Sunday, December 28, 2008

Dark Winter On Broadway

By Geraldine Baum
Los Angeles Times

Shows are canceling or closing, as investors declare this no time to take chances. The theater community can only hope for a spring awakening.

Reporting from New York -- They added four new songs, lined up a big theater and psyched up their backers. The producers of "Vanities, A New Musical," originally staged at the Pasadena Playhouse, then announced it was opening on Broadway in February.

But three weeks later, on Dec. 5, the producers issued a second bulletin: The show would not go on during this winter of economic discontent.

This is not a season for new Broadway shows that might make it. Now is a time for sure bets -- dramas starring celebrities and musical revivals with familiar tunes that summon nostalgia for better times.

With tens of thousands of people out of work in the New York area; tourism slipping along with foreign currencies; and long-running shows like "Grease," "Hairspray," "Gypsy" and "Spamalot" closing before the traditional winter slump, opening a new show calls for a magical mixture of star power, deft management and old-fashioned luck.

Sonia Friedman, producer of the Tony-winning "Boeing-Boeing," which is also shutting down in early January, released a statement explaining, "We chose to close the show when the current cast members' contracts all expired and to end on a high note rather than forge through the challenges of January and February in a weak economy."

This winter, Times Square will lose a portion of its vitality at showtime, with many theaters dark and the theater community questioning whether it will come alive in spring.

That's not to say Broadway is dead -- shows scheduled to open after February include "West Side Story," "Impressions" with Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons, and "33 Variations," which stars Jane Fonda and had its start at the La Jolla Playhouse.

But concern about the long-term fallout from the ailing economy is making producers and investors more cautious than usual about what they stage and when.

"Vanities" producer Sue Frost was weighing the economic outlook when she decided to put her show -- which got mixed reviews in Los Angeles -- on hold indefinitely.

"What we had was a small musical with no boffo star names associated with it," Frost said. She was preparing to present the latest version of the show to backers when the stock market crashed in September. The production had secured the Lyceum Theatre and sold group tickets.

She made her decision not to open right after what is traditionally Broadway's busiest time, Thanksgiving week. This year, the week's ticket sales were down 10% compared with last year.

Long-running shows like "Gypsy" and "Hairspray" are, in fact, a victim of that 10%, according to several producers.

Producers had varying theories for which shows would get hit hardest. Several insiders who didn't want to be named because they didn't want to appear negative about their business predicted that family shows that entail on average a five-ticket purchase would suffer most.

"When they're flush, upper-class parents with two kids don't think twice about spending $500 to see a show," said a Broadway producer. "But are they going to spend that now when they can see a family movie for $50?"

Disney Theatrical Productions, for example, worked hard to keep families coming by offering "buy one, get one free" specials for its shows "The Little Mermaid," "The Lion King" and "Mary Poppins" leading up to the holidays. And DreamWorks has just opened "Shrek," a name well known from the film, and the expensive production is attracting big audiences.

"You can have all the ticket promotions and discounts, but if you can produce the right mix onstage -- and capture the audience's imagination -- you'll have a nice success no matter what," said Steve Traxler, a Chicago-based producer who with New York producer Jeffrey Richards brought "August: Osage County" to Broadway.

Traxler is optimistic that dramas with limited engagements will thrive because they rely more on loyal New York theatergoers and less on international tourists. On that belief, he is again collaborating with Richards to move "Reasons to Be Pretty," a new play by Neil LaBute, from off-Broadway to the Lyceum.

"Rock of Ages," an '80s-themed musical that originated in Los Angeles and has the advantage of a film in the works, is also moving this spring from off-Broadway to a Broadway theater.

But finding backers is getting tougher. Broadway insiders accuse the media of spooking live-theater investors with reports of show closings and half-filled theaters.

As it is, investors have only a 20% chance of recouping their money. But it's the onslaught of dour financial news that is chilling investors. "If you asked me to put $10 in a new show, I'd think twice," said Peter Schneider, a Los Angeles-based producer and investor.

Shows that already have raised $2 million (for a drama) or up to $20 million (for a musical) to open in the spring now have to focus on reducing weekly operating expenses, Schneider said. "They have to at least hope that these shows will be exciting and beautiful enough that they'll be something you want to see."

Nonprofit theaters also are cutting their budgets and asking donors for more money. Harold Wolpert, managing director of Broadway's nonprofit Roundabout Theatre Co., said he was preparing yet another letter asking for contributions, which are as crucial as ticket sales to keeping prices affordable for its 40,000 subscribers.

"We're doing everything we can to convince people even though times are tough we're offering good value," Wolpert said.

To lower costs, he has cut opening-night parties and is sending the newsletter via the Internet. At the same time, the company is weighing every aspect of producing. "You cut back and you cut back and the subscribers say the shows look chintzy," Wolpert said. "We're trying not to sacrifice the quality of what's onstage."

Even before the long-awaited revival of "Pal Joey" opened to less-than-ecstatic reviews in December, Wolpert said advance ticket sales weren't what they should have been given the title and the familiar music.

Elizabeth McCann, who is bringing "Hair" to Broadway in late February, is struggling to complete $6.5 million in financing, but she's convinced the show will attract audiences because it "has an extraordinary amount of sentimentality that others don't have."

McCann, a veteran producer who has a long history of hits and of balancing multiple projects, described the art of finessing the bottom line.

"You lower ticket prices on one set and raise them on another. You deal with priority seating one night and the next night you discount tickets." And if none of that works to cover the costs for the immense "Hair" cast, she said, "We'll open in China. They'll love ['Hair'] there."

McCann has also tried for years to revive "You Can't Take It With You." Now might be the perfect time. "It's a big old-fashioned play of the Depression," she said. "That's what audiences will find relevant."

Despite the economic anguish in the 1930s and 1940s, the theater was for the most part Depression-proof, according to historian Martin Gottfried. "People needed something to distract them and Broadway thrived," said Gottfried, who has written 13 books on the theater. Tickets, he noted, were $1.25 and "that was reasonable, even back then."

Victoria Bailey, who heads the nonprofit Theatre Development Fund that operates the TKTS discount ticket booths, said the downturn might force the business to be more creative about pricing tickets.

"If you look at recessions as a kind of moral adjustment, the experience of losing yourself for a few hours in someone else's story with other people who are like you will be important," she said, adding: "But we, as an industry, are going to have to be more articulate about why this is a rewarding experience."

And that may involve being aggressive about embracing social networking, blogging and getting young people informed about plays that don't have big advertising budgets but speak to their lives, she said. "What we've done is let theater become too precious."

If there is sanguinity -- even if it's forced -- it comes from the creative side.

Sarah Stiles gave up the female lead in "Avenue Q" to play the uptight and conservative Joanne, one of three leads in the musical version of "Vanities," which first opened in 1976 and ran for 1,785 performances off-Broadway.

For 2 1/2 years, Stiles has done every reading, workshop and backers' audition. She was devastated by the news that the opening was canceled.

Now she is focusing on her own material, joining forces on a sketch with a friend from "Avenue Q."

"Luckily, as actors, we can still do our work even if we're not getting paid for it," said Stiles, who says her husband can support her. "I know the pain I felt in that phone call is stuff I can remember and use. It's all things that make you grow as an actor."

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