For a while there, it was starting to look as if concerts on Broadway were the new star-driven play revivals: a go-to option for producers looking for one of the Main Stem’s safer financial bets. But the current run of “A Night With Janis Joplin” — throwing in the towel in February after weeks of so-so sales — reminds legiters that not all concerts are created equal.
The Broadway potential of “Janis” — soon to make way for Michael C. Hall-Toni Collette starrer “The Realistic Joneses,” opening at the Lyceum Theater April 6 — seemed clear. The title icon’s catalog of tunes looked to hit a sweet spot with the older-skewing demo that is the Rialto’s bread and butter, and the show’s approximation of a Joplin concert was led by Mary Bridget Davies, who had already scored much praise with the title on the road. Gotham critics were generally upbeat about the show, and in particular about Davies’ perf as the ’60s rocker. Despite all that, box office never took off, hovering most weeks between $300,000 and $400,000 (with a handful of frames coming in above the $400,000 mark).
Given the concert structure of the show, “Janis” had seemed to fit in with a recent spate of concert runs by Frankie Valli, Barry Manilow and the Rascals, all three of which boasted music with strong boomer appeal and went on to log unexpectedly robust sales. A few years earlier, the Beatles tribute “Rain” carved out an impressively long nine-month run on the Rialto during the 2010-11 season.
But Valli, Manilow and the Rascals share key differences with “Janis.” All three were limited runs of just a few weeks (although the Manilow stint extended, due to popularity), and all three were headlined by the music acts themselves; it was those factors taken together that helped mobilize the fanbases to turn out in strong numbers. And while “Rain” did well enough, a similar faux-Beatles showcase, “Let It Be,” failed to catch on last summer and shuttered early.
When performers impersonate the musicians who made a song catalog famous, Rialto theatergoers seem most drawn to productions that don’t just re-create a concert but offer a behind-the-music tale to go with it. The long-running “Jersey Boys” is a key example of how successful the formula can be, as is “Motown,” which has been pulling in big numbers since it began perfs last spring. It’s too early to call Carole King musical “Beautiful” a hit, but early sales have been promising.
All that said, no one expects “Janis ” — which aims to move into a presumably smaller and more cost-effective non-Broadway venue in March — to be the last concert outing on Broadway, especially when quickie runs of a few weeks can be a good way for theater owners to fill in the occasional gaps in venue bookings. But as the fate of “Janis” suggests, Broadway may not have been the best place for the show, or for other concert-based shows like it.