“I Heard it Was Good” – Surviving on Broadway

Class: The Interview

Date: December 9, 2003

Wicked does not, alas, speak hopefully for the future of the Broadway musical.” So says New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley in his review of the show, which opened on October 30th of this year. However, in spite of this rather depressing pronouncement, Wicked has been filling up the cavernous Gershwin Theater almost every night since its opening. What is the audience seeing that Brantley missed?

Idina Menzel, who stars as the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba in Wicked, believes that the story and message of the show appeals to an audience of all ages. “I think it just has a little bit of everything for everyone,” says Menzel. Audience member Rachel Zack agrees. “It’s a big, splashy production. The only one of the season,” says Zack.

Of the six musicals that have opened on Broadway so far this season, only two received largely positive reviews. Straight plays have fared much worse. New York Times critic Bruce Weber called Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks “the most dismissible entry on Broadway of the last few seasons.” Bobbi Boland, starring Farrah Fawcett, closed before opening after only a week of previews.

Putting a show on Broadway has always been a risky venture, but has it always been this risky? What does a show need these days to survive? Daphne Rubin-Vega, who is currently starring in Anna in the Tropics, wishes she knew. “If I knew the secret,” she says, “I would bottle it and sell it like a drug.” Rubin-Vega might want to sell some to her producers. Anna in the Tropics, while boasting a Pulitzer Prize, was only 38% filled for the past week, according to The League of American Theatres and Producers.

Pinpointing that key ingredient is nearly impossible. The most obvious element is a good and interesting story, but various successful shows will prove that wrong. Mamma Mia, which features the music of 70’s pop group ABBA, is probably the most notorious piece of fluff on Broadway right now. Compared to a giant singing Hostess cupcake by Brantley, Mamma Mia has been selling out regularly since it opened two years ago. Another more recent example of this is the Hugh Jackman vehicle The Boy From Oz. While Jackman received raves for his performance, the show did not fare so well. Clive Barnes, of the New York Post, said, “A show ultimately is only as good as its book, music and lyrics permit. In this respect, The Boy From Oz isn’t unduly permissive.” And yet the show has been doing extremely well since it opened.

What the production lacks, Jackman makes up for. Jackman, who got his start in theater both in Sydney, Australia and London, gained mainstream recognition through a successful film career. Regular theatergoer Ina Burwasser was eager to see Jackman’s performance after seeing his film Kate & Leopold. “I would have gone to see Mr. Jackman read the telephone book!” says Burwasser.

Selling a show with a star is all too common on Broadway these days. During the summer of 2002, the producers of the long running hit Rent brought in Joey Fatone of the pop group ‘N Sync to boost ticket sales. The tactic was successful, Rent’s dismal attendance rate jumping up to 97% in Fatone’s first week. Additionally, Fatone’s presence attracted a brand new demographic for the show. While many theater fans questioned the decision, Sebastian Arcelus, a cast member at the time, believes that Fatone did a great deal for the show and the Broadway community. “He filled the seats with eager, excited, and interested audience members, and he increased public awareness with regard to the show,” says Arcelus. “Even though I’m sure many people came primarily to see Joey, they left with the total experience and message of the show.”

In an era long since past, Broadway stars were household names. Julie Andrews, Carol Channing and Ethel Merman became the names they are because of their work in theater. Ideally, a Broadway show should have the ability to create stars. Last season’s hit Hairspray successfully put its stars on the radar of the entertainment industry. Marissa Jaret Winokur, who won a Tony the lead role of Tracy Turnblad, has transitioned her success to the small screen, with a sitcom in the works. Matthew Morrison, who plays Link Larson, the resident heartthrob of the show, is hoping to use the attention the role has brought him to jump start a film career. Morrison points out that Hairspray does have a name in Harvey Fierstein, who made a career on Broadway and in film. “As opposed to some shows,” he says, “ I think people actually come to see [Hairspray].” Considering the way Hairspray cleaned up at the Tony Awards, walking away with eight Tony’s including best musical, Morrison is probably right.

However, the name selling a show does not necessarily mean a celebrity on stage. That name can be attached to the music, like with Mamma Mia where ABBA’s top 40 hits remind theatergoers of the 1970’s. The name can even be attached to the producer. The best example of this is Disney. Disney, which has been successful in film and in television, ventured onto Broadway in 1996 with Beauty and the Beast, remaking their award-winning film on stage. Two years later, they opened The Lion King, putting an innovated spin on their modern classic. The show featured the direction of Julie Taymor and won the Tony for best director and best musical. In 2000, Disney opened Aida, a new musical with music by Elton John and Tim Rice. While the show only scored three Tonys for lighting, scenic design and lead actress, Heather Headley, the show sold well under the Disney name. Ironically, lackluster sales of late have prompted Disney to bring in pop stars such as Toni Braxton and Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child to boost attendance.

