The Playgoer: Coast of Boffo

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Coast of Boffo

Variety's Gordon Cox takes us inside the mindbending logistics of producing Stoppard's "Coast of Utopia" at Lincoln Center. Despite a $100 ticket price per show of the trilogy (except for two rows in the balcony @ $65) it is selling very, very well. So much so that amazingly LCT has been able to extend--with its busy starry cast intact--for two months.

Following up on some previous posts on this, I do want to concede what one commenter said about ticket prices--namely that there was one way to avoid the heft price and that was subscribe as an LCT "member." Fair point, and I'm now kicking myself for missing the boat on that. They must have sold really fast, though.

Still, I have sensed no special outreach from LCT to schools, young people, underprivileged--any population one would idealistically want to include in such a "major cultural event"--what's more a major educational event. (It's a history lesson, after all.) Yes, they're probably still ending up in the red on this one. But if you're a nonprofit, at least lose money with integrity.

Anyway, here's some highlights from Cox's fine reporting:

Prolonging the engagement while preserving the entire cast was particularly impressive given that the ensemble includes such name thesps as Billy Crudup, Ethan Hawke, Jennifer Ehle, Martha Plimpton, Amy Irving, Brian F. O'Byrne, Josh Hamilton and Richard Easton....

Salaries were negotiated for the extension to "near Broadway equivalency," according to LCT exec producer Bernard Gersten. (As a nonprofit, LCT generally pays thesps less than the union standard required for commercial Rialto productions even though LCT's Vivian Beaumont Theater, where "Utopia" is being staged, is officially a Broadway house.)

The original suggestion was to push the "Coast" run all the way through the end of June. That would allow the show to take advantage of potential buzz from the Tony Awards, being handed out June 10.
Ah... So is that what this is about?

"The actors were a little bit gun-shy on that," says Gersten. For now the run ends May 13, just before Tony noms are announced, although a further extension remains a possibility.
I doubt many in the original cast will stay even longer. But LCT has nothing programmed in the Beaumont for summer, it looks like. So why let it go dark, they'll say, and probably go for it, even with cast replacements. (Just please, Andre Bishop, please, no Tony Danza as Bakhunin!)

At the very least, the longer engagement will help keep "Utopia" in the minds of Tony voters. Unlike "Angels in America," another multi-part legit production whose two plays came six months apart and were eligible for Tonys in two consecutive years, LCT is pushing for all three parts of "Utopia" to be considered together as one single production. That issue will be decided in the spring by the Tony Awards admin committee.
This is smart. The trilogy really is one play, as people are finding out. (Which is why it's a crime to charge three full price tickets to it!) But as much as I have no respect for the Tonys, I always felt it was weird--and unfair--for "Angels" to win Best Play twice.
The extension also will help boost the theater's earned income from "Coast," since the three installments have fewer total playing weeks than three separate productions at the Beaumont normally would. Due to a rigorous sked that reduces the frequency of performances for one part to make time for rehearsals for another, many weeks in the first half of the run have fewer than the standard eight perfs.

"We were short on earned income, but we had accepted the consequence of it," says Gersten. He also said that mounting the three-parter cost roughly the same as three separate plays -- usually in the area of $2 million-$2.5 million.

But even Bishop and Gersten didn't expect "Coast" to prove quite so popular.

They originally planned a top-heavy sked, with 55 perfs of "Voyage"; 34 of "Shipwreck," and 27 of "Salvage."

"We didn't assume everyone would want to see all three," Bishop admits, adding that they believed many theatergoers would come for the first part to get a taste, but would not necessarily want to commit to two further plays.

They also assumed no one would buy the marathons, which have a hefty top ticket price of $300.

"I was totally deluded," Bishop says.

The marathons were the first to go. Most buyers purchased more than one show, and many bought all three, which meant that "Salvage," with the fewest perfs, sold out first. (Tickets remain available, on a very limited basis, to the original runs of the first two parts.)

Now here's something interesting...
"What we have found is, the play is accessible," Bishop says -- despite the show's potentially intimidating intellectual pedigree, which was further pumped up by a recent article in the New York Times recommending 11 history books to read in preparation for viewing "Coast."

Stoppard sent a letter to the Times in response, encouraging auds to come as they are. "What kind of madman would write a play that requires the audience to read a dozen books in advance?" he wrote.
So what we have here is a lot of really rich people willing to spend $300 (x2 or 3, for the family) to look smart? Are middle class intellectuals deciding to spend their christmas money and treat themselves? Or are all the rich, educated, sophisticated professionals who notoriously never go to theatre finally showing up!

I suspect actually an influx of smart theatregoers from out of town who have made it a kind of intellectual tourism trip.
With auds flocking to the imminent marathons, LCT is still working out the logistics of those day-long events.

"How do you make feeding arrangements for a thousand people?" Gersten asks of the auds who will be spending a total of 12 hours at Lincoln Center.

For now, LCT is planning to beef up its concessions and to provide lists of nearby restaurants.

"Will audiences bring their own lunch and eat in the lobby?" Bishop wonders. "We don't know."
That's right. Unlike London's Royal National, Lincoln Center was not built to be a true theatre "center". The cafe bars alone at RNT (and there are several) are worth the visit!

That is one of the benefits of a national theatre, I suppose.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Snob Hit lives!

(See William Goldman, The Season (1968), chapter 7.)