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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.”

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