A star does not always guarantee success though. The aforementioned Anna in the Tropics features Jimmy Smits of “NYPD Blue” fame. Additionally, the danger of casting a star is the known fact that, one day, that star is going to leave the show. Nine suffered this fate. A bona fide hit with film star Antonio Banderas, the show sold out on a regular basis. After Banderas’ departure, John Stamos stepped into the leading role. The results were less than desirable. The show posted a closing notice for December 14, only two months after Stamos began.

One of the most dreadful examples of a celebrity’s inability to carry a show was last year’s short-lived Dance of the Vampires. At the helm was Michael Crawford, widely known for creating the role of the Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. Asa Somers, who was in the cast, blames much of the star backlash on poor marketing. “They were touting this ‘Michael Crawford: Return to Broadway’ as if he was the second coming and people resented that,” says Somers. A shoddy book coupled with a mediocre score and terrible lyrics led to one of the worst reviewed shows in recent history. Somers goes further than blaming the star or the show though. “I think we can all agree that that show really lacked heart. It didn’t say anything.”

This season, Somers is back on Broadway with the London transfer Taboo. Even before it began previews on Broadway, Taboo was struggling. The show tells the story of singer Boy George’s rise to fame in the 1980’s British club scene. Produced by actress and talk show host Rosie O’Donnell, Taboo came to New York after O’Donnell saw the show in London and fell in love. However, New York critics and theater journalists were not so easily swayed. Prior to opening, Taboo was consistently bashed by New York Post reporter Michael Riedel. The show opened with mixed to negative reviews and sales started out low. Cast member Cary Shields admits that the struggle has been with the reviewers. “It affected us and hurt us, but as soon as people started seeing the show the word of mouth has been very good.” The opinion of the audience seemed extremely positive after a recent show, with many people claiming the reviews were not fair. “I think the reviewers missed the boat on this,” says Somers. “Maybe it didn’t connect with them generationally. It’s connecting with a lot of people and that’s why I think it’s going to be a success.”

Another show that could have fallen victim to the generational gap was Avenue Q. The show focuses on the young tenants of Avenue Q, a fictional street in Brooklyn. The show begins with, “What do you do with a B.A. in English? What is my life going to be?” and follows the singer, Princeton as he searches for his purpose in life. Oh, and Princeton’s a puppet. More than half the cast, in fact, are puppets. Unlike their “Sesame Street” counterparts though, these puppets have to deal with bills, employment and even sex. Most of the cast, puppeteers and actors, are making their Broadway debut. “Our producers always said they’d rather make stars than hire stars,” says John Tartaglia, who provides the voice for Princeton and Rod, the closeted “homo-whatever.” The show, which started off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theater, was the first effort for composers Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez. Rave reviews for the off-Broadway run led to the transfer to Broadway. Reviewers praised Avenue Q for being the first original piece in a while. “It’s not based on a movie and it’s not based on a book,” says Ann Harada, who plays the non-puppet role of Christmas Eve. “It’s just original and that’s rare.”

Part of the problem with some of the newer shows is the seemingly outrageous price of theater tickets. For shows like Taboo, Avenue Q and, in some ways, Wicked, the problem is that the targeted audience, ages 17 to 30, simply cannot afford to pay for tickets. Even Hugh Jackman who is doing very well financially, thanks to his success in film, understands the problem with theater prices. “I like to think that people just love theater, but at the moment, at a hundred bucks, it’s a bit of a luxury,” Jackman says.

Cary Shields also believes the newer shows on Broadway may be scaring off part of the audience, but those that are coming out are a hipper, more daring audience. Perhaps the recent revival of Wonderful Town starring Donna Murphy can support that claim. Despite receiving a love letter of a review from Times critic Brantley, Wonderful Town has had mediocre sales. Perhaps the revival of the 1950’s musical simply cannot resonate with newer audiences. Given a few more weeks, sales may pick up, at least for the holiday season.

But, ultimately, what does it take to succeed or at least, survive? “You have to believe and toss the dice and hopefully have the right kind of producers and publicists and outreach coordinators,” suggests Daphne Rubin-Vega. “Maybe the key,” says Shields, “is evolving, being good and I’m sure reviews don’t hurt.” Matthew Morrison looks at it from the other direction. At $100 per seat, audiences these days expect a lot from the shows they see. “I just think that a show needs to be worth the money,” he says. The most common answer, though, is word of mouth. “I think that theater mainly works on word of mouth,” says Jackman. “It does help to have a star to get advances, but if people don’t like it, they’re not going to tell people.” With the rise of Internet message boards, word of mouth has taken on an even larger role. People are no longer simply telling their friends and family. With detailed posts describing why they loved or loathed a show, word of mouth has can either save or kill. The fate of Broadway depends on five little words: I heard it was good.

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