Shows in a Big Shadow

Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar

In the new musical "The Producers," the ever-scheming Broadway impresario Max Bialystock tries to persuade Roger DeBris to direct his "lighthearted" romp called "Springtime for Hitler." Think of the prestige, implores Max, think of the respect ... to no avail. Finally the producer plays his trump card. "Roger," he says, "think of--the Tony!" Bingo.

Max may turn out to be not only persuasive but also prescient. Tonight, when the 55th annual Tony Awards are handed out from the stage of Radio City Music Hall in New York, "The Producers," with its record-breaking 15 nominations, stands poised to win a load of Tonys and, perhaps, best the previous record of 10 set by "Hello, Dolly!" in 1964. That could mean Tonys for Roger, in the person of actor Gary Beach, director-choreographer Susan Stroman, stars Nathan Lane (who plays Max) and Matthew Broderick (who plays Leo Bloom), and a possible triple play for creator Mel Brooks for producer, composer and co-author.

The best musical Tony--the only award thought to carry a significant box-office boost--is universally predicted to go to "The Producers," which, ironically, is about a couple of con men trying to produce a monumental Broadway flop. And it is the one show that probably needs a win the least among its competitors--"The Full Monty," "Jane Eyre" and "A Class Act."

By now the competition has had time to adjust to the shadows cast by what has become known as "the 800-pound showgirl." And since the Tony nominations were announced May 7, producers of the rival shows have been searching for ways to compensate for--if not capitalize on--the tremendous momentum of "The Producers."

"I think we've all graciously conceded the best musical award to 'The Producers,"' says Marty Bell, lead producer of "A Class Act," an intimate musical about the life of the late Ed Kleban, composer of "A Chorus Line." The latter was the behemoth of the 1975 season, winning nine Tonys and leaving the original production of "Chicago" empty-handed.

"It's forced us to adjust our strategy, obviously," Bell adds with a laugh.

"The Producers" is already the hottest ticket in town, and if it does pull off a Tony landslide, the queues that have been snaking around the St. James Theatre since the show opened to rave reviews and national headlines in April will only grow longer.

Until "The Producers" came along, another musical comedy hit of the season--"The Full Monty"--had been favored not only to win best musical, but also to dominate the other nine categories in which it has been nominated. Now, if the pre-Tony theatrical awards are any indication, the musical by Terrence McNally and David Yazbek, directed by Jack O'Brien, is hoping to pull off a couple of upsets just to avoid a shutout. But Lindsay Law, lead producer of "The Full Monty," is stoic about the show's chances.

"If you're going to have a huge winner, then you have to pick on somebody to be the loser, I suppose," he says philosophically. "I don't much appreciate it, but that's the way it is."

Still, Law says, win or lose, "The Producers" has challenged and re-energized "The Full Monty's" publicity and marketing team. The musical about unemployed factory workers putting on a strip show, which opened last fall to strong reviews and excellent word-of-mouth, has been doing good--but not great--business at the box office. Multiple-page ads for "The Producers" have demanded a response in kind. "The Full Monty" has launched an aggressive ad campaign that Law says has resulted in the doubling of weekly box-office income, though he would not provide specific figures. The campaign--positioning the show as a "feel-great musical"--coincides with the roll-out of a touring company, which opened in Toronto last week. "Because we opened so early in the season, we've had to remind everybody that we were once embraced by the press like they are," Law says. "Part of the narrative of the new ad is that we can re-identify ourselves as part of this wave of successful musical comedy. There are two great shows in this town, not just one."

Law has come up with another way to take advantage of his rival's juggernaut: Directly across the street from "The Producers' " box office is a larger-than-life, colorful poster of "The Full Monty." "That's no accident," he says.

Like many of his counterparts, Law notes that tickets to the "The Producers" are extremely scarce for several months, which may well result in spillover to shows for which there is availability.

The politic attitude has been to observe that a rising tide lifts all boats, so the excitement surrounding one show should boost ticket sales across the board. But "A Class Act's" Bell isn't so sure. "People who want to see 'Producers' or 'The Lion King' will simply wait to see them, not necessarily see something else," he says. "At $80 to [$100] a ticket, how many shows are on people's lists anyway? The jury is still out as to whether it'll bring the big jump in Broadway grosses like 'A Chorus Line' did."

Indeed, before "A Chorus Line" opened in 1975, Broadway had never done more than $8 million in business in one season. But the season after "Chorus Line" came out, Broadway took in $11 million.

Bell says the biggest effect of "The Producers"--and a negative one at that--is that media attention has been so intensely trained exclusively on that show. "It's been hard to get press attention," he says, "and that forces you to spend more money on marketing--money you don't have."

Still, the national spotlight on "The Producers" could entice more people to tune into the Tony telecast, which has garnered lackluster ratings in recent times. That, in turn, would help other best musical nominees because each gets time on the show to present an excerpt. "The combination of a good appearance on the telecast plus a couple of wins can get you on the radar screen on the part of the audience that might not otherwise be interested in you," Bell says.

