Off Broadway becomes an option

Shows stick it out after a shift from Broadway

The Times Square billboard for “Avenue Q” touts the show as “Broadway’s Tony-winning best musical.”

Which it is — it’s just not on Broadway anymore. But that doesn’t seem to be scaring off ticketbuyers.

Last season saw two shows, “Avenue Q” and “The 39 Steps,” shift from the Main Stem to Off Broadway, prompting legiters to wonder if producers had hit on a new way to keep a title on the boards and pull in additional coin.

The question was: Would the apparently unprecedented approach work?

Several months into the Off Broadway runs of both shows, the answer is yes.

“No question about it,” says Robyn Goodman, who produces “Avenue Q” with Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller. “We’re making money every week. The national exposure for ‘Avenue Q,’ the Broadway run, the Tonys, the tour — it’s all absolutely made a difference.”

There are caveats, of course.

The Broadway-to-Off Broad-way option is clearly more practical for a smaller show than a spectacle, for instance, and musicals have a far easier time attracting crowds than plays. (The same is almost always true on Broadway as well.)

And such a jump probably only makes sense if producers can get away with little to no redesign of the physical production, so that elements from the Broadway version can simply be moved over without incurring major costs. And of course, with smaller venues and lower tickets prices, gross potential goes down.

On the other hand, costs are lower Off Broadway, due to union regulations, lower theater rents and other factors.

Goodman estimates that the running cost of “Avenue Q” declined to about a third of what it was on the Rialto. Producer Harriet Leve says the capitalization of “The 39 Steps” was reduced from $2.2 million on Broadway to $800,000 off the Great White Way.

Among the obstacles confronted by Off Broadway producers is the huge gap in press attention and marketing budgets compared with their competition on Broadway.

Shows like “Avenue Q” and “39 Steps,” however, seem to have sidestepped the publicity barrier by cultivating a brand with Broadway runs and Tony Awards, and then reaping the benefits of that pre-established profile Off Broadway.

“Avenue Q” originated Off Broadway in 2003 before it moved to Broadway for a six-year stint that racked up three Tonys, including top tuner. After closing in September 2009, the show resumed a month later in a 499-seat theater at Off Broadway multiplex New World Stages. The new incarnation has since recouped.

“The 39 Steps,” which closed its Broadway production in January, ran for more than two years at three different Rialto theaters, winning three design Tonys. The production reopened, also in a 499-seat house at New World Stages, in April.

Both shows were able to re-use most of the production’s physical elements for the Off Broadway version. Conveniently, neither show needed fly space (the space above a stage that allows scenery to be moved vertically) — a good thing, since New World doesn’t have any.

For both shows, the recognition factor from a Broadway run and New York awards has been boosted by national tours and international productions. So visitors to Gotham — who sustain any long-running show, on Broadway or off — are far more likely to gravitate to such familiar titles.

“Anything that has an audience at the TKTS booth will absolutely have an audience Off Broadway,” says Beverley D. Mac Keen, exec director of New World Stages. It’s those tourists standing in line at the midtown booth, after all, who are among the theatergoers who would be lured by the billboard for “Avenue Q.” In fact, the tuner is one of the rare Off Broadway shows to have a billboard — an expense that’s proving worth it, thanks to the title’s Rialto-heightened profile,

Additionally, it seems likely the two former Broadway offerings at a single venue add a new destination profile to the New World, which is also helped by its prime spot in the theater district. The location feels close enough to the prime Broadway houses that some theatergoers may not even realize they’re venturing Off Broadway.

Now that more than one show has done it, the move to Off Broadway seems like a logical option, somewhat akin to the choice made by long-running shows that have shifted to smaller Rialto houses over the course of their runs, as demand for tickets softens over the years. (In 2003, for instance, longrunning revival “Chicago” moved from the 1,450-seat Shubert to the 1,120-seat Amabassador.)

In hindsight, “Urinetown,” which ran for more than three years on Broadway before it shuttered in 2004, could possibly have found further life Off Broadway (where the show originated). The same can be said for many of the edgier, more intimate tuners that found commercial and kudos success on the Main Stem: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” perhaps, or maybe “Spring Awakening.”

For the two that have done it, producers are finding that a show can carry over more than just its Main Stem cred. In some ways, its Off Broadway offshoot begins to behave more like a Broadway production at the box office, as well.

Leve says “39 Steps” has had unexpected success with Wednesday matinees — a Broadway tradition not usually seen Off Broadway — and will soon begin tubthumping the show to school auds, whose interest has been piqued by the Main Stem profile.

“A number of people are buying premium tickets, too,” she adds. That’s an unexpected twist, since premium pricing was a Rialto innovation that generally attracts the most attention at in-demand Main Stem hits.

Such Off Broadway runs for Rialto alums can only benefit Off Broadway overall, says George Forbes, prexy of the League of Off Broadway Theater and Producers. “Maybe these audiences have never seen a show Off Broadway before, and it demystifies what Off Broadway is and isn’t,” he says.

McCollum attributes the long-term appeal of “Avenue Q” to the continued relevance of the show’s tale of young adults chasing their dreams in the city. “We’re keeping the show alive. That’s what a producer does.”

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