Originally created 08/03/97

Shows savor bounce after Tony broadcast



NEW YORK - In the dog days of summer, only the strongest shows survive on Broadway. Besides long-running British musicals such as The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Cats, that means several of this year's Tony winners - productions that got the biggest box-office bounce from the annual awards broadcast.

The most startling success story since the June 1 awards ceremony? Titanic, which won the coveted best-musical prize in a crowded, if less-than-stellar year that saw five musicals open in the week before the Tony-nomination deadline.

Close behind was the best-play winner, The Last Night of Ballyhoo by Alfred Uhry, which also got a sizable boost.

And among the other shows helped at the box-office by the Tonys were Barrymore, which earned its lead, Christopher Plummer, an acting trophy; the revival of Ibsen's A Doll's House that made Janet McTeer a Broadway star; and the revival of Chicago, which was a big hit before the Tonys and an even bigger hit after them.

"This past season had about as active a spring as the theater has experienced in years," says Michael David of Dodger Productions, one of the producers of Titanic. "There were so many choices. Everybody was suffering from the fact that there were more shows than there were audiences."

Those that didn't get any recognition quickly expired: musicals like Steel Pier, a $7.5 million flop; Dream; and Play On!, which didn't even wait for the Tony nominations to fold, and plays like The Young Man From Atlanta by Horton Foote and Wendy Wasserstein's An American Daughter.

All of them needed the Tonys if they were to flourish, and, considering the subject matter, the $10 million Titanic seemed the least likely of the lot. When several previews were canceled or stopped in mid-performance because of technical problems, headline writers had a field day with the verb "to sink."

Coupled with mostly mixed to negative reviews, Titanic seemed destined for a less-than-lengthy run. Yet a funny thing happened to the musical on its way to a closing notice: Its "wraps" started rising.

"Wraps" - Broadway lingo for the daily take from box office and credit-card sales - can determine if a show has momentum or not. Titanic clearly did. Not to mention a favorable, if quiet, word-of-mouth.

"We had, in spite of everything, some pretty serious momentum. We were wrapping $100,000 a day, give or take $5,000 or $10,000, by the time we got to the Tonys," says Mr. David. "Audiences were enthusiastic. I think what the Tony did was empower theatergoers to yell their enthusiasm."

A similar situation occurred at Ballyhoo, Mr. Uhry's sentimental comedy about members of a Jewish family in 1939 Atlanta coming to terms with their roots and each other.

"Now audiences come in ready to laugh," says Jane Harmon, one of the producers of Ballyhoo. "The Tonys gave them permission. It was the seal of approval."

The play, which arrived in February, opened to a condescending notice from The New York Times, making its ability to attract serious theatergoers more difficult. "Word-of-mouth sustained us - and the fact that we were very conservative with our running costs," Ms. Harmon says.

Weekly grosses for the show climbed after the Tony win, pushing over $200,000 for a show that had been doing substantially less. Its $1.2 million production costs are expected to be recouped before the end of next season.

The day after the Tonys, Titanic wrapped $355,000 and then settled down to do between $150,000 and $200,000 a day, consistently higher than Dodger hits such as Tommy, Guys and Dolls and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And for the week ending July 20, Titanic played to 99 percent capacity at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, grossing a record $676,507.71.

Also helping both shows was the dramatic increase in viewers for this year's broadcast of the Tonys. Ratings for the CBS broadcast were substantially higher - more than 45 percent - than last year's figures. Both Ms. Harmon and Mr. David give credit to talk-show star Rosie O'Donnell, who relentlessly plugged the ceremony and the nominees on her daily program.

"I think what Rosie conveyed was a message to people who frankly don't read reviews much anyhow and don't really know a lot about what's going on in the theater," Mr. David says. "She encouraged real people to see our show."

Success breeds further success. Ballyhoo now has interest from promoters for a yearlong national tour. Mr. Uhry's previous play, Driving Miss Daisy, proved much more difficult to tour until Ms. Harmon found a star, Julie Harris, to do it.

"The beauty of Ballyhoo is that it is an ensemble piece," Mr. Harmon says. "It could have three or four stars or it can play without stars at all. The play is the thing."

Titanic has had phenomenal success with the recent release of its cast recording. BMG, parent company of RCA, expected first-week sales of between 2,500 and 3,000. It sold 7,500, making it the fastest-selling cast recording in RCA history. And according to BMG executive Bill Rosenfield, more than 60 percent of those sales have been outside the New York metropolitan area, a rare occurrence for a Broadway cast album.

"I attribute it to the Tonys, to Rosie O'Donnell and most importantly, it's the Titanic - the curiosity factor," Mr. Rosenfield says. "There are people who will buy anything to do with the Titanic. I think the show has tapped into them, and we have as well."