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‘Torch Song,’ Second Stage and the $64 Million Broadway Bet

“Torch Song” on Broadway this fall? It might happen — at the newly reopened Helen Hayes Theater.

“They’re only talking about it at this point,” said Carole Rothman, the artistic director of Second Stage, the New York nonprofit that is making the leap to Broadway with the renovated venue. “But that’s the kind of show that could go into the Hayes. Like next fall. Stay tuned.”

A return run of a big hit like “Torch Song” — the Harvey Fierstein play that became a buzzy Off Broadway success for Second Stage last fall — is one of the things that Rothman will have the freedom to try at the Hayes, the Broadway theater that Second Stage is reopening after a decade-long effort to secure the company a permanent space. With a hefty price tag and an additional operating cost that will effectively double the organization’s budget, the Hayes amounts to a $64 million bet that plays by living American writers, both new and previously seen, have a place on Broadway.

Commercially, that’s far from a given. Last spring yielded three well-reviewed new American works — Pulitzer winner “Sweat,” “Indecent” and Tony winner “Oslo” — but “Sweat” and “Indecent” each struggled to find audiences and closed at a loss.

Second Stage is cushioned somewhat from the exigencies of commercial producing by its status as a nonprofit. But the move to the Hayes still carries plenty of risk for an organization that, with only about 6,000 subscribers, secures the majority of its funding from box office sales and donations.

It took a whopping 10 years to raise the $64 million to finalize the purchase, in a drawn-out process exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis, the unexpectedly long run of commercial tenant “Rock of Ages” and, toward the end, a bout of litigation with the theater’s previous owners. The total cost came to $28 million to purchase the Hayes, $22 million to renovate it and $14 million to raise the funds for a notable initiative to commission writers for new Broadway plays that will try out in partner venues prior to heading into the Hayes (Center Theater Group will be among those participating). Some $14 million of the renovation funds came from the city, and one of the final major chunks of capital came from Jujamcyn Theaters, which bought the alley beside the Hayes so it could expand the stage of the adjacent St. James Theater.

On an ongoing basis, Second Stage’s annual operating budget has jumped to $18 million from between $8 million and $9 million, according to executive director Casey Reitz.

To help power a theater that now has three venues to program (including the 296-seat Kiser and the 108-seat McGinn/Cazale, both long-term rentals), the Hayes’ inaugural Broadway season brings out some head-turning talent, with Chris Evans making his Broadway debut in Oscar-winner Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero” (starting previews March 1) and Armie Hammer headlining Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men” (starting in July). That star factor is no coincidence, Rothman said: It’s part of what you need to get attention on Broadway these days.

With that in mind, she’s given a few guidelines to the writers she’s commissioned for Broadway, among them Lee, Lynn Nottage, Paula Vogel, Jon Robin Baitz, Will Eno and Lisa Kron. It’s the kind of advice any commercial Broadway producer might have: “Write a play that has wide enough appeal. Write a play that doesn’t have a huge number of actors in it. Take on bigger issues. Give me a strong story. Don’t make it too tiny.”

Even Lee — best known for her boundary-pushing experimental work — is up for that challenge, targeting her new play, which is about class, to the widest audience possible.

“For 15 years I worked primarily in smaller experimental venues all over the world, and everywhere I went audiences were pretty white and pretty educated,” she said. “I just couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life reaching only those audiences. My dream is really to get to high schools, regional theaters, community theaters. That’s really hard to do.”

Another Broadway practice: the sale of naming rights to the theater. The Hayes will go for $15 million to $20 million (with an interior part of the theater to be named for Hayes), should Second Stage find a taker. “We’d like to find someone who wants to put their name on a Broadway theater,” Rothman said. “Come on. This is the last one!”

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