In a surprising move, the producers of Promises/Promises starring Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes announced earlier this month that the hit musical would close after the holiday season. The reason cited: they couldn’t effectively replace the stars (Chenoweth and Hayes) that originated the roles in the revival and were unwilling to take the financial risks inherent in replacing not just part of the cast but the very stars to whom they attributed much of the success of the run.
The pairing of Chenoweth and Hayes was by no means a sure thing going into Opening Night. Although both had a substantial presence (Hayes from his work on the enormously successful “Will and Grace” and Chenoweth as a bonafide Tony award-winning broadway baby) neither could be considered the kind of box office platinum that Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman or Julia Roberts represent. But Hayes proved himself as a skilled musical entertainer on the boards as well as the Tonys and Chenoweth was a featured guest on Glee!, one of the hottest shows of last season (and most certainly a favorite of the Broadway musical minded individual.) Add to that an industry-wide defense, and their own impassioned response to Ramin Setoodeh’s Newsweek article criticizing the ability of Hayes, a gay man, to play a straight, romantic lead, and all of the sudden Chenoweth and Hayes and the musical in which they perform received the kind of public attention that can make a Broadway show a household word. At the least, this mashup of events created a really hot ticket in Promises, Promises, a show that only received fair to mixed reviews from critics.
Living by the Star/Dying by the Star
In many ways, Promises, Promises is a victim of its own successful casting and an unforseen circumstance. The Newsweek controversy opened up a host of opportunities for Hayes and Chenoweth to refute the homophobic stereotype on shows like The View, Letterman, and The Tony Awards. They became the spokescouple for the musical on a national scale and thus are perceived as a primary reason to buy a ticket to the show. Replacing a star that can only logically be hired for a limited time is the dark shadow of relying so heavily on one to sell tickets. (Stars are in demand within many mediums and unlikely to spend more than 6-10 months working on Broadway when the paycheck and notoriety for film and TV jobs are far more lucrative.) Hiring a star is great in the short term but as Promises, Promises has discovered, the long-term can be sacrificed.
Many producers manage to overcome this hurdle by producing “Limited Engagements” – shows which start out with a finite number of performances (16, 20, or 26 weeks are common) with at least one star attached and a declaration that the show will not likely continue once the star is gone. Limited Engagements aren’t really practical for musicals though as it often takes a year or more of robust ticket sales for a musical to recoup its initial investment.
A Little Night Music, another musical currently running on Broadway, manages to both prove and disprove this axiom. If one were to check the grosses of the current revival of ‘Night Music (one of last season’s big hits), one would see a significant dip in the weeks encompassing 2/16/10 through 2/21/10 and from 3/30/10 through 4/4/10. The reason: the show’s star Catherine Zeta-Jones was out of the show. Conversely though, and unlike Promises, Promises, A Little Night Music did choose to take the risk of recasting the key roles originally played by Zeta-Jones and Angela Landsbury. They recast the show this summer with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, a pairing who’s critical and word of mouth reviews insist they breath new life into the roles they inhabit and are actually better than their predecessors. While the grosses for the new cast of A Little Night Music aren’t as out-of-this-world as the Zeta-Jones/Landsbury original, it’s likely neither are the operating costs. And the show is still making great numbers. This week, a typically slow time for Broadway, A Little Night Music is running at 90% capacity thus proving their re-casting decision is a firm win both for audiences and investors.
State of Broadway
The general consensus amongst industry and colleagues seems to be that Promises, Promises producers are making the right decision, even though it most certainly is a hard one. While I see the logic, I can’t quite get behind the sentiment.
In their initial announcements that the show would close in January, the producers insisted that they are likely to recoup by the time they close. That means if you invested $100,000 in the show at the beginning of this year you would get back what you invested, $100,000, after 9 months of performances as one of the higher grossing shows of the year. Recoupment is one of the gold standards of determining whether or not a commercial production is a success. Unlike other investments, your Broadway investment doesn’t actually have to make money to be successful. It just has to avoid losing money.
This producer can’t help feeling a little wistful sadness at the state of things in this industry as well as a lingering disappointment for its investors that such a well-grossing show as Promises, Promises can’t find a way to capitalize on it’s “hit” status and make a little money. It’s a hard lesson in the business that even a hit show isn’t always as financially successful as we might expect.
When looking at the experiences of both revivals, Promises, Promises and A Little Night Music this examiner is reminded of the old fable about the tortoise and the hare. The revival of Promises, Promises might have had slightly better initial grosses then A Little Night Music’s when pitting their original stars against each other at the height of Tony season this year, the real test of which show matters most financially may be revealed on January 4th of next year. On that date A Little Night Music is currently scheduled to have a performance. Promises, Promises will be closed and a memory of season’s passed.