The Playgoer: B'way: Under The Gaydar?

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

B'way: Under The Gaydar?

Variety's Robert Hofler offers the provocative thesis that the unimpressive (and soon to close) Broadway run of "The Little Dog Laughed" might signal a defection of one of the Great White Way's most loyal consituencies: gay men.

Now there's a lot wrong with his argument, some of which he acknowledges. For instance, musicals still have the power to lure this--and indeed all--audiences. So it's not a total bailing. But--asks Hofler--has tv stolen the thunder from gay comedies and dramas?

If the failure of "Little Dog" is any indication, it appears the so-called gay play on Broadway has gone the way of lawyer dramas and frothy sex comedies, and likewise, been usurped by television. This is thanks not only to "Will & Grace" but more important, the constant homophilic output of Bravo, Logo, Showtime and even HBO and IFC with their airing of films like "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Celluloid Closet," respectively.
Yes, yes. We've known for years that movies were going to kill off theatre, and tv was going to kill off film. (So, wait, does that mean tv then saves theatre???) And all that happened, of course. Oh, wait-- it didn't.

Still, there's something valid underneath all this, and it has less to do with gay demographics than just comedy itself as a fading Broadway genre, believe it or not.

I find these citations of Hofler's compelling:

In the final analysis, "Little Dog" might have succumbed to a more pervasive marketing liability than either "gay" and/or "nonmusical."

According to Dietz, her record-producer friend Clive Davis [not the blogger!--ed.]cautioned her about promoting Beane's play as a laugh riot. "If I want to go to a comedy, I'll go to a movie," he opined.

Charles Busch's "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," from the 2000-01 season, is the last flat-out comedy [i.e. on B'way--ed.] to recoup.

"It's difficult for a play that's just a fun evening," says Busch, who returns to the fray this March with his new laffer, "Our Leading Lady," at Manhattan Theater Club. "It's hard for people to spend that kind of money."

This all rings very, very true to me. At $100 a ticket, people want more than some laughs. (Maybe if a major major star makes them laugh--like Billy Crystal, but that wasn't even a play!) "Little Dog's" Problem was not gay or straight. It was that there was no Julia Roberts in it. Or that it wasn't British enough.

What it did have going for it--according to all reports--was a star-making performance by Julie White, the main motivation for many of the ticket sales. But note how the audience at large did not flock to see a "newcomer of the year" when she's a 40-ish non-singing woman who hasn't been on tv.

I'm shocked, though, that Hofler misses one obviously major factor: price. He begins by lamenting:

Does gay no longer pay on Broadway?

With the premature closing of Douglas Carter Beane's gay-themed "The Little Dog Laughed," on Feb. 18 after only 112 perfs, it appears that one of legit's built-in auds, Gotham's gay theater-going crowd, is suddenly missing in action.

Plays are always a risky commercial proposition, but didn't "Bent" (1979), "Torch Song Trilogy" (1982), "M. Butterfly" (1988), "Angels in America" (1993), "Love! Valour! Compassion!" (1995) and the tangentially gay-themed "The History Boys" (2006) all recoup? "Take Me Out" might have lost money in 2003, but it nonetheless ran an impressive 355 perfs.

Well let's start by noting how most of these plays from the "glory days" of gay theatre were more than 10 years ago! What's increased more--homophobia or stratospheric B'way budget and ticket $ increases? (Okay, maybe a little of both.) I need to check my statistics, but I'm pretty sure people gay and straight could still have checked out "Bent" and "Torch Song" for less
than $30 all those years ago. Even the economics of producing and selling "Angels" and "Love Valour" were arguably more hospitable then.

Another factor barely alluded to in analyzing "Little Dog's" "failure" is that the difference between an Off-Broadway hit and a B'way flop can be a simple matter of capacity. According to the most recent stats, the show is currently averaging 43% capacity of a 1,082-seat house. I'll do the math for you: 465.26 patrons a night.

(Let's attribute the fraction to the one child that might have been accidentally taken to this fatally family unfriendly show--another factor, of course.)

At the nonprofit Second Stage Theatre, where the show originated, it played to sold-out houses last year at its Off-Broadway home. Capacity: 296.

Now you do the math.

In short: I'm afraid we've hit the ceiling folks.

And so the sliver of the spectrum that the Broadway market will allow just got a little narrower...


Kyle said...

I don't know anything about the show's marketing or reception in New York, but could it also be that it didn't connect as a crossover hit to straight audiences? The article seems to assume that the show's failure must've been entirely the fault of the gay people who weren't going. What about the straights? I can't imagine all those gay plays he references succeeded on Broadway as much as they did only because of the gay audiences who showed up.

Violet Vixen said...

It's a bad sign that I didn't realize it was a gay play until now.