On a Broadway landscape dominated by bigger-is-better tuners, “A Catered Affair” is thinking small.
Unlike upcoming mega-spectacles “Young Frankenstein” and “The Little Mermaid,” “Affair” has a cast of just 10 and is capitalized at $6.5 million — nearly $10 million less than “Frankenstein.”
“Affair,” which begins its tryout run at the Old Globe in San Diego Sept. 20 before a Gotham opening set for April, chronicles the intimate tale of a 1950s Bronx family prepping for a wedding.
But with a savvy sense of the show’s target demo and an aesthetic that could operate as a kind of counterprogramming to the razzle-dazzle of most Rialto tuners, the producers are hoping less is more.
With a book by Harvey Fierstein and music by tuner newcomer John Bucchino, “A Catered Affair” is based on a 1955 teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky that was adapted into a 1956 feature starring Bette Davis and Debbie Reynolds. The story centers on the Hurley clan, a family of limited means forced to choose between investing their life savings in a family biz or spending it on their daughter’s nuptials.
The pic is hardly the kind of widely known property exploited by other recent tuners.
“I’ve been surprised that a fair amount of people recognize the title and have fond feelings for it,” says Jordan Roth, producer and VP of Jujamcyn Theaters, the Broadway landlords that own the Walter Kerr, where “Affair” begins previews in March. “But we won’t be depending on it in any way to sell the show.”
Instead, the production, helmed by John Doyle, aims to hit the same vein tapped by the wedding-centric mother-daughter plotline of “Mamma Mia!”
“Although it’s an intimate piece, it’s still squarely in the sweet spot of the Broadway audience,” Roth says. “It’s very much a women’s story, and Broadway is very much a women’s audience. This show offers the Broadway theatergoer what she wants.”
The idea for the adaptation came from Fierstein, who first considered it in the 1980s as a vehicle for Chita Rivera. (Faith Prince now stars as the mother, in an ensemble that includes Leslie Kritzer, Tom Wopat, Matt Cavenaugh and Fierstein himself in the supporting role of the uncle.)
Fierstein knew the movie, but thought it didn’t get the story quite right. “I remember not being as touched by it as I should have,” he says. “There was something about it that was a little too pat. And that’s a good thing, because I don’t think you should adapt something that’s perfect. Why bother?
“I thought in terms of being able to produce a show without 7,000 producers,” he adds. (“Affair” lists five, including the team of Fierstein and his brother, Ron.) “It’s a show I hope would become a staple in community theaters. You don’t need a giant production.”
Although helmer Doyle isn’t asking his actors to double as orchestra, as they did for his recent revivals of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company,” he’s hardly abandoning his minimalist tendencies.
“Hopefully, there is a kind of visual simplicity and fluidity that I would think is fairly common to anything I do,” he says.
As Doyle describes it, the realistic scenic elements will be pared down over the course of the evening, reducing it to an almost bare stage by the end of the show. Lighting will play up certain cinematic effects in the show, which, like a movie, will run an intermissionless 100 minutes.
The period New York setting didn’t feel like a hindrance to the director. “Yes, this is the story of a family in the Bronx, and I was brought up in the highlands of Scotland,” he says. “But these people lived above and below me in the tenement building I was brought up in. It felt familiar.”
Marketing for the show will play up personal connections between the aud and the story. The playbill for the San Diego run, for instance, will invite aud members to share their own wedding planning experiences on the show’s soon-to-launch website.
“The goal is to illuminate that direct line between what’s happening onstage and our own lives,” Roth says.
A standard group sales mailer also has been personalized to resemble a wedding invitation, complete with RSVP card.
“Affair” hopes to follow in the footsteps of the smaller-sized tuners that have found success on the Rialto over the past few years, with “Avenue Q” in 2003 and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” in 2005 leading the way for offerings such as last season’s snowballing hit “Spring Awakening” and this season’s on-the-rise comedy “Xanadu.”
“Affair” is Doyle’s first production created specifically with Broadway expectations, and he acknowledges the stakes are raised.
“The exposure is different to how it is in the U.K.,” the director says. “Expectation is expectation.”
Roth expects the simplicity of the show to help it stand out from bigger, brassier offerings. “We’ll be highlighting the intimacy and the craft,” he says.
Fierstein likens it to a can of Campbell’s soup. “It’s soup, but with the water taken out,” he says. “The concentration is what gives it the extra drama.”