Thursday, June 7, 2012

Give My Regards to Broadway: A New Perspective (Part 2)

Back in March, my blog entry Give My Regards to Broadway: A New Perspective examined several of this spring's openings from the perspective of a number cruncher. This season saw a record number of investors backing shows where pennies could be pinched (i.e. relatively small casts, single location sets, casting actor-musicians, etc.) and built-in audiences could help bolster advance tickets sales (i.e. Hollywood stars, film adaptations, etc.). Given the popularity of this entry, I have decided to continue the conversation, but with a new spin. This past May, I took two days off from the pub crawls and booze cruises that typically define "Grad Week" and headed back to New York to catch a few more of this season's latest offerings.

The theme of this month's entry will instead focus on an elementary concept covered in any introduction to finance course: Risk and Reward. The theory states that "return rises with an increase in risk." While you would be hard-pressed to find a Goldman Sachs managing director or Broadway producer (just ask Michael Cohl of Spider-Man) to disagree with this construct as in pertains to ROI for investors, this theory has never been put to the test in relation to audience satisfaction...until now. Following this year's TONY nominations, I took in three additional shows (Nice Work If You Can Get It, One Man, Two Guvnors, and Peter and the Starcatcher) each representative of a varying degree of creative and financial risk for its producers. In short, when put to the test, the Risk-Return Trade-off holds up where the "riskiest" of these three productions yields the most satisfying, entertaining, and thrilling evening at the theater. Below are the results.

LOW RISK: Nice Work If You Can Get It

With a score packed with Gershwin hits, two bona fide stars (one film, one stage), and direction and choreography from the reliable Kathleen Marshall, how could you go wrong? On paper, it looks like a surefire hit. Producers must have thought the odds of lightning striking twice were pretty good - and with such a creative team behind this show - who could blame them? With Kathleen Marshall's other Depression-era musical (the joyous and exuberant Anything Goes) still running strong at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, could Marshall and book writer Joe DiPietro do for Oh, Kay! what 1992's (geez, has it been that long?) Crazy for You did for Girl Crazy?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Susan Stroman and Ken Ludwig can sleep tight tonight knowing that their Crazy for You  remains the far superior Gershwin jukebox musical. You might be wondering, how could a project with such an extensive risk mitigation plan (hit tunes, real stars, and an award winning director/choreographer) disappoint? Ironically, it was a combination of all three (tunes, stars, and director/writer) that ultimately caused this production to fall flat. Here's the lowdown:

The Tunes. "I like a Gershwin tune/How about you?" With the entire Gershwin catalogue at their disposal (minus selections from the current revival of [The Gershwin's] Porgy & Bess), Marshall and DiPietro set out to create a 'new-fashioned' screwball musical comedy based on the 1926 musical Oh, Kay! about a playboy millionaire and his unlikely romance with a rough and tumble female bootlegger. Someone should have warned the writing team that less is more as they decidedly crammed 21 Gershwin tunes into this two and a half hour musical. The result? Many of these songs are as misplaced in this narrative as they have been in some of the most cringe-worthy jukebox musicals (i.e. Mamma Mia, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, etc.) Some of these songs, in fact, stand in direct opposition to established characterizations (i.e. "Fascinating Rhythm's "I long to be the man I used to be"). The songs at their best are blissful (O'Hara's gorgeous interpretation of "But Not for Me" or Broderick's charming crooning of "Do, Do, Do" backed up by a harmonious Varsity letterman trio), while at their worst they slog along leaving audience members either puzzled (O'Hara's entre course "Hanging Around With You" interludes) or embarrassed (Judy Kaye's chandelier swinging ode "Looking for a Boy") Perhaps an out-of-town tryout would have allowed the creative team to fine tune their selections from the Gershwin songbook, tweak the book-to-score ratio, and strengthen the tunes' relationship to the narrative and characters. There's still hope for a revision before the National Tour launches.

