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Summer promises to be hot on Broadway with three big openings

3 openings this summer on Broadway promise to heat up a normally dry theatrical time period

Each year, the hoopla over the Tony Awards gives way to Broadway's most barren season — the dog days of summer, a period that typically sees the fewest number of new shows open of any time of the year.

Just as Hollywood looks down its nose on January and February, Broadway producers tend to avoid mid-May through Labor Day, a season devoid of awards prestige and the attendant media spotlight.

But this year, three high-profile shows have elected to brave New York's heat and humidity and open at a time not normally associated with Broadway hits.

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Will "An Act of God" and "Amazing Grace" see divine intervention at the box office? Will "Hamilton" trump the Hamptons?

Producers said their decisions to open during the summer were driven largely by practical considerations such as casting and theater availability, adding that summer would provide certain advantages over other seasons, such as a large number of tourists eager to buy theater tickets.

The producers and other industry leaders also discussed the annual April crunch of Broadway openings — this past April alone saw the debut of 14 shows, about four a week — and the widespread belief in the industry that the deluge had a negative effect on some productions.

"It's undeniable that a lot of shows open in that window for all the obvious reasons, like Tony consideration," said Jeffrey Finn, a lead producer of "An Act of God," a new comedy starring Jim Parsons of CBS' "The Big Bang Theory."

"An Act of God" opened after Memorial Day because the creative team was set on Parsons for the lead role and the actor was available only in summer during hiatus from his sitcom, Finn said.

"The summer can be a healthy time for a new show," Finn added. "Especially when you have a star like Jim. There are so many tourists looking for comedy."

In the play, by former "Daily Show" writer David Javerbaum, the Almighty comes to Earth by taking over Parsons' body and delivers comically ornery commentary on contemporary life. The limited run at Studio 54 ends Aug. 2 to accommodate Parsons' return to shooting.

"Amazing Grace," set to bow on July 16, is a historical epic that follows the story of Englishman John Newton, who would write the words to the famous hymn.

"We had hoped for a slot for March or April, but now I'm glad it didn't happen" said lead producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland. During those months, "it was almost impossible to give each show its breath."

The summer tourist influx "will be great for our show. [New York] is just chock full of people," she said.

The blockbuster mentality that has taken over Broadway means that there's less turnover in theaters, she added. "Now, shows are destinations. The big hits never close."

In the last 15 years, only two Broadway shows with summer openings have gone on to become long-running hits — "Avenue Q" and "Hairspray." The latter opened in August 2002 and ran for more than six years.

Producers elected to open "Hairspray" in the summer mainly to accommodate the schedule of its director, Jack O'Brien. "I was concerned, obviously. But as it turned out, [opening in the summer] was a great boon," producer Margo Lion said.

"We had clear sailing — there was nothing else to talk about in the press. It worked out to be ideal for us."

She added that the April rush means that many shows "don't have a chance to take root, and that can be detrimental."

In recent seasons, the summer has produced more flops than hits. Last year, the only Broadway show to bow in the summer was the Tupac Shakur-inspired musical "Holler If Ya Hear Me," which had trouble finding an audience and closed after a brief run.

"Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" opened in June 2011 after a notoriously troubled preview period. It ran for more than two years but hadn't turned a profit by the time it closed in early 2014.

Last year, June through August saw Broadway attendance of about 3.5 million people and ticket sales of $374.5 million, or about 27% of the record $1.37 billion in sales for the year, according to data provided by the Broadway League, a nonprofit industry group.

June tends to be one of the strongest months of the year, helped by the excitement around the Tonys. Sales tend to dip in July and rebound in August before dropping off after Labor Day.

"The best month of the year for us is probably August," said Michael Naumann, managing director of the Theatre Development Fund, which manages the TKTS ticket booths in New York. The booths are a popular destination among tourists and locals for discounted, same-day tickets.

He said sales drop off by about a third after Labor Day.

"Tourists tend to go to more established shows with brands that they know and people they know," said Charlotte St. Martin, who heads the Broadway League. Last season, tourists accounted for about 70% of Broadway audiences.

She said the April stampede of Broadway openings was louder than usual this past season "We really are trying to solve the crunch," she said.

"Hamilton" is by far the most anticipated title of the new season. When it opened to raves this year at the Public Theater in New York, many industry observers assumed it would transfer to Broadway in time for this year's Tonys.

But instead, producers will open the show in August. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote and stars in the historical musical, is reportedly revising portions of the show before its Broadway bow.

The production uses a multicultural cast to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers. The show attracted numerous VIPs during its run at the Public, including the Clintons and Michelle Obama.

Producers for "Hamilton" declined to comment. A spokesman for the show said that its Broadway investment stands at about $12 million and that advance sales are "robust."

The upbeat nature of "Hamilton" could prove to be a good fit for the height of August, a season where audiences tend to look for lighthearted entertainment and an escape from New York City's oppressive heat.

Another potential crowd pleaser this summer is the Broadway return of Penn & Teller, whose latest show is opening in July for a limited engagement.

The scheduling was partly because of the availability of the performers, but "we thought the height of the Broadway tourist season is an ideal time to present something like this," said Tom Viertel, a producer on the show.

"It's a better idea for some shows than others. You don't want to open 'Death of a Salesman' in the summer. But we've never been concerned about opening a great entertaining show in this time."

david.ng@latimes.com

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