NEW YORK – It's been a weird, schizophrenic couple of months on Broadway as the theater prepares for the holidays in the middle of an economic downturn and what, in the past, have been some of the most profitable weeks of the season.
Closing dates have been announced with glum regularity: Older shows, such as "Hairspray, "Monty Python's Spamalot" and "Spring Awakening." New shows, such as "13" and the already departed, critically maligned "American Buffalo."
And even one that, early last season, the smart money thought would have had more than a yearlong run — "Young Frankenstein," done in by less-than-stellar reviews, inept marketing and its initial, celebrated $400 premium ticket price that quickly disappeared.
And yet, the news isn't all grim. Limited-engagement fall revivals of "Speed-the-Plow," "The Seagull," "All My Sons" and possibly "Equus" are at or near recoupment of their $2 million-plus production costs. And "Billy Elliot" has turned into the first big musical smash of 2008, getting great notices and doing hefty business.
Still, there is an underlying nervousness among some producers about early 2009, especially if the economic situation remains stagnant and tourists, both homegrown and foreign, stay away from New York.
"The mood seems to be that it is going to be tougher than in prior years," says David Schrader, executive vice president of Disney Theatricals. "But January and February are always hard, especially for shows that are on the bubble, (those) struggling for one reason or another."
As in the past, many of the remaining shows are offering discounts to get through the lean winter months. Only now, they have gotten a little more inventive in their cut-rate pricing.
For example, you've heard of day-of-performance, student-rush tickets, for those under 18 or 21, popularized by such shows as "Rent." Now, starting Dec. 2, there will be a senior rush, for ticket buyers 65 or older, at "August: Osage County," last season's best-play Tony winner.
"Why should there be a student rush and not a senior-citizen rush? Senior citizens are very mobile these days," "August" producer Jeffrey Richards says. "If they are willing to queue up accordingly, why not?"
And beginning Dec. 1, Disney will institute a "Kids Go Free!" offer, a limited-time discount for its three child-friendly musicals, "The Lion King," "The Little Mermaid" and "Mary Poppins" for Jan. 6-March 13 with the purchase of a full-price ticket. Restrictions apply and the offer must be acted upon by midnight Dec. 12. Check the Web site www.DisneyOnBroadway.com for details.
"Our challenge is not awareness," Schrader says of the new Disney discount. "People are familiar with all three of our shows ... but if they are just waiting to make a decision (to purchase tickets), here's an opportunity that has an expiration date on it."
As for productions in the new year, there are a surprising number of new plays, all of them star-driven.
"I don't think anyone would do a straight play in this environment without stars," says Bob Boyett, a producer of "Monty Python's Spamalot" and "Impressionism," a new play starring Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen, opening in March. "It's got to be about the cast. That's what you are pushing."
And other names are on tap, too, for the new year. Jane Fonda, Will Ferrell, Angela Lansbury, Rupert Everett, Mary-Louise Parker, Brian Dennehy and more, in a play-heavy late winter and spring.
"There is too much doom and gloom about Broadway right now," says producer Jeffrey Richards, citing the recoupment of his own "Speed-the-Plow" and others. "And while there is always concern and trepidation during difficult times, I think that people want to see good theater and are still going to go see good theater."
Richards has reason to be optimistic. He is one of the spring's busiest producers.
Besides "Speed-the-Plow," Richards has lined up an all-star revival of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit," featuring Lansbury and Everett (among others); Ferrell's Broadway debut in a one-man show, "You're Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush"; Dennehy, Carlo Gugino and Pablo Schreiber in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms," and "reasons to be pretty" by film maker Neil LaBute.
What many of these productions have in common is their short runs, limited engagements of between four and five months. It's the only way you can get — and keep stars, Haber says.
For "Impressionism," the producer plans a 16-week run. "And hope we do really well (at the box office)," he says. That means playing to 75 percent to 80 percent capacity, which would be enough, according to Haber, to pay back the show's estimated $2.5 million-$3 million production costs.
"Billy Elliot" and "Shrek," which opens Dec. 14, have pretty much had the new musical market to themselves. For the next year, other familiar names are on tap: revivals of such classics as "West Side Story" and "Guys and Dolls." Plus one other new big musical with a familiar title, "9 to 5," and new music by Dolly Parton.
Things are harder for smaller new musicals, without stars, such as "Vanities," scheduled to arrive at the end of February. The musical, based on a hit off-Broadway play about the friendship of a three 1970s Texas cheerleaders, boasts no stars. It's best-known name is its director, Judith Ivey.
"What we are trying to do because it is a small show and because it is not a blockbuster title, we have to be creative about how we get people in (to the theater)," says producer Sue Frost.
"We are looking very carefully at our ad budgets, diversifying our marketing and our advertising dollars for print, online and direct mail" to reach a specific female audience, she adds.
"Regardless of the financial climate, I think more and more commercial producers have to be strategic in terms of how to market a show. You can't just believe if you build it, they will come," Frost says.
"Yet I believe that with Obama coming in at the end of January and the excitement of a new era ... people will be more hopeful, more secure and ready to go out and spend the money they have been sitting on," she adds.