The end of the run for musical Curtains: Blockbuster competition, a crucial review help swamp 'Triumph of Love.'

December 19, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Clarification

Some financial figures were unclear in an article in yesterday's Today section on the expected closing of the Broadway musical "Triumph of Love." The show needed $290,000 of the potential weekly $518,500 net box office receipts to break even.

Calling it "the greatest commercial disappointment" of her career, producer Margo Lion said yesterday that she was both sad and puzzled about the imminent closing of "Triumph of Love," the Broadway musical that originated at Center Stage.

"It's a heartbreaker," the Baltimore-born producer said from her New York office, explaining that only a miracle could delay the anticipated Jan. 4 closing.

Originally budgeted at $3.5 million, the musical arrived on Broadway in September for only $3.35 million, an extremely low figure by Broadway standards. It needed only $290,000 of the potential $518,500 net receipts -- roughly 55 percent attendance -- to break even, she said.

If the show closes Jan. 4, the $3.35 million will be a total loss, although Lion said some of that money eventually will be recouped in stock and amateur performance rights. She is currently in negotiations to license those rights and also is negotiating to record a cast album. To date, she said, more than 80,000 people have seen the show.

Trying to solve the puzzle of the musical's poor showing, Lion listed several possible reasons: competition from megamusicals such as "The Lion King" and the coming "Ragtime," both produced by large corporations with large resources; the unfamiliarity of the title; audience resistance to an 18th-century costume period piece; and negative reviews in the daily and Sunday New York Times, which may have outweighed the many positive reviews, including raves from the New Yorker and Newsday.

"I've never done a show that audiences have had more fun at, have come out more enthusiastic about, but I think the landscape of Broadway is such now, this particular year, that it's being swamped by these huge events. It really has changed the geography such that it isn't a level playing field in terms of competing for the audience," said Lion, whose previous producing credits include "Jelly's Last Jam" and "Angels in America."

"I always was worried that it was a good but low-impact show," said Rocco Landesman, president of Jujamcyn Theaters, one of Broadway's three major theater owners and a co-producer of "Triumph." "Broadway is about news now, it's about events, and what's happened -- you're seeing this very dramatically this season -- shows that have succeeded have been strongly marketed. It's a marketing game rather than an artistic endeavor."

"Triumph of Love" was the first project of Jujamcyn's new joint venture with Pace Theatrical Group, the largest presenter of national touring shows. Both had hoped the small-scale musical would prove a good road show. Traditionally, however, it's been felt that a show has to run at least six months on Broadway to generate interest on tour, and, counting preview performances, "Triumph" will have run only three by Jan. 4.

Yesterday Landesman said of the touring prospects, "I think there's a chance, but I wouldn't bet on it."

Adapted from an 18th-century French romantic comedy by Marivaux, "Triumph of Love" made its world premiere a year ago at Center Stage. The Baltimore theater produced a non-musical version in 1993, translated by resident dramaturg James Magruder, who also wrote the musical's book.

Like Magruder, most of the creative team -- composer Jeffrey Stock and director Michael Mayer -- made their Broadway debuts with "Triumph." (The exception was lyricist Susan Birkenhead.)

The show, about a princess in ancient Greece who falls in love with a young man raised to eschew emotion, gained two new stars, Betty Buckley and F. Murray Abraham, when it moved to Broadway. Buckley, who has recorded one version of her show-stopping song "Serenity" and is working on a hip-hop rendition, has been making curtain speeches after each performance, entreating the audience to tell their friends about the show. Lion said earlier this week, when Buckley announced the show would close, "there was a gasp."

The fate of "Triumph" may indicate a change not only in the way shows have to be marketed, but also in a trickle-down effect: Past wisdom held that a blockbuster like "Les Miserables" or "Cats" would create interest in Broadway as a whole, and theatergoers unable to get into the blockbusters would choose another show.

Now, as indicated by "Triumph," and the equally shaky prospects of "Side Show," the fall's other small musical, there is reason to believe the blockbusters may be overpowering the smaller shows. Also, Landesman said, "The menu is too crowded now. There are more shows to see than there have been in decades."

In the current climate, Landesman said, a minimum of $1 million should be earmarked for marketing. "Triumph," with only a fraction of that, could barely compete.

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