Producing shows Off-Broadway is definitely not for the faint of heart. Variety reports on the optimism of the new Off-Broadway season, including a joint direct mail effort organized by Eliran Murphy Group.
Supersized Songs: Risky Business
A slew of Off B'way tuners flaunt fiscal rules with (relatively) big casts and scope
by Robert Hofler
If Broadway's musicals trip all over themselves to open in the spring, right before the Tony cutoff, then fall is the time of year for Off Broadway to sing. That legit truism has never been truer than it is this season.
"It is so much tougher to open an Off Broadway show in spring, competing with Broadway," says Jeffrey Richards, who partners with Jean Doumanian and others to bring "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" to Dodger Stages.
Opening Sept. 15, the musical shares that preem date with the Alfred Kinsey bio tuner "Dr. Sex," set to launch at the Peter Norton Space.
Together, they are the first in a batch of new fall 2005 tuners that includes "Slut" (American Theater of Actors, Oct. 1), "A Woman of Will" (Daryl Roth, Oct. 2), "Five Course Love" (Minetta Lane, Oct. 16), "Bingo" (St. Luke's, Nov. 7) and "The Ark" (37 Arts, Nov. 14), with "Adrift in Macao" ready to go Oct. 26 at the Philadelphia Theater Company and circling for a 499-seater in Gotham if some of the above should falter.
That's a helluva lotta singing and dancing onstage for any two-month period on or off Broadway
Even more intriguing than the sheer number of new tuners is the relatively abundant number of actors cast for these Off Broadway shows.
With the exception of the one-person "Woman" and the three-person "Five Course Love," the other six musicals employ seven to nine actors, not including understudies, and a band of four to six musicians.
And sit down: Each show is a for-profit venture!
With those lofty double-digit numbers on the weekly payroll, will producers be able to sing all the way to the bank?
Long gone are the days when "Little Shop of Horrors," with its cast of 12, could turn a profit at the 385-seat Orpheum Theater. Every other plus-7 size tuner, from "Bat Boy" in 2001 at the Union Square to this year's "Shockheaded Peter" at the Little Shubert, have ended up losing money despite playing 499-seat theaters.
Weekly running costs for such shows range from $80,000-$100,000, with gross potential topping at $250,000. That's not much window for profit when one considers Off Broadway's notoriously low audience turnout for weekday perfs.
But producers are by nature optimists.
"Everybody follows the rule of thumb until someone breaks that rule of thumb," says Doumanian, who, in the next breath, expresses smart caution. "We have a very healthy reserve," she reveals.
"So we can sustain a build," adds Richards, who puts that reserve at 25%-30% of their $1.5 million capitalization. (On Broadway, a reserve might be closer to 10%-15% of a show's capitalization -- and less, if there's a big star attached.)
Other Off Broadway producers are equally optimistic, equally cautious.
Capitalized at $750,000, "Bingo" could have been put up for less. "But we'd close in a week," says composer Michael Heitzman, who puts his show's reserve at $200,000.
Even then, Heitzman sees the New York production of "Bingo" as a launch to the real money.
"The show has big regional potential," he explains. "New York City gives us visibility. There are a lot of 400-to-500-seat theaters out there dying for product. Frankly they can't do 'Nunsense' one more time. They need product."
Although totally unrelated, the producers of "Dr. Sex" and "Slut" are looking not only to launch but also to transfer from their respective theaters, which are booked for limited 10-week runs.
"Sex" producer Richard Ericson and his team look for a commercial transfer, but not to another Off Broadway theater.
"I wish we could do a 499-seat theater, but it economically doesn't make sense with our nine actors and six in the orchestra." In their case, it is Broadway, the regionals or bust. Even for the limited run at the Norton Space, they're capitalized at a hefty $800,000 with a $250,000 reserve.
Over at "Slut," it is not lost on producers Dena Hammerstein and Pam Pariseau that "Urinetown" played the ATA before transferring to Broadway.
"Yes, that is the hope, to launch to some other venue," Pariseau says of that model. They're hedging their bets with a more conservative $300,000 capitalization for a very limited run. "Obviously, we're hoping 'Slut' will be embraced, and then we'll decide where its next home is," says Hammerstein.
Of all the shows skedded to open, the spoof "Adrift in Macao" arguably has the highest profile, thanks to bookwriter Christopher Durang and composer Peter Melnick. Even so, its producers will wait for feedback from Philly before venturing into the more treacherous Gotham waters.
"It has to be a home run to move," says producer Susan Dietz, who puts capitalization at $1.2 million, if the show goes east. "It will have a huge reserve built into the budget. We know we'll have to struggle."
Several of the new Off Broadway producers point to the current success of "Altar Boyz" as a sign that there's life off the Great White Way.
"I wish them luck," says Robyn Goodman, a producer on that boy-band tuner.
Despite the kudos from her fellow producers, she presents a very sobering financial picture. " 'Altar Boyz' is a five-character musical, and at six months we're just starting to see substantive growth in wraps and grosses. You don't have the money to advertise Off Broadway, so you have to depend on word of mouth, and at 300 people a performance, that takes a long time," says Goodman.
Of all the new tuners opening Off Broadway, "The Ark" probably has the biggest challenge. Based on the biblical legend, it is the first musical to play the new 37 Arts complex, and its $1.5 million capitalization is high for a 399-seat theater.
Producer Karen Walter Goodwin looks at it the other way. "On Broadway, it would be $4 million to $5 million, and the risk wasn't worth launching with that burden for us," she says.
To defy the odds, Goodwin and the producers of three other Off Broadway musicals -- "Bingo," "Five Course Love" and "A Woman of Will" -- are betting on a unique marketing promotion. Planning for a big drop after Labor Day, the tuner quartet will share a direct-mail campaign, all under the auspices of marketing/ad agency Eliran-Murphy.
"If we were doing our own direct mail, we'd reach 100,000 homes, but with four we'll do 400,000 for less money," says Mark Cuddy, a producer on "Five Course Love."
Despite all the challenges, clearly all are hoping to become the next "Fantasticks."