The Playgoer: "Brighton Beach" Debriefing

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Sunday, November 08, 2009

"Brighton Beach" Debriefing

One week later, here's a roundup of what we've learned about the surprise shuttering of "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and its aborted rep companion "Broadway Bound."

(Has anyone used the headline "Broadway Unbound" yet? Maybe that has the wrong connotations.)

First, we must remember that just because a show doesn't sell a lot of tickets doesn't necessarily mean people don't like it. Those who don't buy a ticket don't know if they like the show or not, right?

Unless the problem was word of mouth. Buzz about "Brighton Beach" was certainly very good among theatre folk. In addition to the generally enthusiastic critic reviews, Broadway fans (as represented on All That Chat, at least) seemed very pleased, as well. But--what about others, the "laymen" or "civilians." Well here's an interesting bit of reporting from LA Times' James Taylor:

Two women of a certain age at intermission.

First Woman: “The other thing he directed [Our Town???-ed.] was quite good, this is just boring.”

Second Woman: “I fell asleep.”

First Woman: “Ditto,” as she tosses her Playbill into the trash.

The two walk out into the rainy night.

This scene, which took place Saturday Night at the Nederlander Theatre, sums up the conventional wisdom regarding why Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” closed the next day — after only nine performances. The audience wasn’t building. Even the older crowd was staying away — and those that did come were turned off by director David Cromer’s staging and not recommending the show to their friends.

Taylor soon juxtaposes this with another pair of women "of a certain age" having completely the opposite reaction and staying to enjoy Act II. But this first exchange brings up an important empirical fact about the production that has gone undermentioned: for a Neil Simon play, it was pretty dark and brooding. And slow. At least at first. Even I--who ended up quite satisfied--took a while to warm to an uncertainty in the beginning. Something about director David Cromer's serious dramatic approach made early jokes not "land" as you'd expect in a Simon play. And speaking of dark, you know that old rule of thumb about comedy=bright sunny lighting? Not here. (And it was beautiful. Kudos to designer Brian MacDevitt.)

There's been much handwringing--kvetching, if you will--this week over what happened to "the Neil Simon audience"? i.e. middle class Jews from NYC and its environs. Did they all die? Has theatre become too expensive for them?

What if they came...and didn't like what they saw? Maybe those who come to Neil Simon only for laughs were disappointed. Face it, laughs have historically been the reason Simon's plays were hits. Aside from the two older ladies Taylor recounts, what were Simon-ites to make of Ben Brantley's big New York Times review telling them, "When these young men [the play's two brothers] exchange Mr. Simon’s words, the jokes come second. They aren’t reciting polished zingers from a Broadway master." Not their father's Neil Simon, to coin a phrase. And maybe for these folks, that wasn't a good thing.

Here's also where the production's missing "star" factor becomes relevant. Celebrity casting not only attracts customers based on the actor's fame alone; it also sends a message about what kind of play this is going to be. Casting Jude Law as Hamlet, for instance, tells the prospective audience this is going to be a serious and British experience. Casting Jerry Springer in Chicago says: this isn't even a play!

If, say, Fran Drescher and Jason Biggs were cast as Kate and Eugene Jerome, "Brighton Beach" would clearly have been more commercially successful. Not just because they are more "famous" (I guess) than Cromer's cast. People would have expected (and those actors would have delivered) a more pleasing sitcom-style version of the play and, ironically, it probably would have been greeted better on Broadway than Cromer's attempt at artistry. Critics might have called that version the proof that Neil Simon is past his date and needs to be retired, but it would have run. (Run longer than a week, at least.) So by casting real actors and making the play dramatically viable, Cromer may have made it less successful commercially--thus leading to articles like this where NYT's theatre reporter Patrick Healy says Neil Simon is past his date and should be retired because he can't compete with Judd Apatow. And, perhaps by extension, Jason Biggs.

