PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, June 12-18: The Money Makers

By Robert Simonson
18 Jun 2004

Say what you may about his acting, Sean Combs draws a crowd. The driving force behind the hit Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun proved his worth this week, when producers announced the show had returned its $2.4 million investment on May 30, only two months after the show's first preview.



The show has been regularly selling out since it opened, despite mixed reviews, and no one's been in any confusion as to why the Royale Theatre is attracting the most heterogeneous audiences in town. The news was welcome on Broadway, where only two other shows from the past season —Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Avenue Q—have returned their investments.

The last time a play paid for itself so quickly was the recent Broadway revival of Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which became profitable in a mere six and a half weeks. Again, there was no mistake as to why that show turned the corner: Edie Falco, immensely popular because of her role in "The Sopranos," headlined the piece.

Falco is undoubtably the reason Broadway will see a revival of Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother this fall. It was announced this week that Falco will co-star with Brenda Blethyn in the hard-hitting mother-daughter drama and, good reviews or bad, it's a good bet that the producers of that venture will be happy folks a couple months after opening.

Rainmaking stars like Combs and Falco are decidedly rare in today's theatre. (The days of authors and composers being catnip for ticketbuyers are largely gone; even Neil Simon's name isn't a guarantee anymore.) Most come from Hollywood, and Broadway producers waste a lot of time and money trying to guess who they are—some movie names hit big and other miss by a mile. Few would have predicted the enormous appeal of Hugh Jackman, a film personality of middling standing who nonetheless has made his presence the reason to see the otherwise lackluster The Boy From Oz. Reports now have producers negotiating with Jackman to stay beyond his scheduled Sept. 12 departure date, an admittance that the man is virtually irreplaceable.

Ashley Judd may be one of the golden few, based on the balanced books at Cat, but it's unlikely she'll be rushing back to the theatre after the rough ride she had in that show (injured pride, injured foot). Antonio Banderas seemed to show some box office might in Nine. And Nicole Kidman is a ringer for sure (she probably launched the current wave of star casting on Broadway), but she hasn't returned to the New York theatre since hitting it big in The Blue Room, except to occasionally pass out Tonys on television.

Homegrown box office names are much harder to come by. Gone are the days when a Merman or Martin on the marquee would sell a show. Nathan Lane is about the only actor who will guarantee a line at the ticket window. His presence is currently fueling excitement about the revamping of the Stephen Sondheim oddity, The Frogs, due to begin at Lincoln Center Theater next week. Harvey Fierstein is probably another of those who are beloved because of their stage work.

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Not a money maker is Simon Russell Beale—at least not on this side of the ocean. Despite good reviews, the first Broadway revival of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, which originated at London's Royal National Theatre and starred Beale and Essie Davis, announced it would close July 11, moving up its originally scheduled close date of Aug. 22.

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Off-Broadway, Lynn Nottage, a playwright who quietly toiled away during the last decade, scoring a modest hit there, a brief New York production there, has struck gold for the second time this year. Her satiric, seriocomic new play, Fabulation, about the fall of a hot New York City publicity exec, extended at Playwrights Horizons to July 11. It comes on the heels of the award-winning run of Nottage's Intimate Apparel. Don't be surprised it her next play finds its way to a bigger stage.

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Finally, Martha Clarke is a busy little director-choreographer. She will have two pieces staged in 2003-04. Nothing Is Forever will be presented by Lincoln Center Theatre this fall, while Pirandello will get a production at New York Theatre Workshop. Clarke—who likes foreign settings, characters drawn from art history and texts by Charles L. Mee—has set the former in Toulouse-Lautrec's Belle Epoque Paris, and based the latter on stories by Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello.