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THEATER | TONY AWARDS

There's no science to what works onstage

An eclectic season of flops and successes offers clues but no guarantees.

June 10, 2007|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

New York — "NOBODY knows anything."

William Goldman lobbed that dictum at the screen trade, but it just as easily applies to the just-concluded 2006-07 Broadway season. Goldman's contention that producers haven't a clue as to what will resonate with critics and the public stands in relief against one of the most eclectic seasons in memory. Included among the front-runners for the Tony Awards that will be handed out tonight at Radio City Music Hall are "Spring Awakening," a rock musical about 19th century German teens dealing with sexual abuse, suicide and abortion; "Grey Gardens," a quirky look at Jackie Kennedy Onassis' batty relatives bickering in a decaying East Hampton, N.Y., mansion; and "The Coast of Utopia," Tom Stoppard's epic about obscure 19th century Russian revolutionaries and intellectuals.

It was that kind of season. And, with the exception of "Mary Poppins," it didn't exactly set the box office afire. The record-breaking $939 million in ticket sales came largely from blockbusters from previous seasons, such as "Jersey Boys," "Wicked," "The Lion King" and "The Color Purple," which became the financial success story of the season when "American Idol's" Fantasia Barrino stepped into the starring role. Most of the new shows vying for the Tony will need a win tonight to have a healthy run. But the eventual success or failure of this season's offerings provides litmus tests of sorts. Although it is perilous to try to extrapolate lessons from a single season, who's to argue when, after all, nobody knows anything?

Litmus test No. 1: Can a small, serious musical succeed?

If the favored "Spring Awakening" wins for best musical, a record 26 producers will troop up to the podium. It took that many to raise the $6 million to transfer the Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater musical from its off-Broadway showcase. One would have to go back more than a decade to "Rent" to find a successful commercial show of a similar ilk -- and even then Roger, Mimi, Joanne and Mark of the East Village would seem much more accessible than "Spring's" Wendla, Moritz and Melchior in their provincial German setting.

Ira Pittelman, lead producer with actor Tom Hulce, recalls some "scary" preview weeks during which the musical lost money. "We were feeling our way and were saddled with a show that was hard to explain," he recalls. The critics gave the show raves, but sales remained sluggish. What made the difference, says Pittelman, was advertising on local rock stations as well as more traditional outlets and placing downloadable songs from the show on the official website. (Sheik's alt-rock following helped too.) "The Internet started the dialogue on the show, the way people could talk to each other and with our young cast," he said. "But there was no way you could calibrate a road map in any normal business way for this show."

Some of the same challenges have beset this season's other dark musical, "Grey Gardens." Despite its 10 Tony nods, "Grey Gardens" is among the lowest grossing musicals, stuck in the mid-$300,000 range in weekly revenues, while "Spring," with its 11 Tony nods, was bumped up into the $600,000 range, well above its break-even point but still below its maximum. For many Broadway insiders, tired of formulaic spectacles, the presence of the story-driven "Grey Gardens" and "Spring Awakening" is a tonic. "They're tests to see if there's a market for musicals that have nothing going for them," says Richard Seff, a playwright and former agent, "except that they're wonderful."

Litmus test No. 2: Have the New York critics lost their power?

No shows this season received more critical praise than "Coast of Utopia," "Spring Awakening," "Grey Gardens," "Radio Golf," "Journey's End" and "Little Dog Laughed." "Coast" was a hot ticket during its limited run at the subscription-based Lincoln Center Theatre, but "Little Dog Laughed" was an early casualty of the season; the revival of the World War I drama "Journey's End" will close today, a victim of scant audiences; and "Grey Gardens" and "Radio Golf," the last of August Wilson's 10-play cycle of African American life, are struggling. Meanwhile "Legally Blonde," which received mixed-to-negative reviews, drew a strong $860,000 in sales for the week ending May 27.

The disconnect between what the critics are raving about and what the public is buying has never appeared to be wider. "I don't think critics have the same influence that they used to -- certainly not on musicals," says David Stone, a producer of the much-praised "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" as well as "Wicked," which received very mixed notices. "But I think they can still close a play."

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