Off-Broadway Bangs the Drum to Lure Midtown's Stranded Theatregoers

News   Off-Broadway Bangs the Drum to Lure Midtown's Stranded Theatregoers
 
When God closes a door, Maria von Trapp was told in The Sound of Music, somewhere he opens a window. For Off-Broadway theatres and producers, that new window is the current strike by Broadway stagehands, which has left thousands of theatregoers — and theatre-going tourists — stranded in midtown Manhattan.
Hunter Foster stars in Frankenstein.
Hunter Foster stars in Frankenstein. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Since the Nov. 10 start of the strike by Local One (the stagehands union), producers and landlords of Off-Broadway shows have put their heads together to see if this is an opportunity to satisfy disappointed theatregoers and educate audiences about the accessibility, quality and diversity of Off-Broadway — a term used for Equity shows in theatres with seating between 100 and 499 seats.

The more cynical translation is: Off-Broadway wants to sell seats — to make hay while the sun shines. The happy result, once the strike ends, may be a more theatre-savvy tourist audience that may return to non-Broadway shows in the future.

Daryl Roth, the producer of Charles Busch's Off-Broadway comedy Die Mommie Die!, told Playbill.com that she hopes for a speedy end to the strike (she is also a producer of three current Broadway shows), but there is a chance to make "lemonade out of lemons" Off-Broadway.

"I feel really horrible and sad about [the Broadway strike] affecting so many people," Roth said. "I think the good message that could come out of this, if there's anything good to be had, is that there's a huge theatre landscape in New York City, and it includes Off-Broadway and the not-for-profits. When people are making choices, they might think about those."

Die Mommie Die! is one of seven productions playing the five-venue cluster of theatres at New World Stages, on 50th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. The complex is a stone's throw from Wicked, Mamma Mia! and other shuttered Broadway houses. (There are only eight Broadway shows running during the strike.) "There's a distinction that is getting blurred between Broadway and Off-Broadway," Roth said. "There are many things Off-Broadway that have the quality of Broadway, but it may be of a more intimate nature."

A smaller house doesn't mean audiences are getting less impressive scenic elements or B-grade stars, Off-Broadway producers say. For example, Busch, who stars as the title character in Die Mommie Die!, a comedy he penned, is a Tony Award-nominated playwright known for the hit The Tale of the Allergist's Wife.

Producer Douglas C. Evans, whose Frankenstein, A New Musical is playing Off-Broadway's 37 Arts Theatre, said he and his producing partners have been increasing their "flyering" in midtown Manhattan, reminding potential theatregoers that Broadway's Hunter Foster, Steve Blanchard and Christiane Noll are starring in his show. The strategy is working: the Nov. 10 and 11 performances were only about 65 percent sold out by Friday, Nov. 9, but walkup business filled the Saturday and Sunday shows to capacity. If the strike continues, he expects more of the same, and hopes that the business helps prompt word of mouth.

Evans said, "We are doing everything other folks are doing — making sure we are on the radar screen of the hotel concierges…and flyering people who are walking down the street."

He admitted that the Frankenstein flyering is "informational" rather than discount-oriented. The people who know how to get discounts are taking advantage of offers, he said. The top price for Frankenstein is $69, about half of the top non-premium price of a Broadway musical.

When theatregoers are in need of their musical-theatre fix, they will even brave the longish, five-block walk to 37 Arts, at 37th Street near Eleventh Avenue, Evans said. "People are not feeling that the five blocks is a problem," Evans said.

If there's any good thing about the strike, Evans suggested, it's serving to educate audiences about other options — and certainly helping to establish a traffic pattern to 37 Arts, seen by some as too far-flung from the conventional theatre district along Broadway between 41st Street and 54th Street.

"The beauty of [New World Stages] is that we're within the 'Broadway box,'" Roth said, adding that it's easy for theatregoers to walk over from the TKTS discount booth, Times Square and midtown hotels.

Producers, their reps and management of New World Stages, including NWS' executive director Beverley Mac Keen, put their heads together over the weekend of Nov. 10 and came up with a marketing flyer being distributed to hotel concierges and at the TKTS booth at the street level of the Marriott Marquis Theatre.

The idea of the cross-promotional venue flyer had been discussed in recent weeks, but the strike goosed the NWS folk to fast-track the distribution of a single-page black-and-white flyer. If they had more time, the flyer would have been sexier, Mac Keen told Playbill.com, but it'll do the job for now.

The New World flyer features information about New World Stages' current tenants: Celia, My First Time, Naked Boys Singing, Altar Boyz, The Gazillion Bubble Show, Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn and Die Mommie Die!

Sue Frost, lead-producing her first Off-Broadway show, Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn, which was in previews when the strike struck, also used the "lemons out of lemonade" metaphor.

She told Playbill.com, "We did see a bump on Saturday and Sunday — we sold more full-price tickets both days, and I am sure that is a direct result of the strike. We meet tomorrow [Nov. 13] to come up with a concentrated, Make Me a Song-specific plan of attack…that will help us get the word out. Right now we are still battling name recognition: Everybody's heard of Altar Boyz and I Love You, You're Perfect…, [but] not so much about Make Me a Song — yet!"

For more information about Off-Broadway, visit www.OffBroadway.com.

Sandy Binion, Darren R. Cohen, D.B. Bonds, Sally Wilfert, Adam Heller in <i>Make Me a Song</i>.
Sandy Binion, Darren R. Cohen, D.B. Bonds, Sally Wilfert, Adam Heller in Make Me a Song. Photo by Carol Rosegg
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