(And even with Charlie Sheen, Patrick? "Popular comedies like the traditionally plotted sitcom 'Two and a Half Men' and the character-driven 'Desperate Housewives' also share sharply written dialogue and recognizable modern characters like those found in 'God of Carnage.'" I know some people didn't think "God of Carnage" was all that, but...really?)

By deferring to the box office on issues of taste and aesthetics, that article--typical of so much theatre journalism--looks to the box office as final arbiter, and never explores the phenomenon of the divide that often exists between artistic quality and ticket sales. Missing was the context of the fine "Journey's End" that opened on Broadway to rave reviews two years ago only to eek out a four-month run playing to crowds as small as 25% capacity. (And remember that was a pretty dark play, too--a tragic WWI story.) The problem is bigger than Neil Simon.

So that's one theory: the only chance a revival of "Brighton Beach Memoirs" would have in this climate is as a star-driven yuck-fest starring the Nanny and the American Pie Guy. Not as a sensitive and intimate Depression-era dramedy for an audience going through...a Depression. If it's got no stars, no singing, no dancing, not enough laughs, and costs $100, it's a hard, hard sell today.

But here's another interesting fact: most tickets did not cost $100, or even $75. As Healy reported in the Times:
Most tickets to “Brighton Beach Memoirs” were sold at discounts like the TKTS booths. (Producers release bulks of tickets at a discount when they fail to sell at full price.) The average ticket price for “Brighton Beach” was only $21.32 for the most recent week with available data. (The average ticket price for “Hamlet” was $104.01 for the comparable week.)
Hey, $21 is a great deal for the audience. But for Broadway producers, it's death. You might as well be giving away your product for free.

We've heard a lot about the 60% capacity problem. But that in itself wasn't life-threatening. Lots of shows hover in the 60s through previews and even after as word of mouth builds. (And remember, 60% of a 1200-seat house is still 720 people a night--just enough to sell out the smaller Helen Hayes Theatre, let alone any Off Broadway house. So don't go saying "no one came to see "Brighton Beach.")

The real key number may be that "21." Another one is "15":
The show cost $3 million to produce but never grossed more than $125,000 a week in ticket sales during preview performances — or 15 percent of the maximum possible — an amount that did not even cover running costs.
That's right, 60% of the seats was bringing in only 15% of the projected revenue. Pretty alarming math, huh. That's what the producers did not foresee and what sent them into panic mode.

So does this mean a fair amount of folks did want to see "Brighton Beach" but only at an affordable price? (And is that really unreasonable?) Or did someone mess up by dumping too many tickets at TKTS?

Another theory: not enough people even knew that "Brighton Beach" even existed. I've noticed some carping coming from the show's people this week about underexposure. This includes, believe it or not, the "curse" of the Nederlander Theatre. Apparently, aside from Rent it rarely houses a hit and some have attributed that to its off the beaten path location--one block south of 42nd Street and east of Broadway. Turns out one of the most successful forms of publicity for Broadway shows is the sheer foot-traffic of the theatre district: a captive audience of thousands, many on their way to or from a Broadway show (so they're more likely to like the theatre already) noticing your signs and marquees. Is it possible some theatre-loving folks who don't pore over the NY Times every day didn't even know it was playing yet?

Aha, but was another culprit the NY Times itself! Michael Riedel devoted his column Wednesday to a bunch of anonymous sources claiming an unusual deal the "Brighton Beach" team struck with the Grey Lady.

The Times offered the producers of "Brighton Beach" several weeks worth of splashy ads in the paper and on its Web site at steep discounts, production sources say. In exchange for what one source calls the "fire sale" price, the Times demanded exclusivity. "Brighton Beach" couldn't advertise anywhere else until after opening night. No radio spots, no e-mail blasts, no direct-mail campaign -- none of the things most shows do to generate advance sales.

