Broadway’s musical offerings these days tend to fall into one of two categories. On the one hand, you’ve got your garden-variety open-ended tuner, which includes everything from “The Phantom of the Opera” to “Kinky Boots.” On the other, you’ve got the increasingly common phenomenon of the limited-run concert, such as last season’s “Manilow on Broadway” or this season’s “Il Divo — A Musical Affair: The Greatest Songs of Broadway.”
But look under the hood at “After Midnight,” the Cotton Club-inspired musical that starts previews Oct. 18, and you’ve got a show that aims to be both.
The production already has one foot in the music world thanks to its house band, the 17-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis. But what shifts the model is the tuner’s “guest star” slot, filled for the first 16 weeks by Fantasia Barrino before a rotating roster of names takes the spotlight, starting with k.d. lang for four weeks, and then the duo of Toni Braxton and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds for two weeks.
“It’s marrying the concert model with a theatrical production that already exists,” says producer Scott Sanders.
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The plan to integrate short guest stints into an ongoing production is an unusual one for the Main Stem, but it doesn’t much affect the production’s capitalization costs — a relatively modest $6.5 million, according to Sanders. However, because different guest artists have salary requirements that can vary wildly, those stars cause signifi cant fluctuation in week-to-week running costs.
And on Broadway, profitability can live or die by that weekly nut: Too high, and those operating expenses eat away into the money that would push a production into the black. (Just ask the producers of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”)
“After Midnight” also faces the cost of unusually frequent rehearsals for the stream of new stars. There are costuming costs to be figured in, too, while producers calculate how long a particular artist should stay in the show to keep B.O. booming. (Sanders anticipates the top ticket price of the show will remain steady, but premium pricing will fluctuate depending on the artist.)
All these hurdles are new elements for the musical, a revue originally called “Cotton Club Parade” and inspired by Duke Ellington’s famed stint at the titular Harlem venue in the 1920s and ’30s. The musical bowed in a brief 2011 stint conceived by Jack Viertel and produced by the City Center Encores! program and Jazz at Lincoln Center. It proved so popular that it returned the next year, though slotted into an equally brief stint.
The concept of a guest star — inspired by the original Cotton Club’s weekly “Celebrity Nights” — was brought to the table by a team of commercial producers led by Sanders, who’s the producer of “The Color Purple” and the upcoming Hugh Jackman tuner “Houdini.” Sanders has roots in the music world, with 15 years as exec producer at Radio City Music Hall.
Producers and creatives have aimed to mold the show into a framework that will attract adventurous music types to explore jazz-age standards and dip a toe into Broadway waters, with the reassuring backup of Marsalis and a cast of veteran performers including Adriane Lenox, Dule Hill and Karine Plantadit.
Each artist will perform four songs in “After Midnight,” not in a straight set but in numbers interwoven throughout the evening’s loose thematic structure. Even those individual songs can change, based on an artist’s preferences, although each choice will fit the mood of the moment.
“I’m up for staging new things and choreographing new things and relighting them if we need to,” says director-choreographer Warren Carlyle, who staged Jackman’s 2011 concert outing “Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway.”
To hear Sanders tell it, the overall plan is an enticing one. “If it works,” he hypothesizes, “it’s a unique opportunity to bridge the theater community and the music community.”