×

Commercial Off Broadway Isn’t Dead — It’s Turning Into Broadway

Off Broadway’s “Sweeney Todd” has recouped its $1.22 million capitalization in 24 weeks. I’ll give you a minute to pick your jaw up off the floor.

Those are staggering numbers for Off Broadway, where “Our Town,” the 2009 production that took almost the entirety of its 18-month run to make back a capitalization of $400,000, qualifies as a big success. Though the theater industry regularly laments the demise of commercial Off Broadway, the success of “Sweeney” suggests it’s not dead after all.

It’s surviving. But it’s doing so by behaving a lot more like Broadway.

This scaled-down, environmental “Sweeney,” staged in a replica pie shop with a cast of eight and a band of three, has itself made for an unusual success story, starting out as a government-funded production in a tiny pie shop in the South London neighborhood of Tooting. There it won the applause of composer Stephen Sondheim and moved on to a commercial run in a Shaftesbury Avenue venue, provided rent-free by Cameron Mackintosh.

The numbers scaled up considerably for the move to the States, where “Sweeney Todd” is playing at Barrow Street Theatre, the downtown venue (“Our Town,” “Buyer & Cellar”) that’s established a rep as a haven for commercial Off Broadway. According to numbers provided by producer Rachel Edwards and exec producer Nate Koch, the weekly running costs for “Sweeney” at Shaftes-bury (where, admittedly, they didn’t pay rent) were about $11,000. Off Broadway, the weekly nut was $68,000 prior to recoupment and $75,000 after.

There are a host of reasons for the increased costs, including tight union regulations and a staff that Edwards estimates is double or triple the staff required in London. Whatever the reason, higher expenses mean higher risk, especially when, like “Sweeney,” you’ve got only 130 seats to sell per performance.

But, says Edwards, “with a title like this, in a small space with an original concept, in a town where everyone loves Sondheim, selling tickets so far hasn’t been as difficult as one might imagine.”

That’s another way of saying that, in addition to the glowing reviews and the press-friendly backstory, this “Sweeney” sells because the title, one of the best-known works by a musical theater legend, has a Broadway imprimatur. And it’s succeeded in part due to ticket prices ($135 top, plus $22.50 for pie and mash) that aren’t far from Broadway’s.

As producer Kevin McCollum (“Motown”) is fond of saying, “It’s easy to have a shot at commercial Off Broadway. First you have to win a Tony Award for best musical.” He’s one of the producers of “Avenue Q,” which has run Off Broadway (weekly running costs: about $80,000) for eight years following its Tony-winning Broadway stint.

“It’s easy to have a shot at commercial Off Broadway. First you have to win a Tony Award for best musical.”
Producer Kevin McCollum

Another Tony winner, “Jersey Boys,” will reopen off the Main Stem in November after a decade on Broadway. And while the recent success “Puffs” (one year and still going) is technically a new property, it’s a parodic take on a world that resembles that of a certain boy wizard — the one soon to be on Broadway with “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

That’s the state of affairs bemoaned by those who long for the days when untested, risky titles — “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Fantasticks” — could carve out lengthy runs and become cultural touchstones solely through commercial Off Broadway productions.

“The spirit that used to be alive and well is gone, in my estimation,” says Albert Poland, the longtime producer and general manager (“Little Shop,” “Steel Magnolias”).

It’s certainly true the landscape has shifted drastically. As New York real estate has shot up in value — and retail outlets clamor for storefronts that might have once been theaters — the breeding ground for new plays and musicals has shifted to Off Broadway’s nonprofit companies. Boundary-stretching immersive works such as “Sleep No More” can make things work by falling outside union jurisdiction and adding food and bar revenue to the equation. As is true on Broadway, many shows that succeed long-term attract international tourists with offerings not reliant on English fluency, such as “Stomp” and Blue Man Group.

All of which means that what works for commercial Off Broadway looks a lot like what’s worked on Broadway.

Still, Off Broadway remains a scrappy place. “Puffs” producer David Carpenter describes drilling down on costs and taking advantage of the flexibility to schedule between three and six performances per week, rather than the standard Broadway eight.

And no one’s getting rich. “It’s never going to be the goose that lays the golden egg,” Edwards says. “But you can pay your rent, for sure.”

Popular on Variety

More Legit

  • David-Alan-Grier-Blair-Underwood

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood to Star in 'A Soldier's Play' on Broadway

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood will star in a Broadway production of Pulitzer-Prize winning drama “A Soldier’s Play.” The play, written by Charles Fuller, is set in 1944 and follows a murder mystery centered around the death of black Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (played by Grier) who is found on a Louisiana army base. [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Announces Broadway Cast

    After an Olivier-winning run in London, “The Inheritance” is gearing up for its Broadway debut. The two-part epic has set the cast for its transfer from the West End to the Great White Way. John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, Andrew Burnap and Kyle Soller are among the cast members reprising their roles [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Announces 2020 National Tour

    ‘Hadestown’, the eight-time Tony award winning Broadway musical, is set for a national tour in 2020. The show will stop in more than 30 cities including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and more. The musical is a stage adaptation of the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and King Hades and his wife [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Listen: Why Jake Gyllenhaal Is His 'Best Self' in the Theater

    Looking for the best possible version of Jake Gyllenhaal? You’ll find it onstage, according to the actor himself. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “I am my best self when I’m working in the theater,” Gyllenhaal said on the latest episode Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast, on which he appeared with Carrie Cracknell, the director of [...]

  • Photo: Jeremy Daniel

    'The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical' Gets Broadway Run

    “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is Broadway bound. The musical adaptation of the franchise about a teenager who discovers he’s the son of Poseidon hits the Great White Way on Sept. 20 ahead of an Oct. 16 opening night. It comes on the heels of an extensive, nationwide tour that took the show [...]

  • Tom Sturridge Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge Celebrate 'Sea Wall/A Life' With Star-Studded Opening Night

    A star-studded audience looked on as Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge returned to the stage for their double monologue performance in “Sea Wall/A Life.” Theater-goers and celebs including Anne Hathaway, Tom Hiddleston and John Mulaney gathered in Manhattan’s Hudson Theatre for opening night, celebrating a show tackling grief, birth and death through the eyes of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content