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Sun peeks through on Broadway

New well-received productions boosting interest, sales
/ Source: The Associated Press

What’s this? Is that a little bit of sun peeking out from behind the clouds of doom and gloom that have enveloped Broadway this season?

After a disappointing October and much of November, the New York theater has seen, in less than a week, the best reviewed shows of the fall: an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” starring a rapturously received Kevin Kline, and a revival of “Wonderful Town,” the Bernstein-Comden and Green musical, with the equally acclaimed Donna Murphy.

And their critical approval has been met with an equally warm response at the box office.

The weekend after “Henry” opened, it took in $762,000, according to Bernard Gersten, executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater.

The run, which ends Jan. 11 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, most likely will be sold out by the end of the week, he added.

“Wonderful Town” arrived on Broadway with a meager advance and plagued by the cancellation of preview performances after Murphy came down with the flu. It played only eight previews before opening because producer Barry Weissler wanted to open the musical before the lucrative Thanksgiving holiday weekend. His gamble paid off.

The show grossed $400,000 (including only a smattering of group sales) Monday, the day after the favorable reviews came out. Weissler plans an aggressive print, radio and television campaign to help sell the musical.

“My feeling is that the public always decides what is a hit and what is a flop,” Weissler said. “Certainly the press helps. In the case of ‘Wonderful Town,’ it’s been an enormous help. I don’t think we could have done it without good reviews.”

And we haven’t even gotten to the last two Broadway productions before Christmas — “I Am My Own Wife,” which was a hit last summer off-Broadway. The play, about a German transvestite who survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes, opens Dec. 3.

And there is one more big musical to go: “Never Gonna Dance,” loosely based on the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film “Swing Time” and which uses a cavalcade of music by Jerome Kern.

Plenty of disappointment
Still, it hasn’t been a fun fall for performers such as Jackie Mason, Farrah Fawcett, Polly Bergen, Mark Hamill and Ellen Burstyn. All were in shows that were panned and closed rapidly. In Fawcett’s case, the show never got past preview performances to opening night.

“Producing theater is always a risky process, and what’s terrific is how many different people are taking that risk,” said Howard Sherman, executive director of the American Theater Wing, co-presenter of the Tonys. “But risk has all kinds of inherent meanings: you can have success and you can have things that do not succeed.

“What we’re seeing right now is a fortuitously busy fall, something that we have not seen in a while, so, within that, where the chips fall is going to be variable.”

There were the tabloid tribulations of Rosie O’Donnell, whose $10 million production of the Boy George musical, “Taboo,” got bad press even before it opened. The reviews were tepid, although many critics thought it wasn’t the out-and-out disaster some had predicted.

Hugh Jackman emerged unscathed, but his musical, “The Boy From Oz,” did not. Yet the show has been grossing over $800,000 a week. Also doing hefty business is “Wicked,” the $14 million musical about the witches from “The Wizard of Oz.” Its reviews were mixed, but word of mouth as well as box-office receipts have been potent.

One of the glummest theater events of the fall occurred in Washington where “Bounce,” the first new Stephen Sondheim musical in nearly 10 years, folded Nov. 16 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, without booking a New York opening.

Despite its success, “Henry IV” can’t run past mid-January because “‘Lear’ is breathing down its neck,” Gersten said, referring to Lincoln Center Theater’s upcoming production of “King Lear.” “It’s a tight turnaround.”

“King Lear,” which stars Christopher Plummer and is directed by Jonathan Miller, begins preview performances at the Beaumont Feb. 11 and opens March 4.

“Seasons don’t turn around on a dime, nickel or a quarter — and one show does not make a season,” Gersten said. “But what ‘Henry’ does is that it reinforces in the mind of the public what possibilities the theater can offer. It fulfills those possibilities more than a lot of other things that are going on. And that can only be good for the theater.”