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Broadway Hits Are Kudos-Proof

Audiences have already turned this year’s most-nommed shows into sellout blockbusters

Every year at this time, there’s usually a Broadway show that legiters say really needs a Tony — a worthy but underselling title for which an award looks like a potential box office savior.

This year, the Tonys look a lot like something else: Gravy.

That’s because unlike any other season in recent memory, so many of the 2012-13 slate’s nominated productions — and, heck, many of those not nominated — seem to have been doing just fine at the box office without the media spotlight that awards attention brings.

Frontrunner musicals “Kinky Boots,” pictured above, (13 nominations) and “Matilda” (12 noms)? Each had pushed into the millionaires’ club even before the noms were announced. Tom Hanks-toplined play “Lucky Guy” (six noms)? Ditto.

It’s even tough to feel too bad about those left off the nominees list. Snubbed musical “Motown,” earning four nods but surprisingly edged out of the race for new musical? It’s the biggest selling new show of the season, posting million-dollar weeks right out of the gate. “I’ll Eat You Last,” the play that was entirely ignored by the nominators despite a powerhouse creative team and big-name star Bette Midler? The title’s selling like hotcakes, with a smaller venue and some high-profile critical enthusiasm pushing demand even higher.

“How many seasons do you have six musicals all doing a significant amount of business?” asks Nederlander Org exec VP Nick Scandalios, who also chairs the Broadway League, which co-produces the Tonys with the American Theater Wing. “’Motown,’ ‘Kinky Boots,’ ‘Matilda,’ ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Pippin,’ ‘Annie,’” he ticks off. “That’s huge, all in a single season.”

It boils down to the fact that an unusual number of productions have managed to grab ticketbuyers’ attention early and hold onto it — even some potentially tough sells such as “Matilda.”

“Matilda”

Sure, the tuner was already a much-lauded hit in London before it landed in Gotham, but that’s never guaranteed to translate. (See: “Coram Boy,” the family-friendly U.K. hit that flopped here.) “Matilda” is also based on a Roald Dahl book that’s better known across the Pond, and threaded with dark undercurrents that are a far cry from the happy-go-lucky all-ages fare more common Stateside. None of that mattered. Broadway grosses were promising at first and only snowballed, finally rising to top the $1 million mark once critics raved.

The Tony nominations’ seeming irrelevance to the season’s box office cuts both ways. New play “The Testament of Mary” came away with three noms, and revival “Orphans” took two, but that level of awards attention wasn’t deemed to be enough to offset sales that were consistently low (“Testament”) or rapidly sinking (“Orphans”). “Testament” closed May 5; “Orphans” shutters May 19. Those are exceptions, though, to the spring’s unusual box office boom.

The potential explanation for the overall early momentum is different for each show, although some producers posit that in general, the rise of the Internet and social media has helped word-of-mouth — consistently the strongest influence on ticket sales, especially for tourist-magnet tuners — attain greater velocity and reach.

Several productions also benefit from individual hooks to attract attention. While “Matilda” comes with Brit accolades, “Kinky Boots” has a score by pop icon Cyndi Lauper. “Motown” carries the universal
appeal of the titular label’s music as well as a national ad campaign from Chrysler. “Lucky Guy” and “I’ll Eat You Last” have, respectively, Hanks and Midler.

As is always the case with Broadway timing, the fact that all these shows are on the boards at the same time is largely a coincidence of talent and theater availability. But it’s likely helpful that so many of the productions target a different demographic.

“The season’s been a variegated garden,” says William Ivey Long, chair of the American Theater Wing, and himself nominated for his costume design work on “Cinderella” (nine noms). “The audience for ‘Kinky Boots’ is not the audience for ‘Cinderella.’”

Of course, even if a show doesn’t need Tony nominations in the traditional box office sense, there are still plenty of perks to winning the trophy itself. While the benefits of greater awareness and boosted sales are hard to quantify, a 2012 economic study out of NYU shows that productions that win a Tony in a prominent category tend to run 50% longer than those that don’t.

And just because producers don’t need a Tony doesn’t mean they don’t want one really badly.

“Look, we need bread and water,” says “Kinky Boots” producer Hal Luftig. “But we’ll take 13 nominations, too.”

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