentiful black auds have helped launch “Purple” into the stratosphere of a hit. The show, currently wrapping between $200,000-$300,000 a day, has racked up a hefty $21.5 million advance. A national tour is set to begin in April 2007 with a nearly seven-month sit-down in Chicago, to be followed by multiweek runs in L.A., Boston, D.C., St. Louis and other major cities.

But just as the phenomenal numbers done by “Wicked” can’t solely be attributed to teens and tweeners dragging their moms to the Gershwin, it’s not just black ticketbuyers keeping “Purple” afloat.

“It’s your basic theatergoing audience, being buttressed by a large group of people to whom theatergoing is new,” says vet producer Roy Furman, who has a hand in “Purple” along with “Spamalot,” “The Wedding Singer” and others.

Reaching out for a nontraditional aud is exactly what Sanders had in mind over the eight years during which he put the show together. Along with his risky decision to adapt a tough, serious narrative with a star-free African-American ensemble, he made the unusual move of choosing a songwriting team of three composers from the pop world who had never before worked for Broadway.

“If we want to continue to spend $10 million-$12 million on a musical, we cannot just do shows that appeal to 46-year-old white women,” he says, referring to the prime demo of avid theatergoers.

It’s advice that could help any show hoping to be a hit.

“In order to deliver 15,000 to 20,000 people per week in the auditorium, anything a production can do to broaden the appeal of their show is obviously a very important thing,” says Jed Bernstein, prexy of the League of American Theaters & Producers.

The strategy, then, becomes to augment appeal by nurturing a niche.

“Color Purple” got the early boost of a national profile, thanks to pre-opening publicity from over-the-title producer Oprah Winfrey. The talkshow diva’s branding boon helped turn heads among people who don’t make a habit of Broadway.

“Many of our audience members have never been to New York, and are making a dedicated trip to New York to see the show,” Sanders says.

To smooth the path to Gotham, the show has developed comprehensive online aid for trip-planning. The show’s Website includes tourism info and a grassroots group-planning tool based on evites. In the works is a packaging component that would allow patrons to book theater tickets, hotel rooms and dinner reservations in one transaction.

All this to make it easier for new auds to add their numbers to the traditional Broadway demo — new auds that, if their experience is a positive one, might just consider taking in a show on a more regular basis.

“The producing community and the landlord community have to think more broadly than producing shows only for avid theatergoers,” he says. “If we had produced ‘The Color Purple’ for musical theater purists, I don’t think we could have gotten the broad audiences and the word of mouth that we have.”

“I think we’re on to something in terms of longevity,” Furman says. “This show can run forever.”