Monday, September 25, 2006

Tuners try to save sizzle

Stunt casting, Web sales and marketing gambits help stretch shows' legs

When a show opens to rave reviews and boffo B.O., producers nowadays can't just sit back and rake in the dough.

They have to prep, both from a business angle and from an artistic perspective, for the possibility of a very, very long life.

Just ask the granddaddy of Broadway tuners, "The Phantom of the Opera," still filling more than two-thirds of the house 18 years after its opening. "It takes a long-term maintenance plan to keep a show sparkly," says "Phantom" general manager Alan Wasser.

Back in the golden age, Broadway shows came and went, and even the hits turned over with some regularity: "Oklahoma!" ran five years (1943-48); "My Fair Lady" lasted 6 1/2 (1956-62).

But beginning in the 1970s, it became more and more common for popular productions to run longer and longer -- "Grease" ran eight years (1972-80), "A Chorus Line" kept kicking for 15 (1975-90) and "Cats" howled for just under 18 (1982-2000).

A handful of economic shifts on the Rialto have allowed shows to run longer. Strong tourism biz can boost a tuner's longevity; ticket buying has been simplified in the Internet age; and the global profile of Broadway fare has risen (think "The Lion King" in Shanghai).

For long-runners, the highest-profile strategy for boosting biz and buzz is, of course, the casting of a celeb or two. Producers Barry and Fran Weissler are the acknowledged masters: Their 10-year-old revival of "Chicago" has gone through a slew of stars and semi-stars, from Melanie Griffith to Huey Lewis to Brooke Shields. Usher is now appearing as smooth lawyer Billy Flynn.

Purists may grumble about possibly inappropriate casting sacrificing art for mercenary rewards, but there's no doubt the gambit can work -- not only at the box office, but sometimes even with critics.

The gross for "Chicago," for instance, skyrocketed by $250,000 -- nearly 50% -- for the first week Usher stepped into the show (he recently extended through Oct. 14). And when the Weisslers cast Reba McEntire in their revival of "Annie Get Your Gun" in 2000, the country singer thesp earned genuinely rapturous reviews that helped the struggling production -- which ran about 2 1/2 years -- eke out a little more life.

"We make lists," says Barry Weissler. "We sit down and think of interesting casting ideas." He says he keeps an eye out not only for the ability of a star to sing and dance, but also for the right texture and quality to fit a specific role.

"If they don't have the acting chops, then they have to have the charisma, the personality to hold the stage," he says. "Often we get both."

But it's not just stars who keep a show going.

As a tuner gets older, useful information about its comparative health emerges from looking back at its performance in the past. "With the amount of data we have, we're trending, we're anticipating," says Thomas Schumacher, producer of Disney Theatrical Prods., the org behind Broadway stalwarts "Beauty and the Beast" (12 years) and "Lion King" (nine years).

"We've been able to identify what the seasonal peaks and troughs are, and can prepare for them," Wasser says of "Phantom."

"Phantom" has varied its pricing by season, often following the lead of "Les Miserables," which discounted tickets during winter slowdowns as part of a strategy that helped it endure on Broadway for 16 years.

Marketing also can change according to the time of year. "During summer, you'll see us advertise all our shows together," says David Schrader, managing director and chief financial officer of Disney Theatrical. "As you get into fall, which is less about tourists, we have to sell each show individually."

Advertising becomes increasingly focused as a run goes on. Many long-runners spend a good chunk of their ad budgets in tourist publications. "Rent" (10 years) aims to reach its young-skewing target demo via a promotional partnership with Gotham pop radio station Z100.

Keeping a show's advertising campaign fluid enough to change and target different demos over time also can help create fresh interest, In 2004, "Phantom" encouraged ands to revisit with the slogan, "Remember your first time."

Movie adaptations have helped extend brands. "Chicago" brought in crowds impressed by the 2002 Oscar winner; "Phantom" piggybacked on the marketing of the 2004 pic to raise sales; and even the poorly received "Rent" movie, released in late 2005, may have contributed to the 27% boost in sales for the Broadway tuner this year, to approximately $20 million for the year to date.

Swapping out a larger theater for a smaller one also can keep a show going as fervor for tickets subsides. Currently at the Ambassador, "Chicago" has moved three times in the decade since the revival opened. "Beauty and the Beast" helped maintain supply-demand equilibrium with a move from the Palace to the smaller Lunt-Fontanne, and "The Lion King" recently shifted to the Minskoff from the New Amsterdam, a theater whose seating and pricing arrangement allowed for no discernible decrease in grosses.

The tradition of downsizing shows to keep a long run financially viable was a constant through the 1940s, '50s and '60s. At that time, producers regularly hired more than the union minimum of orchestra members to keep composers happy. The extra hands, however, were part of a "cuts list" often let go anywhere from the third week to the third year, depending on business. This approach meant shows often had a richer, more robust sound in their first six months than later.

That practice now is more infrequent, largely because no producer is willing to exceed the minimum to begin with. Cuts usually happen in areas other than the orchestra, such as sets and ensemble. The scaling back of "Beauty and the Beast" was even lampooned in a "Forbidden Broadway" number called "Beauty's Been Decreased."

Another trick is managing the money a hit show is making.

"How we handle our dollars is just as important as how we market our show," says Jeffrey Seller, one of the producers behind "Rent." "That is, we try not to overspend on it, and keep our nut low."

But the need to keep costs down must be balanced with the understanding that a show has to look spiffy. Replacing lighting equipment whose color has faded, repainting banged-up set pieces and creating costumes for new cast members all require regular spending.

When a new thesp takes over as resident "Phantom" diva Carlotta, the creation of her custom-fit wardrobe costs more than $100,000. "We put away an amount each week to put toward the cost of maintaining a production," Wasser says.

Constant creative supervision is also key. The original helmers of most long-runners -- as well as a corps of designers, choreographers and other staff -- check in regularly with productions: Michael Greif tends to select the principals for "Rent," and Harold Prince usually approves actors who go into major roles in "Phantom."

To maintain a standard of performance, supervisors monitor productions both on Broadway and on the road. "I give notes," says Peter yon Mayrhauser, production supervisor of "Phantom." "It's very good for the actors. Our biggest enemy is getting complacent."

By: Suskin, Steven, Cox, Gordon, Variety, 9/25/2006

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