By Ronald B. Hellman
What can local theater companies learn from the sudden and shocking Nov. 1 closing of the Broadway revival of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” by Neil Simon? Yes, Neil Simon, the favorite playwright on the community theater circuit, the author of lots of hits on stage and in film, and the 2006 recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, is no longer a name that can guarantee ticket sales.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” was a success when it opened in 1983, the first of an autobiographical trilogy that included “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound”, but after 25 previews and nine performances at the Nederlander Theater in October, the producers pulled the plug and closed it down. (I’m particularly fond of this play — one of my last acting roles was as the father in the Douglaston Community Theater’s production.)
It wasn’t the reviews, which were mostly favorable, and it wasn’t for lack of advertising, and it wasn’t even the usual pricey Broadway ticket — with discounts and other promotions, the average ticket reduced to only $25. There was just a general lack of interest, and although the cast included some solid actors with good credentials, guided by a reputable director —David Cromer, highly praised for the still-running revival of “Our Town” — there were no “stars.”
And stars are what it takes to sell a non-musical in Manhattan, where straight plays once flourished and turned a profit. “A Steady Rain” got thumbs down from the critics, but the cast of Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig make it a hot ticket. Ditto for “Hamlet,” a little number by Will Shakespeare, with the Prince of Denmark played by Jude Law. Coming soon look for, among other big names, Scarlet Johansson in Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge”, Cate Blanchett in “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams and Denzel Washington in August Wilson’s “Fences.”
Here in Queens we have a number of popular and ubiquitous performers — Mary Lynch and Richard Weyhausen, for instance — with lots of fans and friends who enjoy their work. But their drawing power doesn’t compare to those celebrities from film and television whose names sell tickets to Broadway and Off Broadway shows.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that our local theater companies are not playing to as many people as they used to. It’s unlikely that it’s the economy — tickets are easily affordable and won’t break anybody’s budget. And although the quality of the work may vary, it’s the rare audience member who doesn’t have a good time.
Perhaps, and here’s where Neil Simon and the “Brighton Beach Memoirs” fiasco come in, it’s doing the same old material over and over again. The next decade of the 21st century is fast approaching, a good opportunity to try something different.
Another problem could be the schedule. In November at least a half dozen groups had their shows on the same dates, limiting the dwindling potential audience. Let’s have an organization that could arrange a calendar to minimize conflicts and promote joint publicity. Any takers?
Roger Gonzalez, the master of the entertaining and informative website at www.LocalTheatreNY.com, is a marketing guy who stands ready to assist local companies in building an audience. His latest gimmick is an “animoto” %u2013 photos that digitally move along with background music %u2013 designed to attract the eye and ear and get the rest of the body to show up at your production.
Getting people in the seats remains an enigma. But how can I figure it out when I don’t even understand why someone would pay $350,000 for a sequined glove, why a movie about teenage vampires would break box office records, and why crowds would wait in line for hours to get a book signed by a rogue ex-candidate.
Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.