Broadway chases the tourist dollar with three new summertime shows

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 June, 2015, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 June, 2015, 10:49pm

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Each year in New York, the hoopla over the Tony Awards gives way to Broadway’s most barren season – the dog days of summer, a period that typically sees the fewest new shows open of any time of the year.

Just as Hollywood looks down its nose on January and February, Broadway producers tend to avoid mid-May through early September, a season devoid of awards prestige and the attendant media spotlight.

But this year, three high-profile shows have elected to brave New York’s heat and humidity and open in the hope of blazing a trail.

Will An Act of God and Amazing Grace see divine intervention at the box office? Will Hamilton trump the Hamptons?

Producers say their decisions to open during the summer are driven largely by practical considerations such as casting and theatre availability, adding that summer has advantages over other seasons, such as a large number of tourists eager to buy theatre tickets.

The producers and other industry leaders also highlight the annual April crunch of Broadway openings – this past April alone saw 14 debuts, almost four a week – and the widespread belief in the industry that the deluge has a negative effect on some productions.

“It’s undeniable that a lot of shows open in that window for all the obvious reasons, like Tony consideration,” says Jeffrey Finn, a lead producer of An Act of God, a new comedy starring Jim Parsons of TV series The Big Bang Theory.

An Act of God opened after the US Memorial Day holiday on May 25 because the creative team were set on Parsons for the lead role and the actor was available only during hiatus from his sitcom, Finn says.

“The summer can be a healthy time for a new show,” Finn says.

New York is chock full of tourists [in the summer]. Now shows are destinations. The big hits never close
CAROLYN ROSSI COPELAND, PRODUCER

“Especially when you have a star like Jim. There are so many tourists looking for comedy.”

In the play, by former The Daily Show writer David Javerbaum, the Almighty comes to earth by taking over Parsons’ body and delivers comically ornery commentary on contemporary life. The limited run at Studio 54 ends in August when Parsons will return to shooting.

Amazing Grace, set to bow on July 16, is a historical epic that follows the story of Englishman John Newton, who wrote the words to the famous hymn.

“We had hoped for a slot for March or April, but now I’m glad it didn’t happen,” says lead producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland. During those months, “it was almost impossible to give each show its breath”. The summer tourist influx “will be great for our show. [New York] is just chock full of people,” she says.

The blockbuster mentality on Broadway means there’s less turnover in theatres, she says.

“Now shows are destinations.

The big hits never close.”

In the past 15 years, only two Broadway shows with summer openings have gone on to become long-running hits – Avenue Q and Hairspray. The latter opened in August 2002 and ran for more than six years.

Hairspray opened in the summer mainly to accommodate director Jack O’Brien’s schedule. “I was concerned … But as it turned out, [opening in the summer] was a great boon,” producer Margo Lion says.

“We had clear sailing; there was nothing else to talk about in the press. It worked out to be ideal for us.” In an April rush, she says, many shows “don’t have a chance to take root, and that can be detrimental”.

Even so, in recent seasons, the summer has produced more flops than hits. Last year, the only show to debut in the hot season was the Tupac Shakur-inspired musical Holler If Ya Hear Me, which had trouble finding an audience and closed after a brief run.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark opened in June 2011after a troubled preview period. It ran for more than two years, but hadn’t turned a profit by the time it closed early last year.

Last year, June through August saw Broadway attendance of about 3.5 million people and ticket sales of US$374.5 million, or about 27 per cent of the record US$1.37 billion in sales for the year, according to data provided by the Broadway League, a non-profit industry group.

June tends to be one of the strongest months of the year, helped by the excitement around the Tonys, the theatre industry’s Oscars. Sales tend to dip in July and rebound in August before dropping off after Labour Day (in September).

“The best month of the year for us is probably August,” says Michael Naumann, managing director of the Theatre Development Fund, which manages the TKTS ticket booths in New York. The booths are a popular destination among tourists and locals for discounted, same-day tickets. Sales drop off by about a third after Labour Day, he says.

“Tourists tend to go to more established shows with brands that they know and people they know,” says Charlotte St Martin, who heads the Broadway League. Last season, tourists accounted for about 70 per cent of Broadway audiences. The April stampede of openings was louder than usual this past season, she says. “We really are trying to solve the crunch.”

Hamilton is by far the most anticipated title of the new season.

When it opened to rave reviews this year at the Public Theatre in New York, many industry observers assumed it would transfer to Broadway in time for the Tonys.

But instead, producers will open the show in August. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote and stars in the historical musical, is reportedly revising portions of the show before its Broadway bow.

The production uses a multicultural cast to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton and other Founding Fathers. The show attracted numerous VIPs during its run at the Public, including the Clintons and Michelle Obama.

A spokesman for the show says its Broadway investment stands at about US$12 million and that advance sales are “robust”.

The upbeat nature of Hamilton may prove to be a good fit for the height of August, when audiences tend to look for lighthearted entertainment and an escape from New York’s stifling heat.

Another potential crowd pleaser this summer is the return of Penn and Teller, whose latest show is opening next month for a brief time.

The scheduling is partly based on the availability of the performers, but “we thought the height of the Broadway tourist season is an ideal time to present something like this”, says producer Tom Viertel.

“It’s a better idea for some shows than others. You don’t want to open Death of a Salesman in the summer.

But we’ve never been concerned about opening a great entertaining show at this time.”

Los Angeles Times