The Stars. I have never been shy about my desire for contemporary musical theater writers to return to the great tradition of conceiving star-vehicle shows. Following the Golden Age, these song and star vehicle productions were traded in for spectacle (Wicked), epic (Les Miserables), and irony (Urinetown). Nice Work If You Can Get It was Broadway's chance to regain what had been lost. Unfortunately, instead of building a show around their stars, Marshall and DiPietro tried to squeeze their likable leads into roles they just aren't right for. Matthew Broderick last made a splash on Broadway as the nebbish accountant-turned-producer Leo Bloom in the Mel Brooks mega-hit The Producers. Obviously, all the qualities that made him wonderful in this role make him ill-fitted for the thrice married millionaire playboy Jimmy Winters in Nice Work. While he plays to his strengths (his earnest man-child act is often endearing), he lacks the youth, confidence and general song and dance man skills needed to properly pull off this role. Broderick has bitten off a little more than he can chew with the plenitude of production numbers he has been given to carry. Through no lack of trying, Broderick unfortunately comes off as uncomfortable in several of his more featured numbers ("Sweet and Lowdown" and "Nice Work") but thankfully the supportive and beguiling presence of Kelli O'Hara loosens him up in the ebullient pas de deux "S'Wonderful."

Kelli O'Hara, probably best known for her turn as Nellie Forbush in Bart Sher's brilliant revival of South Pacific, is one of Broadway's greatest treasures. Always grounded, her interpretation of songs are eloquently phrased and earnestly performed. She is the type of actress who plays the truth even in the most ridiculous situations and consistently makes smart acting choices keeping her performances fresh and interesting for herself and her audiences. Producers and directors have recently chosen to ignore the beautiful subtlety and delicacy that she has brought to her past characters and have repeatedly cast her in hard-boiled roles (Nice Work's bootlegger Billie Bendix and The Pajama Game's Babe Williams; both directed by Marshall). While Ms. O'Hara is always good (not since Barbara Cook has a more accomplished and winning ingenue graced the stage), when I see her in roles like these I'm left with the uneasy feeling that misbegotten casting does not always allow her to be as great as she can and should be. That said, I have very high hopes for her portrayal of Cathy Whitaker (originated by Julianne Moore in the film) in Far From Heaven at Williamstown this summer. Though not a fan of the movie, I believe O'Hara's sincerity as a performer will be the show's greatest asset.

The Director-Choreographer. Kathleen Marshall is one of the most talented directors and choreographers working on Broadway. It's rare to find someone with such a strong affection for classic Broadway, yet is able to present her work in ways that appeal to mainstream modern audiences. She is at her best, perhaps, when she is mounting major revivals - a talent honed at Encores! earlier in her career. Some might argue that after last season's pitch perfect production of Anything Goes, any follow-up would surely be likely to disappoint in comparison. When compared to her work in Anything Goes, her numbers in Nice Work appear lackluster. Having cast triple-threat Sutton Foster in the lead, Marshall was able to push her choreography in Anything Goes to a level that left audiences wowed, especially the title song act one closer. No luck here, perhaps due to the dancing talent constraints of her lead, Broderick. Much as with the rest of the show, her choreography comes off as safe and as a result unmemorable. There are glimmers of wit (Broderick being shuffled across a line of chorus boys rolling along the ground as he downs a bottle of moonshine) in her choreography, but these moments are few and far between. A choreographer is often only as good as his or her weakest dancer. Bob Fosse knew this and always went through painstaking efforts to only have the best dancers in his shows. Marshall's choreography feels inhibited by the talent she has to work with and as a result falls short of what we've come to expect from her.

The Verdict. Low risk yields small returns. Nice Work felt safe, recycled, and at times ill-conceived in an effort to please the masses.

MEDIUM RISK: One Man, Two Guvnors

One Man, Two Guvnors, adapted from the classic Carlo Goldoni commedia dell'arte work, The Servant of Two Masters, is a British import from The National Theatre. In the past few years, The National Theatre has seen several successful transfers to Broadway including the TONY Award winning productions of The History Boys and War Horse. As such, these mountings have a relatively small, but loyal built-in audience of New Yorkers and savvy theatre-goers expecting high quality, well-acted and well-directed productions from this company. Outside of this audience, The National Theatre and its affiliated commercial producers depend on strong word-of-mouth and award show buzz to build audiences to secure a hit. As a straight play with a relatively unknown star and a setting and humor directed toward audiences from across the pond, this production does come with its fair share of risks. But will it pay off? Let's see how it all plays out.

