On the Town: Why Does a Helluva Show Struggle to Fill Houses?

News   On the Town: Why Does a Helluva Show Struggle to Fill Houses?
 
On the Town, the classic musical about a trio of sailors exploring New York on 24 hours of leave, received glowing reviews and a slew of awards nominations. But the critically-praised revival is struggling to fill its theatre with audiences, and it's not alone: the previous productions of the musical have faced the same problem. Playbill.com explores the reasons why.

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Anyone who has taken a Musical Theatre History class, or anyone who simply loves vintage musical theatre produced in an era where the form was evolving, stretching and deepening in artistry, knows that On the Town was one of the more influential titles of 1940s, especially in how it advanced movement as an important element of musical theatre storytelling. Choreographer Jerome Robbins, expanding upon his 1944 ballet Fancy Free, elevated dance to a seamless, integral part of the delivery of plot, emotion and character development. Together, with composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricists/book-writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Robbins concocted a musical theatre confection that explored the possibilities of what three sailors would encounter on a 24-hour leave in the Big Apple. The result was On the Town: a beloved, and oft-revisited title of the golden years of the musical that has met certain challenges finding audiences in each of its three Broadway revivals. Why has this piece, a musical that is quintessentially Broadway, a valentine to NYC, been such a problematic property to revive?

Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck and Clyde Alves
Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck and Clyde Alves Photo by Joan Marcus

The challenges do not seem to stem from a lack of good reviews. In fact, the current revival boasts some of the best reviews of the Broadway season. Despite multiple nominations, On the Town received no Tony Awards in 2015, and that always makes a show harder to sell. Many will argue that, because it opened early in the season, Tony voters were excited and distracted by the more recently-opened musicals. The trouble with that logic is, even in the strong box office period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the percentage of seats sold was far below capacity. The 1998 revival helmed by George C. Wolfe and starring Lea DeLaria and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, was less fortunate, receiving mixed reviews from the critics. Box office for that production had to have been hindered by that lack of enthusiasm. Moving back even further to 1971, mixed reviews for the first revival of On the Town seemed to neither help nor hinder box office.

Whether any production of On the Town requires a great deal of space to happen, or producers simply must take the theatre that becomes available, is a question one needs to assess when examining the challenges this show has faced when it has been revived. The current inception, playing at the mammoth 1,874 seat Lyric Theatre, is selling at around 60 percent to 65 percent of capacity. However, when you figure out what that 60 percent adds up to, there is still a whopping 1,124 people (on average) who are seeing this show at each performance. That is a larger audience than the currently selling-out Fun Home can command at its maximum capacity of 740 seats per performance. When we look at it this way, On the Town is holding its own, and if it were playing at the Sondheim Theatre (1,026 seats) or the Beaumont (1,047 seats) and selling the same number of tickets it's selling now, it would be a sold-out hit. The 1998 revival played the enormous Gershwin Theatre (1,926 seats), an even larger venue, and did similar business despite mixed reviews. That production shuttered after a mere 69 performances. The 1971 revival opened in the more moderately-sized Imperial Theatre, which still boasts a generous 1,409 seats. That version of On the Town closed after 73 performances. The size of the venue may be a part of the problem in how we perceive the success or struggles of the On the Town revivals, but it cannot be the only reason why revivals of this musical struggle financially.

A scene from the current revival
A scene from the current revival Photo by Joan Marcus

The size of a cast can certainly factor in the cost of keeping a production running. The original Broadway production of On the Town had 55 members between the leads, supporting cast, chorus and dance ensemble. In the 1940s, that was often the norm as the cost to produce a full-scale Broadway production was relatively easy to manage compared to today's standards. As the revivals of On the Town have kept coming, the size of the cast has been whittled down. The 1971 production, with Bernadette Peters and Donna McKechnie, featured 40 players, while the 1998 revival only 29. The current Broadway revival has one less, at 28, though the production does not feel sparsely populated. Producers and directors have wisely adapted to the times and realized that the On the Town of 1944 cannot happen with 50-plus performers and remain running for too long. Even at a reduced 28 (plus crew), that is still a lot of paychecks to hand out. Fun Home has a much smaller cast, so it can run at a smaller theatre and make money.

One costly challenge of any On the Town: to have an orchestra big enough to hear the full effect of Leonard Bernstein's lush music. Twenty-one major instrumental parts make up the original orchestrations, not to mention a wide variety of specialty instrument arrangements that are part of the percussion orchestrations, including glockenspiel, vibraphone, and slide whistle. The current revival has 27 instrumentalists in the pit, along with a credited conductor, associate conductor, assistant conductor and concert master. When one listens to all of these musicians come together, we instantly recognize what we have been missing in many Broadway musicals these days. Considering what the size of this orchestra must cost, we should be grateful that the producers are willing to shoulder the cost for that incomparable sound.

Are these the costs that hold On the Town revivals back from being profitable?

In 2014, New York Magazine reported that that the average Broadway musician made $1,220 a week for an eight-show week ($63,440 a year) and the minimum weekly salary for a Broadway performer $1,215 a week ($63,180 a year) though many (especially stars) make more than that. That is almost $3.5 million in salaries for a show that is the size of the current revival of On the Town--and that doesn't even begin to address production staff, stage technicians, box office and custodial salaries. Every Broadway show incurs these costs, but the bigger the cast and orchestra, obviously the more money will be doled out each week. Still, Aladdin plays at the similarly-sized New Amsterdam Theatre (1,723 seats), with a bigger cast but slightly smaller orchestra (roughly the same number of salaries to cover), and manages to sell at capacity almost every week. Salaries cannot be the primary factor here.

Megan Fairchild and cast
Megan Fairchild and cast Photo by Joan Marcus

Items that we have failed to address thus far are marketability and shelf-life challenges posed by an On the Town revival. Its dance and music innovations aside, when On the Town appeared in 1944, it was a piece that harkened back to the spirit and style of the 1930s. It hadn't quite had the time to employ the changes that 1943's Oklahoma! would inspire in musicals later in the decade. It was a screwball comedy, along the lines of shows like The Boys from Syracuse, Anything Goes or On Your Toes. It was propelled by coincidence and absurdly farcical situations. The songs were not as tightly integrated with the plot like many of the scores created for musicals in the wake of Oklahoma!'s influence (such as Carousel, Finian's Rainbow and Bloomer Girl). The music for On the Town often served as a reason to stop and sing instead of as a means of character development or plot advancement (choreography was blissfully shouldering this responsibility). This is a recipe for old school musical theatre (albeit superbly crafted), a formula that would fade in popularity over the decades to come. Was On the Town on the verge of being dated when it first opened? Does this explain the struggles all revivals have had in finding an audience to keep it running well into profitability? It's hard to say. Anything Goes has had two, very successful Broadway revivals, despite being cut from a similar, old-fashioned musical comedy cloth to On the Town.

Dated or not, financially feasible or no, On the Town will never fade away. Some nostalgic producer will always return to this piece to celebrate its history, its artistry, and its possibilities with a Broadway revival. It is a musical that not only affectionately captures a time and place, but one that actually manifests a feeling for a bygone era where dancing sailors and singing cab drivers seem perfectly at home in a larger-than-life Big Apple. It transports us back to the NYC that never was, but the one that we like to think could have been. Whether a revival will ever prove to be financially and critically successful has yet to be determined, but the current Broadway production gets it absolutely right on all accounts. Hopefully, today's audiences can find a little room for its nostalgia, melody and movement. Mark Robinson is a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: "The Disney Song Encyclopedia," "The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs" and the two-volume "The World of Musicals."

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