Thursday, December 15, 2011

Will It Recoup? Winter 2012 Edition

The past couple of months have brought with them a flurry of new shows hoping to take advantage of the influx of tourists clogging the streets of Times Square during the holidays.  And while some of these shows may do quite well for themselves, the sad fact is that most shows, even if they are brilliant, will never recoup their initial investment.  Here’s a look at the next 5 musicals opening this season, and my personal analysis of their money-making potential.

An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin
The former Evita costars finally return to the Great White Way in this combination concert/vanity project.  The pair (expectedly) leans heavily on the work of Stephen Sondheim, and offers up a couple of dynamite renditions of songs from the show that made them famous.  They also perform abridged versions of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel and South Pacific, despite both actors being far too old for the romantic leads  (LuPone in particular strains credibility as Nellie Forbrush and Julie Jordan).

Will It Recoup?  Hard to say, although my gut tells me “no.”  Working in the show’s favor is its small size, with only two performers and two musicians on the payroll.  Given their genuine love of the theatre and one another, I wouldn’t even be surprised to learn LuPone and Patinkin had agreed to relatively modest salaries for this endeavor.  But the unfortunate box office reality is that theatre stars – and make no mistake, these are two legitimate Broadway stars who make the newer generation look woefully untalented by comparison – rarely draw the same size audiences that Hollywood celebrities do.  LuPone and Patinkin’s fans definitely skew older, which will limit their box office appeal, but there is an upside to that:  older audiences tend to pay full price.

On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever
I’m just going to say it: I have no idea why this show is being revived, let alone on Broadway.  For the past decade, most musical revivals have employed some combination of a well-respected property, one or more big name stars, and a well-regarded “tryout” production, be it in the West End or at a regional theatre.  Clear Day has such a notoriously problematic book that the show is rarely performed, and its big name star (Harry Connick, Jr.) is playing way outside his comfort zone.  Director Michael Mayer has completely reconceived the show, rewriting so much of the show’s book he considers it more of a new musical than a revival.

Will It Recoup?  I’m going out on a limb and saying that not only will this musical not recoup, it will be one of the biggest flops of the season.  Star Harry Connick, Jr. won’t be able to rely on his innate charm like he did in The Pajama Game, and those who do show up specifically to see the crooner may be thrown for a loop by the show’s downbeat tone.  And the last time director Michael Mayer was this heavily involved in a show’s actual script, we got American Idiot, a misguided musical that failed to ignite the box office despite having massively popular Green Day songs for its score.  Mayer’s retooling of the show’s already bizarre plot now centers on the love triangle between a therapist (Connick, Jr.), his gay male patient, and that gay patient’s past self as a female longue singer.  It's as if Mayer was actively trying to alienate both the show’s existing fans and the matinee ladies who typically drive the success of these types of shows!  This has disaster written all over it.

Lysistrata Jones
After a successful Off-Broadway run earlier this year, Lysistrata Jones (loosely based on the Greek comedy Lysistrata) arrives on Broadway as one of the more interesting new musicals of the season.  The titular heroine, a transfer student to fictional Athens University, convinces the school’s cheerleaders to withhold sex from their basketball-playing boyfriends until the team breaks its long running losing streak.  It all sounds like an entertaining if lightweight evening of theatre, but I worry if the small scale show might be better suited to smaller scale Off-Broadway venues like the one that birthed it (the previous New York production took place in an actual gymnasium).

Will It Recoup?  I would like to say yes, because it would be nice to see new musicals continue to flourish, but my heart tells me no.  I’m just not convinced the show is strong enough to endure all the pressure that comes with being a Broadway musical.  And book writer Douglas Carter Beane remains on my shitlist after the atrocity that was the book to last season’s Sister Act.  But from a financial standpoint, the greatest problem with this show is its absolutely abysmal grosses during previews.  The show has yet to break $200,000 a week, and while preview grosses are always lower due to discounted or comped tickets intended to fill seats and spread word of mouth, I doubt the producers can even pay their bills on that amount.  The show needs some kind of turnaround, and I’m not sure the mixed to positive reviews it received will be enough to cause one.

The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
She’s back.  After four long years in Hollywood, Audra McDonald is back on Broadway in a true American classic – assuming Diane Paulus’ production hasn’t strayed so far from the famed opera by the brothers Gershwin that it’s unrecognizable.  Paulus and her new book writer Suzan-Lori Parks incurred the wrath of God (well, Stephen Sondheim, but in musical theatre they’re practically the same thing) when word got out they were toying with new scenes and a new ending during the show’s out of town tryout.  But the latest info says these changes were nixed in favor of a less radical reinterpretation of the piece, and no matter what, you can bet that McDonald will be sensational as Bess.

Will It Recoup?  This show is well poised for financial success.  Audra McDonald is Broadway royalty, and may well have picked up even more fans after four years on a hit TV show.  Theatre folk will turn out in droves to see McDonald play this role, and Sondheim’s nasty editorial in the Times probably garnered a huge amount of free publicity.  Ben Brantley raved about McDonald out of town, and I have a feeling Paulus and her team are smart enough to have actually used the time since then to bring the rest of the show up to that level.  And by setting the show up as a limited run, the producers have shifted to a business model that by necessity will make the show more cost effective, as they now have less time to actually make back their money.

Well, you certainly can’t accuse the producers of Once of lacking faith in their show.  Before it even opened Off-Broadway, they announced a transfer for this stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning indie film.  And why not?  The show had already garnered strong buzz during previews, including lots of positive word of mouth.  While the reviews that greeted the show could have been stronger, they were certainly encouraging, and Once could end up as one of the season’s sleeper hits.

Will It Recoup?  Although I wouldn’t call Once a sure thing, it is certainly well positioned to make back its investment costs.  Strong ticket sales helped prompt the Broadway transfer in the first place, so the show definitely has an audience.  Although there won’t be much time for rewrites between its Off-Broadway closing and Broadway opening, there will be plenty of time for the performers to become more comfortable in their roles and find the nuances that could propel the show into greatness.  With the lack of strong competition among this season’s new musicals, the show may end up being the best option for a lot of theatre goers, and could prove a strong contender for Tony Awards in the spring.  And if the small cast show receives the box office bump that comes with a Best Musical win, I’m almost certain it will make back its money by the end of next year.

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