‘Frankenstein’ creeps out Broadway

Producers keeping box office tally a secret

Once again, legiters are talking about sales figures for the new Mel Brooks tuner headed into town.

But they’re not buzzing about the astronomical tallies of “The Producers,” as they were in 2001. They’re chattering about the potential lack of any numbers at all for Brooks’ follow-up, “Young Frankenstein.”

Producers Robert F.X. Sillerman and Brooks have decided not to report the weekly grosses of “Frankenstein,” making it the only major Broadway production in recent memory to decline revealing those figures. When Sillerman went public with the move, he stirred up questions of the advantages and disadvantages of the long-standing tradition of sales reporting — and speculation that he may be starting a precedent.

The weekly release of B.O. receipts is an entrenched but noncompulsory tradition along Broadway. It began many decades ago in the pages of Variety, and these days the League of American Theaters & Producers also gathers numbers as further intel for its studies about the financial health of the street.

Although Variety clearly has a vested interest in the reporting of grosses, it would still cover the business of Broadway and intends to publish data through its own sources whether shows release figures or not.

Sillerman, the former head of SFX Entertainment who helped change the concert ticketing industry with tiered pricing, has never been afraid of rethinking legit biz practices. He was a co-producer of “Producers,” which, when it first implemented premium-priced tickets, caused an outcry but ended up creating a new model for ticket pricing that is followed by the majority of Broadway today.

“Frankenstein” already has pushed up the top Rialto pricetag, with a number of “premier” seats going for $450 (a big jump over the current top ticket, “Jersey Boys,” which hawks some ducats for $350).

Sillerman doesn’t see the use of exposing his sales every week. “If we could figure out any benefit to reporting grosses, other than bragging rights, we would certainly consider it,” he says.

Some in the industry view the “Frankenstein” decision as a way of keeping spectacularly boffo sums private in an effort to avoid the appearance of avarice — or as a ploy to hush up receipts that maybe aren’t as boffo as anticipated by the hype on the show. (“Frankenstein” earned encouraging reviews from its recently wrapped Seattle tryout, and begins perfs in Gotham Oct. 11.)

Most legiters polled say they remain unlikely to follow the “Young Frankenstein” lead. Sillerman, however, isn’t the only one ambivalent about releasing the numbers.

“I’m not sure what the benefits are,” says Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Org, the theater-owning chain that dutifully reports the B.O. at Shubert venues every week.

Actually, the benefits can best be illustrated by “The Producers.” The smash success of that show was powered by reams of press citing the tuner’s hefty advance sales, first-day receipts and impressive weekly box office. It seems likely that the consumer-media’s coverage would have been less extensive if the show’s hit status were merely anecdotal, without hard numbers to back it up.

Later, the 2003 tuner “Wicked,” previously considered a soft hit thanks in part to its lackluster reviews, caught the eye of the industry in summer 2004 with its box office tallies. The musical’s receipts stayed strong over the July 4 weekend and during the Gotham stay of the Republican National Convention, when B.O. for most other shows fell; attention directed at the tuner’s snowballing popularity contributed to the public recognition of “Wicked” as a legit juggernaut.

Consumer media is increasingly numbers-centric, with stories fueled by TV ratings, film B.O. stats and Broadway grosses. “Young Frankenstein” might lose out on some coverage that helps sustain a high national profile. Some industry watchers carry their concerns one step further: They worry that without the business angle provided by the weekly receipts, legit coverage overall might become more marginalized, relegated to websites and the occasional article aimed at a dedicated fringe, as is now the case with opera and ballet.

Of course, the major disadvantage of revealing Broadway sales figures comes when a show’s B.O. is declining, and everyone on the Rialto knows it.

“Reporting weekly results at least maintains some form of honesty and objectivity, and we get some legit ink every week,” says David Schrader, chief financial officer of Disney Theatrical Prods. “But sometimes it can be tempting to focus too closely on details that can obscure a more important trajectory or trend for a given show.”

The public release of figures does have another benefit, in that it allows a producer to judge whether sales are following the street or are particular to a single show.

“It’s about understanding the patterns,” says “Wicked” producer David Stone. “Is everyone down this week? Why am I down? Is this a seasonal thing? You need to know where you are relative to the whole Broadway landscape.”

A major theatrical market without public numbers exists already on London’s West End, where reporters and others in the industry rely mostly on hearsay for a sense of a production’s success.

Stateside, hearsay looks likely to be a major hindrance in keeping Broadway grosses under wraps. Even if the figures aren’t reported, there are still enough industry insiders who see those numbers — gross participants, unions, etc. — that, in the gossipy legit world, it may prove nearly impossible to keep sales a secret.

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