First of all, bad call by NYT, eh? "Exclusive"-worthy? They seem to have really overestimated what an "event" The Neil Simon Plays would be. Also, while most people assume the Times is all that matters for NY theatre coverage, those other kinds of campaigns might have served this show particularly well, since Neil Simon is basically a popular not elite brand. Quoth Riedel:

Simon's audience is older and accustomed to getting ticket offers through the mail. "They like fliers, they like pictures, they like a description of the show, they like coupons," one person says. "You buy the mailing lists of Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club and Lincoln Center subscribers, and you send the stuff. That's how you reach the people who want to see a Neil Simon play."
Good advice. Riedel also questions the status of the once-mighty Times ad in the New Media age. I myself was wondering in the week after "Brighton Beach" opened, can they afford all those full page Times ads? To be fair, those ads--emblazoned with their rave reviews--must have seemed like a necessary attention-getting investment. But even with whatever bargain rate they got, given that the standard full page Times ad has been reported as hovering around $140,000 you can imagine how that strategy can dig you even deeper into a financial hole.

Ok, so we've got the "bad marketing" theory; the "people just didn't like it" theory; the "too dark for Broadway" theory; and the "people would have liked it if they didn't have to pay $100" theory. What else?

Let's get back to that $100 issue. I just heard the new Jujamcyn head Jordan Roth on Theatre Talk defend Broadway prices by maintaining there are still plenty of "entry points" as far as price is concerned--by which he meant not only TKTS, but internet coupons (e.g. Playbill.com and Theatermania), mass mailings, group sales, etc. In other words: it's like airlines and hotels. Almost no one pays the advertised full price.

Well try telling that to the producers of "Brighton Beach Memoirs", where the lower "entry points" were the only doors being opened. (It's like some old Business School problem of what you do when everyone brings in the limited coupon.) Maybe this philosophy should be reexamined.

The problem is: theatre (and, I suppose, by extension, opera and dance) remains the only performing art today that does not routinely offer any low-cost alternative platform. Don't want to pay $12 now to see a movie? Rent it! Can't afford scalped Springstein tix? Get the CD or download from ITunes! In theatre your choice is either pay $100 to see Jude Law play Hamlet or $20 to see some recent drama school grads in a blackbox. (Not saying the latter can't be as good as the former, but it's just not the same "product.")

Yes, we love theatre because it's live, ephemeral, and in the moment. But, alas, we pay for that privilege.

Unfortunately if you can't pay--you miss it. Movie fans who rent sacrifice the big screen, but they still get the movie as shot. Music fans miss out on the rush of the concert experience, but at least they're still hearing Bruce. Theatre fans...well there's always the archives at the Lincoln Center Library where you can see what the show looked like from the perspective of a video camera in the back of the house.

You get my point. Not that there's an easy solution, given the expenses of producing, at least in this town. We can't get around the fact ticket price poses a barrier to the public enjoyment of the artform. I really can't say I blame folks for thinking twice before shelling out a lot of dough on a Neil Simon revival these days. For $20 or $30 they clearly were willing to take a chance. But if you expect people to pay more--on a routine basis, that is--then you're limiting the audience only to the affluent and one-time "splurgers."

Speaking of splurgers, we haven't mentioned tourists. Where were the tourists? Surely Neil Simon is still popular out in the heartland, where he must still be done in schools and community theatres, no? Problem right now is most Broadway tourists at the moment are going to splurge either on Hugh Jackman, Jude Law, or, as ever, Wicked. But even so, maybe "Brighton Beach" in particular was not a tourist draw. "Barefoot in the Park" & "Odd Couple," maybe--as evidenced by underperforming but still longer-running recent revivals of those titles that didn't get good reviews either. Watching "Brighton Beach" again I was reminded of just how much in it may even turn off upstanding Red-State American citizens. There's lots of talk, for instance, about masturbation, remember. In explicit language. So what normally should be a "family play for the whole family" might just turn out an awkward experience for some.

