The Playgoer: More Ragtime Fallout

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

More Ragtime Fallout

The recent acclaimed Ragtime revival is just one of many recent examples of a Broadway show that was pretty well liked and enthusiastically reviewed yet could not eek out a review of more than two months--and even that at a heavy financial loss at that. It's, sadly, not exceptional anymore--after such well-received plays as Journey's End, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Well. But for a popular musical I supposed this is news--as is the closing of the Finian's Rainbow revival, despite a last minute effort to save it by, of all people, the jailbound Garth Drabinsky.

(I didn't see Ragtime, but did see Finian's at Encores, which I enjoyed very much and found the 1947 musical totally viable.)

So without making any crusade about it, I do think there's yet more to learn about current Broadway's problems from the Ragtime case--the common factor between all these shows being, No Star.

But the Ragtime also displays a truly clueless set of assumptions about what it takes these days to transfer a nonprofit hit to the commercial venue of the "Main Stem." Michael Riedel last week laid the blame squarely at the feet of Michael Kaiser, the head of the Kennedy Center, which premiered the Ragtime revival and then fought to get it to Broadway:

Sources say a driving force behind this $8.5 million fool's errand was Michael Kaiser, the head of the Kennedy Center.

"He really wanted a Kennedy Center show on Broadway, and was very particular about it being billed as a Kennedy Center show, even though they really didn't put up all that much money," a production source says.

Kaiser unsuccessfully tried to raise $250,000 last week to keep the show afloat, sources say.

There were some old hands on board, including veteran producer Emanuel Azenberg -- "the only voice of reason in the room," says a source. But a lot of the producers were novices who fell for the usual nonsense about how "audiences are loving our show, we're getting standing ovations every night, we just need time for word of mouth to kick in."


Esther said...

You make a lot of interesting points. I also enjoyed Finian's Rainbow and I was thinking what a great family show it would be. A love story for the adults, magic to hold the kids' attention. But that gets into what you said about branding. When people think about a show for the kids, they think about Disney or (before it closed) Shrek.

RLewis said...

Isn't this why so many shows close in January? Broadway can only sustain so many shows at one time, and before the holidays is when it's at top capacity. Now, it's time to thin the herd of shows.

It seems to me that the big missing point here is that almost 70% of a Bway show's potential audience is tourists from somewhere else. Now, how do they get here? They don't say, "wow, I want to see Finian's. Let's go to NYC." No, they say, "Let's go to NYC. What should we do while we're there?"

Depending on what's hot, got buzz, and not sold out, the tickets filter down from there. If Phantom, Lion, and Mama all of a sudden dissappeared, Vibrator would sell out with no additional marketing necessary.

I worry that picking at the small points here loses the much bigger point of who's going to make up 70% of the audience - folks making choices with few clues beyond buzz and price points. Broadway is just something to do while they are visiting the City that they can tell their friends, and what show they see is an afterthought to them.