Theater: It’s not about the money

Today Online
Why are the musicals Sister Act, Priscilla Queen Of The Desert and Godspell still running on Broadway?
by Patrick Healy
Mar 23, 2012

Box office sales teetered between lukewarm and lousy this winter for all three and they were each already struggling with mixed reviews from the critics last year – a deadly combination that usually leads producers to put shows out of their misery.

Indeed, January and February are the months when most struggling productions close, like the recent Broadway flops Lysistrata Jones and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, as theatre owners line up hotter tickets for their houses before the lucrative spring and summer tourist seasons.

Yet these three musicals have hung on because of the business considerations of modern Broadway: A desire among theatre owners to keep their houses booked (even if seats are heavily discounted), and the belief among producers that they can negotiate better deals for road tours of musicals that can still claim to be a so-called Broadway “hit”.

And there is another concern as well: Choosing a closing date has always been the most bitter of reckonings.

“Producers really only have two big decisions to make – what projects to do and when to close a show – and the closing is by far the harder choice,” said Emanuel Azenberg, a veteran Tony-winning producer. “No one wants to let go. And there’s always the hope that summer will be booming business. But there are so many new shows coming, things probably won’t get better for these three musicals.”

Six more musicals and 10 plays are scheduled to open on Broadway over the next five weeks alone.

Sister Act, which has been running for nearly a year, is in the worst financial shape, based on an analysis of box office data and interviews with executives involved with the show and group sales ticket agents. The musical, inspired by the 1992 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg as a lounge singer hiding out among nuns, has been grossing an average of US$550,000 (S$694,000) a week since January. The show’s producers say they have made and lost money during weeks of performances this winter, which indicates that the weekly break-even cost is in the mid-six figures; they declined to provide a precise figure.

But the musical has an unusual benefactor: One of its lead producers is Dutch entertainment billionaire, Joop van den Ende, whose company Stage Entertainment has been mounting and planning productions of Sister Act across Europe, Asia and Australia. (The show began in London.) Executives involved with Sister Act said that van den Ende believed strongly in the Broadway production and wanted to keep it going in part to have that imprimatur as part of his overseas marketing. (A United States tour is expected to begin this fall.)

“All of us think it’s important to make Sister Act a success on Broadway because that would help bring about a longer life for the property,” said Bill Taylor, one of the Sister Act producers.

“The winter numbers weren’t as good as we’d hoped,” Taylor acknowledged. “But we’ve rolled out a new marketing image for the show this winter. We have a new TV ad up this month. We have a new star coming in, Raven-Symone. And audiences are still enjoying themselves.”

Taylor added that the show’s creators and rights-holders have accepted cuts in their royalty payments this winter to help the show through tough times.

When box office grosses decline to a certain low, theatre owners can invoke a “stop clause” to lean on producers to close a show. The Shubert Organization, which owns the theatre where Sister Act is running, has chosen so far to “be supportive in the interest of getting behind the producers and deepening the relationship with Joop,” said Philip J. Smith, chairman of the Shubert Organization.

Smith disputed the notion that he was keeping Sister Act in the Broadway Theater because the Shubert Organization lacked a show to replace it with.

Priscilla has the advantage of well-connected producers as well: Not only is Bette Midler a member of the team, but James L Nederlander is both a lead producer of the show as well as one of the owners of its theatre, The Palace. Nederlander (as landlord) has allowed the show to continue performances while he and his fellow producers have cut back on royalty payments and some non-salary production costs; in turn, the show has grossed an average of US$600,000 this winter and the typical weekly running costs are somewhat below that number, according to Garry McQuinn, one of the lead producers of Priscilla.

“We’ve had kind of a rough March, and January and February were not wonderful, but our advance tickets sales are starting to build and the sensible pruning of the budget has us on better footing,” McQuinn said at the one-year anniversary of the musical’s opening on Broadway.

Nederlander also has timing to consider: He is said to want the coming revival of Annie at the Palace, but Annie – a potentially mammoth moneymaker – isn’t arriving until the fall. The thinking goes that it’s better to make money some weeks from Priscilla than having the Palace empty as tourists return to town. A national tour of Priscilla is also being planned for the fall, and tour bookers in many cities tend to offer the best performance dates on the calendar to shows that are running on Broadway (as opposed to those that have closed).

The third low-grossing musical, the revival of the 1971 hit and high school drama club perennial Godspell, has muddled through winter because its running costs are low. The show has grossed an average of US$315,000, about 40 per cent of the maximum possible gross in its theatre, The Circle In The Square. Usually musicals are losing money if they cannot hit at least 50 per cent of the maximum gross, but Ken Davenport, the lead producer of Godspell, said he had been able to keep weekly running costs to between US$250,000 and US$300,000 in most weeks because of the small size of the cast and orchestra and its simple costumes and set.

“I would bet money that Godspell has the lowest break-even of any musical in town,” said Davenport, who has avoided one major cost for most musicals – advertising – by relying more on free social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to appeal to potential theatre-goers.

With the star of Godspell, Hunter Parrish, returning soon to film the eighth season of the Showtime series Weeds, Davenport might also save a bit of money on the undisclosed star salary he is paying. He declined to comment on possible casting to replace Parrish but he said he was optimistic that Godspell would be around for a while yet.

“We think of ourselves as a new production that people are still discovering,” Davenport said, noting that Godspell opened in November while the other two shows opened during the 2010-11 season. “We’ll have a lot of competition among brand new shows this spring, but we think there’s a bigger audience out there for Godspell.” THE NEW YORK TIMES

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