Whoopi Struggling at the Box Office

Can Whoopi Goldberg (search) still light up Broadway (search)? With just three days to go before she begins previewing her one-woman show at the Lyceum, the world-famous comedian appears to be struggling at the box office.

The advance ticket sale for "Whoopi," (search) a reworking of the 1984 Broadway show that launched her career, has yet to break $750,000, theater sources say.

That's a far cry from the $8 million Billy Crystal has already racked up for his one-man show, "700 Sundays," and only about half of what Dame Edna, a cult figure, has earned.

The word on Broadway is that Goldberg, once the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, may have damaged her box-office allure through a combination of overexposure on television and vulgar political tirades that might be offputting to some theatergoers.

"She's the center square," says one Broadway producer, referring to Goldberg's long-running stint on televsion's "Hollywood Squares," which, this producer thinks, cheapened her brand name.

There is a longstanding theory on Broadway that theatergoers are reluctant to pay for television stars, which Goldberg has become, because they can get them for free in their homes on a regular basis.

Movie stars, on the other hand, tend to generate more excitement when they come to Broadway because they seem more remote, and seeing them in person in a show is a special event.

Goldberg herself, at the height of Hollywood career in the mid-'90s, generated headlines and a run at the box office when she replaced Nathan Lane in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

But last season, after years on the small screen and in the center square, she fizzled on Broadway in the flop revival of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

Hal Luftig, the producer of "Whoopi," disputes the idea that Goldberg's ticket sales on Broadway are not as strong as they should be.

He points out that she has a lower top ticket price ($75) than Crystal and Dame Edna, both of whom are charging $100.

And he notes that, at Goldberg's insistance, three rows are being sold for just $25 a seat.

"Whoopi's whole thing has been, 'Make my show affordable!'" he says.

Given the lower pricing sturcture, Luftig says "our advance could never be that high, but in terms of numbers of tickets sold, we are doing very well."

Still, it has not gone unnoticed on Broadway that Goldberg has switched press agents, often a telltale sign that a show is looking for a new way to boost sales.

Goldberg and her producers are also reworking their ad campaign, which initially emphasized the 20th anniversary of "Whoopi" by trumpting the dates "1984-2004."

Those ads, production sources say, gave the impression that "Whoopi" is simply a retread of her old show when in fact Goldberg has substantially revised it.

The characters she plays in the show -- a Valley girl, a homeless woman and a crack addict - have been rewritten to reflect what is happening in the world today, one production source says.

A new round of ads and publicity will push the fact that "Whoopi" has been freshened up for 2004.

"I think a lot of people have resisted the show because they thought it was a revival," concedes Pete Sanders, the show's new press agent. "But I think once we get the word out that her original characters have been updated with new material, it will change people's perceptions."

Luftig believes Goldberg's show will help re-establish her as a star to be reckoned with on Broadway.

"One of the reasons I thought she should come back is that, despite the 'Hollywood Squares' and all that, Whoopi is at her core a brilliant comedian and stand-up performer," he says. "I think this show, which is 90 percent new, is a reminder of what she does best."

Lately though, what she seems to be doing best is making sexually explicit puns on President Bush's name. One infamous crack at a Radio City Music Hall fund-raiser for John Kerry cost her her job as the spokeswoman for Slim Fast.

Luftig, however, thinks the controversy over that remark helps more than it hurts.

"Is this a show for everybody? No," he says. "But there are a lot of people out there who think she hits the nail on the head."