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Sep 04

Off-Broadway to Broadway: Does it Work?

By Eric Gelb

Off-Broadway houses are defined as theatres that house anywhere from 100 to 499 patrons per performance. Anything beyond 499 is considered a Broadway house. So naturally, one may assume the popularity of the show may call for a Broadway transfer to have more seats available for purchase. While this is usually the reason, it might not be the only one. Don’t get me wrong — producers love when a show is hot and highly in demand, and will sometimes fulfill this demand by transferring the show. But think about it like this; Off-Broadway and Broadway are two different things. Most people associate the word “Broadway” with big and splashy.

I’m not knocking Off-Broadway here or anything, but it’s easier to market a Broadway production to tourists. So when a producer transfers, not only do the get more tickets sold, but easier marketability should the demand slow down because the show is on Broadway. Oh, and those coveted things called Tony Awards? The ones that draw audiences in? Only Broadway productions are eligible for them, so when a show moves to the great white way, not only do they gain the marketability of being on Broadway, the gain the eligibility of an award which can further help market the show if it wins one. Without being on Broadway and transferring, a show would never have that marketing opportunity!

499 seats is large, but not huge. If a show is designed for that specific space and moves to Broadway, obviously it’s going to have to be retooled. But due to restaging, rehashing and retooling (or in some cases, lack thereof) may ruin the shows charm or cheapen it. Think LYSISTRATA JONES — a show that opened Off-Broadway in a church basement and then moved to Broadway shortly after. The show was swallowed in the Walter Kerr theatre, and closed promptly after opening. The intimacy and the excitement of the basketball game and the small dance numbers was what made the show special, and when transferring it to to a huge theatre, lost that special charm. But bringing it back to marketability – LYSISTRATA JONES now has a budding life in licensing and community theatre and gets to boast it enjoyed a Broadway run (albeit a short one), which definitely is a draw for at least interest.

Seussical the Musical falls into the same boat – the Broadway production simply didn’t have the same charm that it did in a smaller, intimate setting, and the show is regarded as one of MTI’s most popular titles today, in part due to the show’s experience on Broadway. Marketability, people! Some Off-Broadway shows will become just as popular as Broadway shows, yet still not transfer at all, including Heathers the Musical, and The Last Five Years. Both shows were shown at the Second Stage Theatre, and drew large crowds, but didn’t transfer. Sometimes, 499 seats is just enough.

Other times, a musical gains enough traction to do well in a Broadway transfer, such as the well-known musical, Next to NormalThis Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning musical started at the Second Stage theatre before it ran for two years at the Booth theatre with 733 performances and 21 previews. It broke Box Office records twice in its run on Broadway. The truth is, no one can really tell whether a show will do well in a transfer, it’s all about profits and marketing.

But from a Producer’s perspective, looking in the future is the safest route. If an Off-Broadway show is really hot right now because it’s new or has an A-list star, that’s great. However, this cannot justify a transfer because in the future, when the show’s buzz dies down, the show would be a stuck in a Broadway house with Off-Broadway sized crowds, which is unprofitable. This is why it’s important for Producers to look into the future, not just the now, when looking to satisfy their audiences.

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