Shall we even suggest the Jewish angle? Simon is considered an emblematic Jewish comedy writer, but none of his early hits explicitly foregrounded his or the characters' ethnicity. One of the things that made "Brighton Beach" new at the time was not just its seriousness but its author's very culturally specific depiction of a Brooklyn Jewish family. (One of its best features is also the unsanitized ethnic rivalry and even hatred that often spews forth from Kate Jerome's mouth.) While the appeal of the play is--or at least can be--universal, there's no getting around the fact this is a Jewish play.

And also a New York play. Once upon a time I imagine people loved the idea of coming to New York to see a really "New York play." No longer. Just as tourists can't wait to eat at the Olive Garden here and compare it to the one back home, they want to see on Broadway similar entertainment they always enjoy.

This is where a comparison/contrast to "August: Osage County" is instructive. I actually found myself thinking of "August" a lot during "Brighton Beach": both essentially old fashioned plays, both about bickering families struggling through tough times, both alternately comic and tragic. Yet one was a massive hit (at least by nonmusical standards) and one an instant flop. And both equally well acted and produced, for my money.

Fact is, "August" portrays an America that most of the tourist audience can identify as similar to their own. "Brighton Beach"--being a period piece, to boot--might seem increasingly foreign and distant. Especially in a production that highlights the particulars of 1930s Brooklyn life, especially accents. (I concur with those who found the accent work a tad bit forced at times by some actors. But I hardly second John Simon--himself not frequently seen at Temple--for calling the production not Jewish enough!)

I'm not saying all tourists are anti-Semites. Please. But is it possible that without the beloved shtick of a Fran Drescher or Joan Rivers (who actually was a late replacement in the original run of the play!), "Brighton Beach" seemed a little "ethnic" to be their top ticket buying choice this season?

I'm out of theories. We still have only questions, no answers. At least until someone gets a look at the accounting books. I'm still convinced something went terribly, terribly wrong in the financial planning of this show for the producers to be caught so off guard. The fact they were planning not just one play but two, in rep, was a key factor. "Brighton Beach" alone they may have toughed out for a while. But not while also rehearsing and rolling out a whole other opening for "Broadway Bound." In retrospect the whole idea of "The Neil Simon Plays" seems awfully misguided and even presumptuous, however valuable it might have been artistically. First, it was premised on the belief that Simon was already an American Classic like O'Neill--not the washed-up joke writer the Times postmortem depicted him as. Selling a British-accented Tom Stoppard trilogy about 19th Century Russia kinda makes sense in the current snob-appeal market; a two-play commitment about some schmucks cracking jokes in Brooklyn, not so much. I can see how Simon's longtime producer Manny Azenberg thought it was time to pay his friend such a tribute--but the rest of Broadway was not there yet.

And don't forget the crucial difference between commercial and nonprofit theatre. And just how hard it is to open anything on Broadway "cold" today, especially a nonmusical. The benefit of succeeding somewhere else first--preferably on nearby Off Broadway or else in London--is not just generating buzz, but actual ticket sales--an "advance." What killed "Brighton Beach" ultimately was there were practically no advance sales. On Broadway an advance is not only, literally, money in the bank, it's the promise of a future. Even "August: Osage County" could build an advance off of Charles Isherwood's NYT review of the Chicago Steppenwolf premiere. But when you open cold on Broadway, the audience tends to stay away longer until someone they trust can vouch for it being any good.

The other problem of opening cold on Broadway is the capitalization, raising all the money at once to mount a huge (in this case $3 million) production from scratch. Much easier to import an existing product from elsewhere, or even to invest "enhancement" money in some nonprofit regional theatre's production, where they build the set and costumes and you just buy an "option."

By going it alone (along with the requisite team of a dozen "partners", that is) Manny Azenberg proved himself the last man on Broadway who still believes in the old system.