Straight Play. Non-musicals are always a tough sell, especially during the busy summer tourist season in New York City. One Man, Two Guvnors mitigates its risk by inserting a crowd-pleasing band (The Craze) invoking the spirit of early-sixties British invasion rockers. The Craze plays a high-energy original score by Grant Olding before the show and during scene changes, often with cast members making guest appearances to play or sing along with the group. The gamble appears to have paid off with a rare TONY nomination for Best Original Score and.audience members arriving early to the theater just to experience the pre-show. From an audience perspective, the live onstage band helps viewers feel as if they are getting a little something extra for their money.

Comedies are often an easier sell to tourists. But will this Brighton-set piece play well to an American crowd?

Translating Humor. I am confident in answering the above question with a resounding 'yes!". American audiences can appreciate a good farce and that is exactly what they will get with One Man, Two Guvnors. Nicholas Hytner has staged  possibly the funniest, slickest comic scene I have witnessed where Frances Henshall (James Corden) attempts to serve dinner to his two bosses without giving away his moonlighting charades. Staged with precision and performed with gusto, the low-brow slapstick that is reminiscent of the vaudevillian shtick seen in the acts of the old British music halls should garner a laugh from even the most stoic audience member. I am continually impressed by Hytner's range as a director. Is there a genre he can't succeed in tackling with his adept directorial hand? It is a rare production that manages to combine the discipline and tightness required for farce and the spontaneity that arises through some of its more seemingly improvised scenes. The cast is first-rate particularly Oliver Chris as Stanley Stubbers, a prep school tool who murdered the brother of the love his life, and Tom Edden as Alfie, the decrepit, but dutiful waiter at The Cricketers Arms Pub.

But even with an ensemble of good actors, is a well known star still needed to create a hit?

Star Quality. Watching James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors is like witnessing the birth of a star. An accomplished actor is his own right - Corden was last seen on Broadway (and in the film) in The History Boys as the affable Timms - but he had yet to headline a show on his own. A gifted physical comedian,  Corden is like the love child of the late Chris Farley and the incomparable John Cleese. With Philip Seymour Hoffman being his stiffest competition for this year's Best Actor TONY Award, I will be curious to see if voters value Corden's winning comic performance enough seal a victory with the heaviness of Willy Loman (though superbly played by Hoffman) right behind it.

The Verdict: One Man, Two Guvnors makes for a thoroughly enjoyable evening in the theater. While it won't change lives, it was breezy and entertaining. The risks producers took certainly added to the enjoyment - a fresh, young face as the charismatic lead, a new comedy based on a often forgotten (outside of academia) art form, and a chance for American audiences to see a terrific British production.

HIGH RISK: Peter and the Starcatcher

Peter and the Starcatcher is a total-theater adaptation of Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's children's novel Peter and the Starcatchers (note the 's') tracking the tumultuous adventures of the S.S. Neverland and its crew as they face storms, pirates, savages, magic dust, and mermaids. Director Roger Rees (with co-direction by Alex Timbers) borrows from the story theater made popular in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1981 literary adaptation of the Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in which Rees starred. After a sold out run and strong reviews at The New York Theater Workshop last summer, Disney decided to remount its production on Broadway. Without spectacle (in the traditional sense) or a strong IP, targeted demographic, or headliner to support advance ticket sales, Disney is banking on the notion that one hell of  a show can sell tickets.

No Spectacle. Rope, fabric, a rolling ladder, a trunk, sticks, a net, etc. That's about all there is. For Broadway standards, it's a minimalist show that depends on its audience having an active imagination and being willing to go along for the ride. Peter is the perfect example of the effectiveness of a narrative structure that embraces its own theatricality. Instead of falling chandeliers, swooping helicopters, and rotating barracks, this show offers ingenious staging, engaging performances, and the most stellar lighting and hand-produced live sound effects to be found on Broadway. Rees and Timbers give you the gift of the bedtime story. Not since the days of your youth, have you been allowed to surrender to the tale, letting the words, fantasy, and spirit wash over you as you fall into a sublime, joyous trance.

