‘Keeping Up With The Mormons’ On Broadway

New York Times
Struggling to Keep Up With Those Mormons
Published: September 2, 2011

The new Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon” has been setting box office records, and this has been the best summer yet for the long-running hits “Wicked” and “The Lion King.” But this blockbuster bounty has not trickled down to everything on Broadway; several major musicals have struggled to fill seats during an especially lucrative time of the year, with some shows closing, while others are bracing for the traditionally slow-selling fall.

Cirque du Soleil’s “Zarkana,” at Radio City, is said to be luring visitors who otherwise would have seen musicals.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert” has begun offering a money-back guarantee – virtually unheard of on Broadway – to groups of ticket buyers as a hedge against the relatively risqué content of a show about gay male drag performers. The producers of both “Priscilla” and “Sister Act,” another new musical with uneven box office sales, are revamping their advertising and marketing campaigns in hopes of improving the shows’ appeal.

And the team behind the hit “Billy Elliot,” which began turning a profit in 2010, is hoping that creative changes, including the elimination of some profanity, will help draw more families and school groups.

Meanwhile, the $13 million musical “Catch Me if You Can” – which had been one of the most anticipated of the spring – is now set to close on Sunday after ticket sales fizzled this summer, a result of mixed reviews and weak word of mouth. Another new musical, “Baby It’s You!,” is also closing on Sunday after quickly petering out, and the producers of “The Addams Family” announced last week that it would close at the end of the year after a 22-month run.

The business challenges stem from a Broadway marketplace that is unusually packed with musicals, as well as a different breed of spectacle, Cirque du Soleil’s “Zarkana,” which has sold an impressive 400,000 tickets so far for its four-month run at Radio City Music Hall. “Zarkana” has been competing with traditional musicals by selling tickets at the TKTS discount booths favored by many families and tourists.

With brisk sales as well for brand-name musicals like “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” the lesser-known shows are struggling to grab theatergoers’ attention. “Priscilla,” for one, hopes to do so by having its famous lead producer, Bette Midler, deliver radio ads and put her name on the theater marquee.

“There’s a finite number of Broadway ticket buyers, and there’s what feels like a huge number of Broadway shows,” said Garry McQuinn, another lead producer on “Priscilla.” “Do I wish we hadn’t opened in one of the busiest Broadway seasons ever? Sure. Do I wish we were selling more tickets? Absolutely. But our operating costs are low, and our advance ticket sale is good.” (He declined to provide those numbers.)

“So I’m not inclined to panic,” he added, “which doesn’t mean we’re not taking steps to improve our business position.”

Bill Taylor, one of the lead producers of “Sister Act,” said he was counting on a new television commercial and a new marketing campaign in early October to establish that musical as “a big Broadway show, a date show, a girls’-night-out show, with great singing and dancing.”

“So far we haven’t managed to get people to see ”˜Sister Act’ for what it is – a big Broadway musical that is very funny,” Mr. Taylor said. For months the show’s marketing focused on the image of its star, Patina Miller, as an echo and reminder of advertising for the movie “Sister Act” that showcased its main attraction, Whoopi Goldberg.

“We have a huge affection for the movie, and Patina is wonderful, but we realized that the message we wanted to get across – and haven’t been getting across – is that this is a fun show that tourists would love,” Mr. Taylor said.

All the marketing in the world is no substitute, however, for positive word of mouth among theatergoers who recommend shows to their friends and relatives. “Sister Act,” “Priscilla” and “Catch Me if You Can” have not caught on, according to Broadway group sales agents who track such feedback. “Billy Elliot,” meanwhile, which opened in 2008 and dominated the Tony Awards that season, has been popular with groups but is seeking new momentum after a summer of relatively modest box office business.

Eric Fellner, a lead producer of “Billy Elliot,” said the creative team would be making some changes to the dialogue of the musical that might serve to broaden its appeal and encourage more bulk sales, which make up an important part of any show’s income. He said that some profanity would be cut and that other language would be tweaked to “make scenes easier to comprehend and perhaps make the show even easier to sell to groups.”

Stephanie Lee, the president of Group Sales Box Office, said musical producers were smart to experiment with changes at a time of heightened competition for ticket buyers.

“If you’re not one of the blockbuster shows, like ”˜Wicked’ or ”˜Mormon,’ you’ve got to find ways to differentiate yourself,” Ms. Lee said. “Broadway tickets are very expensive, even with a group discount, and people want strong reasons to buy.”

She credited the “Priscilla” producers for trying the money-back guarantee, which lasts through mid-November, covering the period of late summer and fall, when box office sales often stall. Mr. McQuinn said no one had asked for money back yet.

“The Addams Family” has opted for the more traditional method of star casting, hiring Brooke Shields to play the main female role, Morticia, once Bebe Neuwirth left. The show’s lead producers, Stuart Oken and Roy Furman, said that while ticket sales had been difficult this summer, they would have been worse without Ms. Shields, and they were counting on her to draw holiday tourists in November and December before the show closes.

Competition for tourists this summer has been unquestionably complicated by “Zarkana,” which plays nine or so performances a week at the nearly 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall – the troupe’s first extended New York stay. While Cirque does not release box office data, a spokesman said the “Zarkana” weekly grosses had exceeded those of the top Broadway musicals all summer, suggesting receipts upward of $2 million a week; while the run ends on Oct. 8, a 2012 return has already been scheduled.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that ”˜Zarkana’ is cutting into sales of much of Broadway,” said Mr. McQuinn of “Priscilla.”

At the TKTS booth in Times Square one afternoon last week, “Zarkana” was selling half-price tickets, along with “Sister Act,” “Priscilla,” “Spider-Man” and most other shows. Interviews with a dozen ticket buyers, however, indicated that the most popular sellers were “The Addams Family” and the revival of “Anything Goes,” two familiar brands that struck buyers as family-friendly.

“We thought about ”˜Priscilla’ or ”˜How to Succeed,’ but we’ve heard the best things about ”˜Anything Goes,’ and we kind of want a sure thing for our one night on Broadway,” said Karen Gray, a Chicagoan who bought the tickets for herself and her daughter, Allie.

Max Carrel, a 22-year-old from Geneva, Switzerland, had been hoping to snag a ticket for “The Book of Mormon,” describing himself as a fan of provocative fare. “Mormon,” about two Utah missionaries trying to get by in Africa, probably won’t be listed on the TKTS board for years, and no descriptions of the other musicals grabbed Mr. Carrel. He ended up buying a ticket instead to a popular Off Broadway play, “Freud’s Last Session.”

“ ”˜Sister Act’ and ”˜Spider-Man’ and some of the others, they don’t sound like they’d hold much surprise,” Mr. Carrel said. “But Freud’s always fun.”

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