To prove my point, I defy anyone to cite a successful dramatic play on Broadway in the last five years that was either a) not from London, b) did not star a major movie star, and/or c) was not premiered or directly produced by a nonprofit company. Notice that back in 2006 Odets's "Awake and Sing" (in many ways the template for "Brighton Beach") did ok--only ok. But only because it was backed by the nonprofit Lincoln Center Theatre.

Finally I leave you with this scary thought. What has shocked me about the "Brighton Beach" case more than all the other "when bad business happens to good plays" stories of late was just how suddenly it folded. In the past, we would see a show with such good reviews hang in there at least a month to build word of mouth. No, this time they pulled the plug immediately. Maybe investors were not as patient in the current economic climate--more pessimistic and more eager to cut their losses and put what money they have left in safer bets.

The decision to pull the plug was explicitly linked to a failure to increase sales significantly in the few days after opening. In other words, in order to survive it needed a blockbuster "opening weekend," so to speak. And just as American cinema as been reportedly damaged by the "opening weekend" mentality--wherein the studio evaluates the movie's success solely based the first few days' box office and then promptly pulls it from theaters if it disappoints--you gotta worry now about the same thing happening in the commercial theatre. Nonprofits, at least, commit to a three or four week run. But if business practices get this ruthless on Broadway, don't expect to see any non star-driven drama there for the foreseeable future.

Which, of course, leads me to ask: Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Memo to serious drama: Abandon Broadway before it abandons you.

3 comments:

Daniel said...

Just had to say I thought this post is really incredible... very detailed and thought out on all parts. The kind of conversation I have been trying to have here in the city since it closed. Thanks so much for it!

Anonymous said...

Here's what's making me crazy:

No one, Not ONE person from the press has sought out any of the actors who were right in the cross hairs of this financial debacle. Or reprinted Manny Azenberg's self-serving letter to the cast where he promised to call them the next week and HASN'T YET (nor did he even show up during the last four performances, but made a sheepish appearance at our final toast speaking only two sentences to the affect "someday I'll tell you all what happened..")

Here's what else is making me crazy: How they, the producers, stood up in front of the cast and crew the day after the show opened and said, almost verbatim, we're really proud of the show, we got terrific reviews (we did) and we are going to let the audiences and word of mouth build. BUILD??
What they didn't say, was that "building" was only going to be for two days. TWO DAYS. They made a big damn deal of the lousy full page ad they were putting into the newspaper (after one of the worst ad campaigns in recent memory: "If you think your familly is funny,," ARE YOU KIDDING ME?) they PASSED IT AROUND, this TOO LATE AD, to the cast and crew, and because the phone didn't magically ring on Thursday, because people who would be making their holiday plans to visit NY, (most of whom would buy tickets on the internet where THEY DIDN'T ADVERTISE) (Look at shows like LOVE CHILD, or GOD OF CARNAGE...you can't go on Playbill or Broadway.com without being bombarded with internet ads...WE HAD NONE) because people didn't go OH MY GOD THERE'S AN AD, GET ME THE PHONE, they closed it forty-eight hours later. THEY HAD NO MONEY IN PLACE TO MAKE A RUN FOR IT. And they stood in front of all of us and LIED.

David Cromer and Manny Azenberg made the stupid stupid mistake of not opening the two plays at the exact same time. Jessica Hecht and Laurie Metcalf would have dazzled in the deepening of their relationship and Josh Grisetti was absolutely brilliant as the older Eugene. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN AN EVENT. BUt Manny Azenberg arrogantly said over and over "I put the ad in the paper and when they see Neil's name, Jews will come running." And so, obviously, he didn't budget to make a run for it.

I'm furious at the wasted energy and time and talent and all the lies. How Dare Emanuel Azenberg not stand up and say "I FUCKED UP THE FINANCING and I'm SoRRY". Instead he and Mr. Cromer blame everything and everyone else.

The Playgoer said...

Thank you, Anon, for what appears to be a VERY inside account!