Saturday, December 12, 2009

Revival Box Office: Not Enough or Too Much, Too Soon?

Looking back over the last 20 or so years, just about every major show has been revived (sometimes more than once), and over that time, they have been critically acclaimed, critically ravaged, immensely popular, and immediate failures. Of the critically acclaimed, the vast majority were so acclaimed because they were vastly revised and/or re-envisioned (Anything Goes, Cabaret (1997), Sweeney Todd, Company), embraced by fans of the original and modern, new audiences, alike. This is not always the case: last year's Guys and Dolls suffered from its re-imagining, and suffered in comparison to both the beloved original and the beloved, revised 1990's revival. The ones that were carbon copies (any pre-Alfred Molina Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret (1987)tended to do less well.

Looking at the revivals playing now, just the opposite is true. West Side Story is admittedly a virtual carbon copy of the original, toughened, up, yes, but pretty much the same. South Pacific probably falls in between copy and re-imagination, but leans more toward the former in terms of scope, script and score, with its design elements re-imagined for the space - the challenging Vivian Beaumont. And then, of course, there's Hair, a virtually un-copiable show, so much of its time is it, and yet the folks at the Al Hirschfeld seem to be recreating it (or at least the energy of it) eight times a week. But I think their popularity has less to do with how "new" they feel or how "like the original" they are. First of all, all three are iconic American musicals; all three have popular movies made of them, and all three remain in the current train of thought with productions constantly cropping up at all levels - high school, college, community, regional. The other common link is that all three have considerable time between the original and any previous revivals. South Pacific has never had a Broadway revival, and has 50-odd years between the old and new; Hair was revived in the 70's and flopped, and now 40 years after the original it is a huge success. West Side Story's last revival in 1980 was a huge flop, and now over 50 years later, it is a success both critically and financially.

OK, like everyone else, I realize some of the blame for the lackluster box office at Finian's Rainbow (and just about every other show) has to do with the current economy. People simply can't afford extras (gulp!) like theatre anymore, and if they can, they have to be choosier. Finian's Rainbow has not been revived before, and in fact hasn't been seen on Broadway in 60+ years. It has clearly been re-envisioned, partly because as a culture we have grown (hence the double casting of the Senator role instead of offensive black face) and because it is an outgrowth of a staged concert version. It has been critically acclaimed by the pros, and features several breakout performances, including Cheyenne Jackson, Kate Baldwin and Jim Norton. And yet, the past two weeks, it was playing to 53% and 65% capacity. So why isn't it a huge hit after the acclaim it has gotten? I think it is a number of things. 1. It isn't a flashy, edgy show. In fact, it revels in its "oldness" touting itself as the "they don't write music like this anymore" show. 2. While theatre goers know Cheyenne, Kate and Jim, the general public that didn't rush to see it the first weeks after opening has no idea who they are. 3. Even from the outside of the theatre, it looks cheap. The impression it gives versus the ticket prices it is charging is staggering enough that people with funds for one show are taking their money to a sure bet.

Bye Bye Birdie seems to have it all - a start-studded cast including TV stars AND Broadway stars, it has never been revived and it has a very popular film and thousands of productions to make it a stop for fans of the cast and the show. The box office reflects that, too, hovering in the high 80-mid 90% range of capacity. But the show stinks, and everyone involved knows it. And so it will close once the stars leave. Seems enough people spread the word to Birdie fans to stay away as the advance into the spring wasn't enough to keep it from folding.

A Little Night Music is doing very well so far, though it is in previews. Like Birdie, this one has all the right things going for it. An Oscar winner and 5 time Tony winner are above the title, some of Broadway's most popular up and comers (Erin Davie, Aaron Lazar) are in the cast, and it is a Sondheim show, which automatically gives thrust to the first several months of the run (though no Sondheim shows run that long...). Plus it is a beloved show, never revived, and features a song that generations have heard, "Send in the Clowns." So far so good, but its success may lie in the reviews and in how long Catherine and Angela stay with it.

But the real sticky wicket is the revival of Ragtime. It has been tweaked and re-thought. It is a show beloved by many in the modern audience, and nearly everyone I know felt that the original closed way too soon. OK, so it has no real stars of any ilk. But is that reason enough to cause box office numbers in the 50% range? One critic has already named it the best revival of the season, and Time Magazine named it one of 10 best of 2009 (Finian's Rainbow was similarly named). In this case, I'm thinking it is the time factor, mostly, combined with fewer ticket dollars available. I mean it has only been 9 years between the closing of the original and the opening of the revival.

Recent revivals like 2 versions of Gypsy, Into the Woods, and Les Miserables were merely pale in comparison to their original runs, despite critical acclaim for all, and several Tony awards. There were only four years between Bernadette's Gypsy and Patti's Gypsy, a mere 13 years between trips Into the Woods, and it was only 3 years between the closing of the original and opening of the revival of Les Miserables.

Which brings us to La Cage aux Folles. This had better be one heck of a re-imagining, because the last revival, only 4 years ago, was a big flop partly because you don't tinker with some classics. Then there is the casting: a London star, acclaimed though he is, his name doesn't even register in my memory, and the recent casting of Kelsey Grammer. Let's see Mr. Grammer played less than a week in Macbeth a few years ago... he warbles the closing tune of his long off the air sitcom, Fraiser, and has had 2 flop shows and flop movie in the mean time... hardly on par Ms. Zeta-Jones. I hope it does well. I hate to see more actors out of work, but really...
Will La Cage prove me wrong? Or is it not enough AND too much too soon?

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