Whether or not spillover occurs, there appears to be something of a contest between "The Full Monty" and "42nd Street" for the No. 2 position on the public's theatergoing list. The revival of "42nd Street," the long-running 1981 Gower Champion-David Merrick smash about putting on a Depression-era musical, opened late in the season to largely positive reviews and good word-of-mouth. With backing by Dutch entertainment mogul Joop van den Ende, producers have aggressively marketed the show, exceeding even the lavish media campaigns of its two key rivals. But Michael David, head of Dodger Theatricals, which is co-producing with Van den Ende, doesn't quite see it as a race for second.

"There may be some overlap between 'Producers' and 'Full Monty' in our target audience," says David, whose show is favored to win the Tony for best revival of a musical over "The Rocky Horror Show," "Follies" and "Bells Are Ringing." "[But] I would hope there'll be some people for whom we're the first choice and we'll make our way to the others. We have a show unlike any other on Broadway, not better or worse, just different."

David jokes that his marketing strategy is "anything that I can do without embarrassing my mother." But he adds, "it's not our style to coattail anybody else's success or failure."

"We're what's quintessential about musical comedy," he adds, referring to the fact that "42nd Street" is a composite of early 1930s movie musicals. "If anybody wants to know where these musical comedies came from, rendered by the people who came first, we hope we'll be their first stop on a visit to Broadway in general."

Unable to compete with the massive budgets of the big musicals, smaller shows such as "A Class Act" and revivals of "Bells Are Ringing" and "Rocky Horror" must be content with marketing themselves as Davids in a welter of Goliaths, using what one producer calls "door-to-door guerrilla tactics." That could mean hiring armies to anonymously talk up a show in an elevator, or inviting hotel concierges or maitre'ds from upscale restaurants to see the show, then spread the word.

"There are events and then there are shows like 'Bells Are Ringing,"' says producer Mitchell Maxwell of the revival, which stars Faith Prince in the role of the meddling answering-service operator originated by Judy Holliday in 1956. "When you are surrounded by such juggernaut events--and I'm not going to mention them because they don't need to be mentioned--you have to remind people Broadway is an industry, not just one or two shows." Maxwell's show, at least, has the advantage of being nominated in a musical category for which "The Producers" or "The Full Monty" did not qualify: best performance by a leading actress in a musical. As one of the few races thought to be truly competitive, this category pits Prince against Randy Graff ("A Class Act"), Christine Ebersole ("42nd Street"), Marla Schaffel ("Jane Eyre") and Blythe Danner ("Follies"). With their limited resources, both Bell and Maxwell are focusing ads on promoting their respective stars, hoping a win would allow them to emerge from Tony night with at least one new marketing angle.

"You can get lost in the sea of print ads that are out there, but to tout the musical comedy performance of the year--the one you have to see--is a reasonable way to sell tickets," Maxwell says.

Danner and Polly Bergen are the only performers nominated from the all-star cast of "Follies," the highly anticipated show that received disappointing reviews when it opened in April and just four nominations. As a limited engagement (its run ends in September) produced by the nonprofit Roundabout Theatre Company, "Follies" has far less at stake on tonight than any other show.

Far more important to its fortunes are the four nominations garnered by "Rocky Horror," according to producer Jordan Roth. Along with best revival of a musical, the show has received nominations for actor Tom Hewitt's Frank 'N' Furter, director Christopher Ashley and costume designer David C. Woolard. "Being honored in this way by the Tony nominating committee gave us a validation in the eyes of a theatergoing public who may have thought this crazy rock musical was for their kids, but not for them," Roth says. "We're just happy to be included."

As for the producers of "The Producers," the strategy is a low-key approach to the "furor over the fuhrer," as their marketing tag line puts it. "The worst thing you can be perceived as in a climate like this is arrogant, or worse, entitled," says Rocco Landesman, one of the lead producers. "It's bad enough being the 800-pound gorilla without also being thought of as a bully."

While Landesman concedes the Tony will "neither make nor break" the runaway hit, it is important for the long-range objectives of the musical, particularly once it starts touring nationally (in fall 2002), and come March 1, when the contracts of Broderick and Lane are up. Although the two Tony-nominated stars will probably be offered buckets of money to extend, the show must eventually continue without them. A best musical award would help reinforce its standing. "[A Tony] is something conferred on the show that it will always have, no matter who's in the starring roles," Landesman says.

Meanwhile, at least one of the producers of "Jane Eyre," the musical that probably needs the Tony the most, hardly begrudges its chief competitor and likely winner. The musical adaptation of the Emily Bront classic opened to mixed reviews in December and has been struggling at the box office ever since. The closing notice was put up a week after the musical received its five nominations. Only an 11th-hour infusion of $150,000 from pop singer Alanis Morissette, a friend of the show's composer, Paul Gordon, saved the production. It now appears likely that the show will run at least through next Sunday.

"Jane Eyre" appears to have met its fate, in part, at the hands of a musical comedy that had, until this season, been a very rare breed. Would it have been a different story had "Jane Eyre," which made its world premiere in Toronto in 1996 and was later retooled at the La Jolla Playhouse, come in earlier? "No," says producer Pamela Koslow. "If you have something to sell that the public wants to see, it doesn't matter if there are five other wonderful shows or no wonderful shows. People will come to see what they want to see." *

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