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How to Pick a Hit

“Few experiences are more shattering than to write away for tickets weeks before a new show is scheduled to open, read in the Times one morning that it’s closed out of town and then be spotted that afternoon in the refund line by your smart-aleck next door neighbor who always manages to see the big hits of every season during the first week of their run.”

Thus began one of the best articles I’ve ever read in Playbill: “Hitpicking,” by Barry Tarshis, which was published way back in the fall of 1970. Much has changed over the course of the intervening 42 years, including the facts that people no longer “write away” for tickets (at least, not in the same way) and you don’t have to hike over to the theater to get a refund. But much has remained the same, such as the sinking feeling you get when you’re about to head to the Big Apple from Centerville, USA and you learn that the three shows for which you had bought tix have closed after very brief runs. (Anyone who was planning a spring trip to see Bonnie & Clyde, Lysistrata Jones, and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever on Broadway is going to have to make other plans…) So, with a tip of the hat to Mr. Tarshis, here is my own updated list of questions to ask yourself when you’re trying to guess if a production will fly or fall. But before we go any further, I hope it’s understood that how long a show runs and how many tickets it sells often has nothing to do with its artistic quality ;-)

1) Is there at least one major film, TV, or recording star in the cast?

Whether a show is good, bad, or indifferent, the presence of a big-name, mass-media star — or two, or more — is a valuable piece of insurance that it will be a hit.  Hugh Jackman scored a tremendous success on Broadway with his concert show, and previously his star power combined with that of fellow movie name Daniel Craig sold out the run of A Steady Rain, a play that would almost certainly never have made it to Broadway without them. Other examples of shows that owe their box office success to star casting are too numerous to list, but here’s a word of warning: When stars appear in plays or musicals that don’t appeal to their fan base and/or present them in roles very different from those for which they’re famous, a hit is by no means guaranteed. For example, Daniel Radcliffe (a.k.a. Harry Potter) helped generate millions of dollars worth of ticket sales as the ambitious but adorable J. Pierpont Finch in the current revival of the musical comedy How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying , but he failed to set the box office on fire when he played a disturbed stable boy who blinds six horses in the 2008 revival of Equus (his Broadway debut).  And the fact that Harry Connick, Jr.’s name above the title wasn’t enough to float the revisal of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is, I believe, due largely to the fact that he was miscast in the role of a psychiatrist (!), and his discomfort was evident to critics and fans alike.

2) Is the show based on a popular film, TV series, or other pop culture franchise?

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has been shattering all kinds of box office records during the first year of its run at the Foxwoods Theatre, even though the score is awful and the book is worse. Another very poorly crafted show, The Addams Family, managed a Broadway run much longer than it deserved. Why? Both shows are based on source material that became highly popular in three different spheres — first as cartoons/comics, then on TV (Addams in prime time with live actors, Spider-Man as a Saturday morning cartoon series), and finally on the big screen. When the stage musicals were announced, pundits predicted that they would sell lots of tickets unless the shows turned out to be truly terrible. With hindsight, that prediction can be amended, for we now know that the shows sold lots of tickets IN SPITE OF being truly terrible.

3) Is the show a revival, and if not, is it a “jukebox musical” with a “score” made up of yesteryear’s pop hits?

“Jukebox musicals” that have clicked at the box office to one degree or another have run the gamut in terms of quality, from highly enjoyable (Rock of Ages) to abysmal (Mamma Mia!, Million Dollar Quartet). It seems that, for one of these shows to flop, it has to be epically bad in terms of concept, book (if any), musical arrangements, etc. — for example, Baby It’s You!, Ring of Fire, Lennon, and Good Vibrations.  Revivals (and revisals) also tend to sell better than new shows. In both cases, the reason why is easy to understand: Given today’s economic climate and today’s ticket prices, many audience members prefer to go for the familiar and beloved, rather than taking a chance on the unknown.

4) Is there something edgy or sensationalistic about the subject matter and/or content of the show, and/or does it contain nudity?

The Book of Mormon, one of the biggest hits now on Broadway, might seem an anomaly in that it has no stars, it’s not based on a famous pop-cultural franchise (unless you would place the actual Book of Mormon in that category), and it has an original score. But while much of BOM is hilarious, and the music and lyrics are very well done, I believe the show has become a sell-out mostly because word has gotten around that (1) it mercilessly skewers the Mormon church, despite what you may have read to the contrary; and (2) it does so by using words, expressions, and situations that have heretofore never been heard or seen in a musical comedy. I can also think of at least two non-star-driven productions of plays that connected with audiences not only (and not even primarily) because they were well written, but because of their edgy subject matter: John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, in which a nun becomes convinced that a priest is molesting young boys; and Venus in Fur, a delightfully kinky exploration of female-over-male sexual domination. As for shows that sold lots of tickets largely because of the naked flesh presented therein, rather than because they were any good (they weren’t), look no further than Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! and Corpus Christi. (The latter play, which ran Off-Broadway, had the extra advantage of the notoriety it gained when it was picketed by Catholic groups who viewed it as sacrilegious.) Finally, though it’s impossible to tell how much of the box office success of The Blue Room may be credited to the mere presence of Nicole Kidman in the cast, and how much specifically to her brief nude scene in the play, I suspect that the latter had a LOT to do with it.

5) Does the show have “snob hit”  written all over it?

Although the bulk of the audience for theater in New York (and Broadway theater in particular) is now made up of tourists who want Entertainment with a capital “E,” there remains a smallish but loyal group that seeks out more challenging fare. Unfortunately, people in this group sometimes fall prey to “snob hits” — dense, highly intellectual (or pseudo-intellectual) plays that receive plaudits from the critics but are likely to put many theatergoers to sleep. In our time, Tom Stoppard has practically cornered this market, although a few snob hits by other writers have also sneaked in, such as Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. Another, sometimes overlapping category of productions that achieve snob-hit status are those trumpeted as MAJOR EVENTS!!!, such as Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, a nine-hour trilogy consisting mostly of dry-as-dust philosophical and political debates in pre-revolution Russia. The sad truth is that lots of folks are suckers for Broadway shows that are marketed as unique theatrical events and/or endurance tests, regardless of whatever degree of artistic achievement they may or may not represent. Some of these shows have even turned up in venues beyond Broadway — for instance, the interactive experience Sleep No More, less a theater piece than a multi-room art installation with some mime and choreography thrown in; and The Public Theater’s Gatz, an eight-hour reading of the full text of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short novel The Great Gatsby.

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So, if you’re thinking of buying advance tickets for an upcoming show, my advice is to ask yourself all of the above questions. The more “yes” answers apply to the show, the greater the probability that it will be a hit. Personally, I’d bet on the new production of  Evita, with Latin pop star Ricky Martin returning to Broadway (in the role of Che) after a very long absence; and the second starry revival within 11 years’ time of  Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, this one headlined by James Earl Jones, Candice Bergen, Angela Lansbury, Michael McKean, Eric McCormack, and John Larroquette. Let’s see what happens!