Capitalized for $22 million, the David Byrne-Fatboy Slim musical Here Lies Love dramatizes the rise and fall of the Marcos regime, in a Broadway theater repurposed as a discotheque.
Last week, it was outgrossed by $35,000 by a little-known comic on an open stage with three stools. Just for Us, Alex Edelman’s monologue about antisemitism and identity that ended its run on Saturday, was capitalized for $2.25 million.
In an era of mammoth Broadway budgets and huge losses, one-person shows have been a relative safe haven for investors. Prima Facie, James Bierman’s $4 million production of Suzie Miller’s one-woman play starring Jodie Comer, is the only show from 2022-23 to announce that it recouped.
(Last season’s commercial winners also included: The Jujamcyn-produced $4 million Into the Woods. And given its strong sales, Jeffrey Seller’s revival of Sweeney Todd, starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, could earn back its $12.7 million in production costs by November, according to my calculation based on its recoupment chart.)
Both Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man & the Pool (produced last fall by Sue Wagner, John Johnson, Patrick Catullo and Greg Nobile for $2.5 million) and Just For Us (produced by Jenny Gersten, Rachel Sussman and Nobile) made distributions to investors. Backers may be fully repaid should their lauded shows receive a New York State theater production tax credit of up to $3 million.
Introduced in 2021 and recently extended to 2025, the state credit is a major subsidy, particularly for modest productions. “It makes it less risky to do a small budget show,” said Christopher Cacace, theater practice leader at the audit and accounting firm CBIZ Marks Paneth, in an interview.
But with a backlog of applications, the process is slow. “Most of the production companies I’m aware of are still waiting for NY State to finalize their approval and issue the credit,” Cacace said. “Those who did receive the credit have gotten the amount they applied for or a small reduction.”
As with Just for Us, The Old Man & the Pool sales increased over its 11-week run. Most weeks were profitable, with operating expenses at the Vivian Beaumont Theater averaging $348,000, according to a financial statement filed with the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James.
That’s a lot for one guy onstage, but it’s a fraction of the nut of a big musical. The new Broadway adaptation of the hit Michael J. Fox movie Back to the Future needs a published gross (“gross gross” in industry parlance) of about $1 million per week to break even, according to an estimate in an internal recoupment chart. If it maintains its $1.35 million average gross, it needs to run for at least another 65 weeks to recoup its $18.8 million in production costs, according to an investor disclosure.
Recouping the entire $23.5 million capitalization, which includes nearly $6 million in cash reserves, would take closer to two years at this rate.
Back to the Future’s doing better than Here Lies Love, which has a weekly breakeven of $803,000, according to its recoupment chart. But that estimate was made before the production was pressured to add nine musicians as part of a deal with Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. The show’s averaging $850,000 a week at the box office, which suggests minimal if any operating profit.
Big budget shows face a double-whammy: they require a long run to earn back their costs, and they burn through cash when they’re not doing blockbuster-level business.
That was the case with the Fred Ebb, John Kander and Lin-Manuel Miranda musical New York, New York. Produced by Sonia Friedman and Tom Kirdahy and capitalized at $25 million, the lavish-but-not-very-exciting love letter to the city fell short of its estimated $1.1 million breakeven in 17 of its abbreviated 18-week-run at the St. James Theatre.
On Monday, producers of Once Upon a One More Time, led by the Nederlander Organization, called it quits. It opened June 22 to middling reviews and will close Sept. 3, at a substantial loss of its $20 million capitalization.
Despite a score popularized by Britney Spears, weekly box office has averaged less than $600,000. It needs $900,000 a week to break even, according to its recoupment chart.
In addition to inflation, Covid-19 preparedness has contributed to big budgets, as producers keep cash and cast members in reserve to combat the resurgent threat of an outbreak. Notwithstanding a rebound in tourism, Broadway is struggling to lure suburbanites working from home amid a dearth of artistic excitement.
“Younger audiences and new audiences will come when there is something to see,” producer and blogger Ken Davenport wrote in a post this month. “A so-so experience isn’t enough for that missing audience to get off the couch.”
While Davenport’s Neil Diamond musical A Beautiful Noise is struggling, his Barry Manilow-Bruce Sussman musical Harmony, well-reviewed off-Broadway, is scheduled to begin previews in October at the Ethel Barrymore. Like Cabaret, which Ambassador Theatre Group is reviving at the August Wilson this spring, it’s set in Weimar-era Berlin during the rise of Nazism.
One big-budget new musical from last season, & Juliet, has earned consistent operating profits. Capitalized for $20 million, with a score from the catalog of Swedish hitmaker Max Martin (who also wrote some of the songs in Once Upon a One More Time), the wry Romeo & Juliet reboot has generally been grossing at least $1.1 million per week.
Fear of missing out on Just For Us before its two-month run ended propelled its box office to $812,000 last week, vs. $778,000 for Here Lies Love. (The ubiquitous Alex Timbers directed Here Lies Love and is credited as a creative consultant on Just For Us, while his Moulin Rouge! continues at the Hirschfeld and Gutenberg! The Musical!, which he’s directing, brings its two exclamation points to the James Earl Jones in October.) For anyone who still missed out on Edelman’s show, it was recently taped for television.
In an industry strewn with broken business models, investors in compelling solo shows have a reasonable chance of getting their money back. While not as lucrative as long-running hit musicals, smart, small-scale theater that briefly burns hot stands as a lesson in what some audiences want.