No Headliners. The only stars in Peter are in the sky. When Disney green lit Peter's transfer, it was comprised of a relatively unknown ensemble with a few recognizable faces from past Broadway outings. Depending on the strength of the ensemble, this is a a show about storytelling. Rees and Timbers focus all of their resources on guiding this ensemble toward telling a story in an entertaining, innovative, and rollicking manner. As a director myself, I admired the tightness of the ensemble greatly. It was as if they were acting as one single, living, breathing organism. Their focus and energy yielded one of the slickest, most polished ensemble pieces I have seen in a long time. Standout performances include Christian Borle (of Smash fame) with his hilarious scenery chewing turn as Black Stache, the menacing villain of the piece, and Celia Keenan-Bolger playing the type of precocious young heroine that would make Carson McCullers proud. But Borle and Keenan-Bolger are gracious enough performers to take a back seat to support the other members of the cast when their featured bits have passed. The cast as a whole is superb, most notably veteran character actor Arnie Burton as Mrs. Bumbrake, the droll, no-nonsense (though, maybe just a little) nanny on board. Peter is one of the rare, open-ended running shows where the actors are having as much fun as the audience. As the actors engage the crowd and feed off their reactions, you come to the realization that you are being exposed to a very powerful and effective type of theater, one defined by the communal experience.

Targeting an Audience. You begin to wonder if Disney has really defined its audience for this show. Peter would be the ideal show  to introduce kids to theater. But deciding how to sell this show to parents and kids presents another problem. Peter is a straight play without the the support of an indestructible intellectual property behind it. How can it compete with the likes of The Lion King and Mary Poppins (properties with ridiculous awareness amongst elementary school children and older) or Spider-Man and Wicked (wildly popular with the tween and teen set)? Though it is a Peter Pan origin story, its connection to this property isn't very clear in its title or marketing. If you play up the Peter Pan affiliation, do you risk losing the interest of an adult audience? Disney has stumbled upon something special - a show that can charm audiences of all ages. Marketing principles tell you that you can't be all things to all people and must position yourself to a target demographic. With a rare show on its hands that can appeal, at least somewhat, to all audiences, it doesn't appear from their generic marketing campaign that it has done its due diligence in positioning its show toward an intended demographic. Unfortunately, with this tactic, it runs the risk of its marketing appealing to no one at all. The most disheartening part is that the creative merit of this show alone could appeal to everyone if only producers could just fill the seats. NOTE: I was able to get third row center orchestra seats for half price through the Theater Development Fund - not a good sign.

The Verdict: Despite the risks producers are facing, Peter and the Starcatcher was one of the  most entertaining and charming evenings I've spent in the theater. Two hours into the production, I could hear heavy breathing by my ear. As I turned around, I saw an eight year old girl leaning forward, her head on the back of my chair, hanging on to every word of the play. When you manage to keep both a child's and a cynical MBA's attention that long, you know you are doing something right. Theater, at its best, can be transformative.  Even the most hardened individual should leave feeling like a kid again. Now that is the highest compliment that can be paid.

The Wrap-Up

While higher creative risk looks like it is yielding higher returns in terms of critical and audience satisfaction, it is unfortunately not translating into greater box office returns. Below is a summary the box office grosses for the week of June 3.

Of the three productions reviewed in this entry, Nice Work (the safest bet) has the highest revenue, average ticket price, and capacity filled while Peter has the lowest of the group. It would, however, be interesting to look at these numbers in relation to operating costs to see which show yields the highest net profit. It could turn out that the riskier shows, also have the lowest operating costs, and are, in turn, the most profitable. But, alas, these operations costs are not reported. Food for thought, I guess. Until next time.

1 comment:

  1. Eric--
    Interesting analysis and perspective, both from a business and artistic perspective. I would question whether the risk/reward quotient applies to people's somewhat limited entertainment budgets. It seems that the average person who is generally interested in theatre (but not a fanatic) would be more willing to drop $150 for a pair of tickets to a show they haven't heard of with a cast that is unfamiliar; or $200 for a "sure bet" that most likely isn't going to disappoint. And the numbers seem to support that (based on a one week sample). So where I think there's a disconnect, is between the risk/reward calculation of the producer and the risk/reward calculation of the audience. That's where something like Spiderman does well -- there's a high risk/reward for the producer; but the audience is familiar enough with Spiderman and there are stunts, so someone taking it in isn't taking on the same risk. For them, it might be a low risk/high reward (if you're in to that sort of thing).