The Playgoer: Downtown-Uptown Update

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Downtown-Uptown Update

In case you're wondering how Kiki & Herb is actually doing on Broadway, the answer is: about 50% capacity. According to Playbill's most recent B'way grosses, the show enjoyed a good spike of 6% in business after only 46% last week, which still only takes it to 52%. Keep in mind that it's at the Helen Hayes Theatre, which is the absolute smallest Broadway house at 597 seats. (The minimum seats to qualify as "Broadway" is 500.)

So, to do the math, 50% of 600 seats is...300 people a night. That's SRO downtown, let alone the club venues Kiki & Herb started in. But on Broadway that cannot sustain a show. Even a no-set, no-director, one-piano, two-hander. Luckily, with a limited run like this they don't have to worry about sustaining. But the lesson of this--coupled with the fizzing of Well in the spring--will clearly be, there's not enough audience "uptown" for downtown material. Or at least when the advertised ticket price is $87.50, as it is for K & H. (Although, as I like to keep repeating, even the $25 balcony at Well was more than 2/3rds empty when I went.)

Is this lesson a shame? Depends on where you stand. Personally, I hope it makes even clearer how wide the aesthetic divide now is between commercial and downtown theatre, and how difficult the once dreamed of "crossover" has become. And "Kiki & Herb" is hardly the Wooster Group! It's a riff on a cabaret act, meant to be enormously entertaining.

(Defining "downtown" in an even broader sence--the Atlantic's production of McDonagh's "Lieutenant of Inishmore," which in a healthy theatre culture would be typical of commercial fare, is shutting down its Broadway transfer this Sunday after also struggling around 50%-60% for four months. This week it was at 48%, albeit in a much larger theatre.)

Kiki & Herb has been open for over two weeks now and was blessed with a rave from Ben Brantley the next day. It is August, when the audience is even a greater percentage of tourists than usual. But even so, the show got all the hype and good buzz it could hope for.

And as for the argument that Broadway ticket buyers just don't want to see a man in a dress, how do you explain Dame Edna? Oh right, (s)he's British. And straight.

(correction: while the character Dame Edna is British, Mr. Barry Humphries is an Aussie.)


Anonymous said...

To a certain way of thinking, the idea of Kiki & Herb on Broadway is nearly too strange to understand. As a take-off on a cabaret act, it seems to me the proper place for it is... a cabaret. (Although as a prank it's fun to imagine the show being sprung on an unsuspecting audience on a cruise ship.) Why is it that when an act or a show does well in a small venue, someone inevitably thinks of trying it on Broadway?

The idea of context (which in another sense was made almost a dirty word by the Rachel Corrie affair) seems to be missing in cases like this. Architects understand the principle and are, I think, even taught it in school; there's no such thing as a good building considered apart from the place it occupies. (This is not to claim that architects can't be bought out by developers.) In popular music, there are bar bands that don't try for, and wouldn't succeed in, big venues. But in the theater, the hunger for bigger audiences and the desire to hit what we think of as "the big time" leads producers, as well as creative acts themselves, to forget the concepts of context and appropriate scale, if they ever knew them.

June said...

I wonder what was expected of Kiki & Herb (and what the two performers expected). There's that old question--which I know is complicated to answer--of whether it's better to have an empty house than a show that's doing so-so BO. The Helen Hayes had a gap between the closing of Bridge & Tunnel and the opening of Jay Johnson: The Two and Only (a ventriloquist show--that's going to do boffo business), so why not put something in? Once it was announced the Broadway message boards were full of "THAT's not a Broadway show" outrage, but it's selling 300 tickets per night ...

Having seen Kiki & Herb at a very crowded house (including St. Rita Moreno) and had an absolute blast, I plan to see it again before it closes.

Oh, and Dame Edna's Strine, mate. Fresh outta Moonee Ponds.

June said...

Now I feel like a complete pedant, but Dame Edna isn't British--Moonee Ponds is supposed to be a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. (Antipodeans can get peerages--just look at that little Kiwi, Kiri Te Kanawa, as the housewife-superstar might put it).