Broadway defies odds in downturn

Legit shows its legs as Wall St. lays egg

The lead producers of this year’s Tony-nominated musicals claim they were always upbeat about Broadway despite the economy. But for every one of them, there had to be another vet producer who, last fall, gave out a sigh of relief when he or she told Variety, either publicly or privately, “Thank God, I don’t have a show coming to Broadway this season!”

As for the legit optimists who gambled in the face of financial doom, they range from producer Eric Fellner, who says, “Maybe in a strange kind of way, this recession has helped us, because the zeitgeist is so much more about what ‘Billy Elliot’ is about,” to producer Matthew Weaver, who reveals, “Most of the town was nervous. ‘Rock of Ages’ took advantage of the situation.”

“Rock of Ages” is the underdog of an overachiever season that rebounded bigtime in the spring after 13 shows shuttered in January. Legit vets know this kind of show very well. They call it a stop-gap production. Or as Weaver describes the situation, “It was all doom and gloom on Broadway, and then we got this phone call that a theater was available.”

Stop-gap productions provide theater owners with a few weeks rent before the inevitable closing notice goes up. No one expects them to run. But a funny thing happened on the way to this funeral: The crix loved the heavy-metal “Rock of Ages” and so did the Tonys, which gave it five noms.

“We greenlit this show with the attitude of ‘There’ll be no New York Times review and no Tony nominations,'” Weaver says. “That’s how we came in … with a lot of naivete. If we knew how daunting it was, if someone had sat us down … ” Indeed, Weaver and his team of umpteen producers include not one Broadway vet. And to prove it, Weaver brags, “The last show I saw on Broadway was ‘Pippin’ in the 1970s.”

“Rock of Ages” would seem to be the proverbial exception that proves the rule. But in this topsy-turvy season, it probably means nothing — except that somebody gambled and somebody won.

Certainly, of all the nommed tuners, “Billy Elliot,” which got a whopping 15 mentions, might have survived even a 1929-size Wall Street crash.

“There was such a long lead time, the last thing we were thinking about was a potential recession,” Fellner says of the show’s November preem. “We came in with concerns as to whether the American audience would embrace the show,” he adds, referring to its 1980s England subject matter.

With a long West End run already under its belt, even “Billy” proved somewhat vulnerable at the box office and didn’t sell out in January/February the way former behemoths “The Producers” and “Hairspray” did in their first winter. “There were weeks when we were 90% full instead of 100%,” Fellner recalls. “We could probably expect to be doing better in a better economy. In January, everyone would have said to you they were worried, but (that worry) was very, very short-lived for us.”

Winter chill

DreamWorks Theatricals tested the Broadway waters with its debut effort, “Shrek the Musical,” which opened in December and, after a heady holiday session, endured several winter weeks under or near its weekly nut. “I think we expected January and February would be tough overall; everyone prepared us for it,” says Bill Damaschke, president of DreamWorks Theatricals. “Now being on the other side of spring break, we’re enthusiastic (about) what is going to happen. People are back in the city.”

The Tony-nommed revivals of “West Side Story” and “Hair” had the advantage of avoiding the darkest winter weeks, and began previews in late February and early March, respectively. “WSS” came close to SRO status from the get-go. It has since gone on to set house records at the Palace. Producer Kevin McCollum capitalized the show “at the height of the economic crisis, and nobody reneged and nobody pulled out,” he says. “As the economy turned, people wanted things they knew — familiar and comfortable. With ‘West Side Story,’ you see the dollar on stage, with a cast of over 40 people and an orchestra of 29. There’s value.”

“Hair” turned out to be a less potent brand. The production, despite rave notices from its Public Theater production in Central Park, was not an easy transfer, and its lead producer, Elizabeth Ireland McCann, was ultimately replaced by Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel.

“The terms that had been asked for participation in the show were very aggressive,” Richards says. “We re-evaluated the situation, and we asked that the production costs be lowered, and we offered very favorable terms for participation in the production.”

Obviously, the new terms struck a responsive chord with investors, but the show did less than stellar biz in previews.

“We were profitable from the first five-show week,” counters the Public’s Oskar Eustis.

But profitable isn’t sellout, and “Hair” didn’t do boffo biz until after its March 31 Broadway preem and those enthusiastic re-reviews.

Comparing “Hair” to his major competish for the musical revival Tony, Richards offers, “There were probably more parties for group sales for ‘West Side Story.'” He’s betting that the current, nearly cap, biz for “Hair” will continue, thanks to “college and high school alumni groups who experienced this show 40 years ago.”

Biggest gamble

If “Rock of Ages” is this season’s scrappiest underdog, then “Next to Normal” is its biggest gamble.

“Rock,” in the not-so-grand tradition of jukebox tuners, relies on pre-existing music. “N2N,” on the other hand, is that rarest of musicals — an original score built around an original book. That’s no easy feat, and to get it right, the show took an unprecedented route to Broadway: After receiving mixed reviews at Second Stage last season, “N2N” retooled at D.C.’s Arena Stage and returned to Gotham to be this spring’s crix darling.

“Bringing it back to New York City made sense,” producer David Stone says. “The biggest gamble was doing it at all,” because, as he’s quick to point out, the tuner has “no recognizable elements” (i.e., a classic movie title) and “there’s no good way to describe it.” To call “N2N” an opera about a bipolar woman only proves Stone’s point. Here’s a show that is definitely not familiar or comfortable.

As for the economy, he says: “I wasn’t as pessimistic as some. We all kept reading that tourists weren’t coming.” The good news is, “People in the tri-state area didn’t travel as much, and instead they came in to see shows. I’m being patient. We just opened, and we (recently) doubled the previous Tuesday’s wrap. Ultimately, word of mouth sells any show.”

Selling out or just hanging on, the nommed producers now wait for Tony night. Until then, word on the Rialto has begun to change. “The news was always so bad — shows closing and the economy,” says Damaschke. “What I’m happy to see now is that there’s news about the plays and musicals on Broadway. It’s an incredible season.”


What: 63rd annual Tony Awards

Where: Radio City Music Hall, New York

When: June 7, 8 p.m. EST

Network: CBS

Ballots due: June 5

Full list of nominees: tonyawards.com