The Playgoer: The New Musicals

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Friday, November 10, 2006

The New Musicals

Michael Riedel documents the panic over at High Fidelity: The Musical. A great example of deluded producers who just don't get the demographics of Broadway at all.

According to production sources, "High Fidelity" so far has sold about $600,000 worth of tickets, an appallingly low figure for a $10 million show.

In Boston, where the show recently wrapped up its out-of-town tryout, the box office was a disaster. The owner of Colonial Theater is said to have taken a $1 million bath.

The problem, sources say, is that the show's target audience - straight males in their 20s and 30s - would rather be caught in a gay bar than at a Broadway musical.

Uh, ok Michael. But point well taken.

And then, let's not forget about the music itself!

The John Cusack-Jack Black movie of "High Fidelity" made great use of classic songs by the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder (early Stevie Wonder!) to tell the story of a lonely slacker... who's obsessed with his record collection....But the musical doesn't use any famous songs. It has an original score by Amanda Green and Tom Kitt.

And that may be another problem, since anybody who loves the Velvet Underground isn't going to rush out to see a show written by the daughter of the man who wrote "Subways Are For Sleeping" (Adolph Green) and the musical director of "An Evening with Mario Cantone."

Yes, let's face it: John Cusack, Jack Black and the Stones over here--cheezy soft-pop musicals over there. And ne'er the twain shall meet. (Or, to quote an old Adam Sandler skit: "Who are the ad wizards who came up with this one!") Of course this might be fine if the B'way "High Fidelity" managed to reinvent itself to appeal to a different audience. But: "women - who buy the vast majority of tickets to Broadway shows - appear to be shunning 'High Fidelity,' even though it's being billed as a 'romantic comedy.' "

The problem is, not even women can save you on Broadway. It's old people. Period. Old rich people, and tourists who just want singing and dancing and a familiar, inoffensive, easy to understand storyline. And, for $75-$100 (or three-four hundred for the family) even entertainment isn't good enough. They want to be wow'd.

This is especially bad news, I'm afraid, for the more adventurous (and probably better) new musicals trying to transfer from Off-B'way nonprofit houses to the Great White Way of Tonyland. I'm speaking of Spring Awakening and Grey Gardens, of course. And even the Company revival (which originated at Cincinatti Playhouse in the Park, albeit in an implicitly pre-B'way tryout). These are all quality pieces with some great artistry on display. I'm glad if they reach a wider audience. But look, the only wider audiences they're going to get are likely to be disappointed fun-seekers.

Prediction: All three of these shows will get great reviews (already the case for Gardens) and generate great excitement among the theatre community and even the cherished younger audiences. But this audience will soon exhaust itself (if they can even afford the tickets, that is) within a few months. That is not long enough to recoup the investment of a musical on Broadway today. A true commercial success (i.e. profitable returns) depends on well over a year of continued business, which means pleasing not the critics, not the insiders but the average US consumer who sees Broadway as part of a Vegas-like "entertainment package." You have to fill your theatre with at least 800-900 of those folks every night, and they have to enjoy it so much they tell 800-900 more folks that it's worth $75.

In this context, a recommendation like, "Eh, it was interesting" or "very arty" doesn't cut it any more.

So my prediction--and I know I'm going out on a limb here--is that none of these shows will still be running by, say, Valentine's Day. Does that mean they shouldn't have been done? Not necessarily. I'm glad the actors are getting good paychecks. If the Tonys acknolwedge the better aspects of these shows, then great. If they enlighten just a few audience members on what theatre could be as opposed to what it is, excellent. And hey, what's wrong with a three-month run? Probably as long as a really, really good show has in it.

I'm just saying, there will be a lot of needlessly unhappy investors next spring. Producers being bold and adventurous is a good thing. But I'm sensing there's a fine line in this case between bold and deluded.


Anonymous said...

They should keep the plot structure, but put the store in Hell's kitchen and make it a Musical theater store owned by nathan lane or mario cantone. Sort of a Drowsey Chaperone meets high Fidelity. plenty of room for top ten lists, obscure references to weird musicals like "Dora", and inside jokes from Cats, etc... Make it a review with popular songs done in weird ways (after the store's pet hamster dies they sing "Every day a little death", etc.). Then at the very end the Jack Black character (LaChiusa sent-up) decides to give up writing his Oresteia trilogy Opera set in the streets of Detroit and instead writes a Fringe show about his life, which is exactly the show that we're watching. that was his purpose!

Art said...


I kind of guessed something was up with High Fidelity. They were giving away many comps to the artistic community here is Boston. (Which is very nice of them, but we usually don't receive that many.)

I don't know what the radio ads sound like in NY. But the spots they ran here were idiotic. People talking about how "the girls are hot." And then they mention Nick Hornby and a male's voice exclaims "the guys a frickin' genius!"

I guess in the universe of the people creating this musical the audience member who is coming to see the hot girls is the same guy who has picked up "The Polysyllabic Spree."

Then, Oh Then, the musical clips come in..."These are the ones who tore my heart out! These are the ones who ate me alive!"

And this is sung, I assure you, with all the jaded rage of an Up With People reunion.

Look, it's one thing if you want to fool a percentage of the audience into coming to see what they think is an edgy, youthful, and hot production. But if you are going to do that, at least do it well.

If you think I am being harsh about accusing them of trying to dupe the audience, then I ask you this: Isn't the alternative even more horrific? Because, the alternative is that the creators of this show actually believe that it is hip edgy and youthful!

Anonymous said...

tourists are a difficult audience - but careful what you say about old people. older (non-tourist) audiences, in my experience, tend to be very receptive to new work, and often too smart for the play -

Playgoer said...

Yes, sorry, Didn't mean to sound age-ist there. I meant, those who won't expand beyond the taste of an older generation...

Anonymous said...

I understand what you meant but I think it's not absolutely one way or another. Avenue Q and Spelling Bee are a good example for that.

I know that I'm in a minority here but I have been very tired by this tourist style of Broadway show.

Tom said...

Good points all about HiFi. (Off on a tangent, how about a Side By Side By-style revue of Elvis Costello? Cheery people in big blocky sweaters and slacks in the first act, and tuxes and gowns in the second act, singing with big phony smiles about "the foaming breakers on the poisonous surf" and "Somebody said that someone got filled in/For saying that people get killed in/The result of this shipbuildin'." What fun!)

Ahem. I think Grey Gardens will run, if only as a gift to Ms. Ebersole, so the Tony voters can give her the award in good conscirence. Kind of like Joe Papp did with Cafe Crown in 1990, moving it uptown only to get Santo Loquasto a Tony.

Anonymous said...

I would bet that the producers of both GARDENS and AWAKENING, while of course, hoping for a profit, also want a shot at glory (i.e., Tony Awards) and thus those shows will continue to run through June (unless the grosses totally go south) - HiFi is a commercial creation from the getgo (like Tharp/Dylan) and thus will close if the money isn't there (especially if HiFi gets anything like the Tharp reviews)

Diffrent strokes for diffrent folks....

Anonymous said...

the best thing about the movie version was john cusack. as adorable as will chase is, he is simply not going to cut it.

Anonymous said...

Saw the show last night. It was ENTERTAINING> May not be the greatest musical, but cast is likable and energetic. The scenery changes clever and the audience did enjoy it, This may be a sleeper.