Economy Makes Shows Take Turn Off Broadway

In the past year, two hit Broadway shows have closed up shop on the Great White Way and reopened in off-Broadway venues: the Tony Award-winning "Avenue Q" and "The 39 Steps." Both shows were highly successful on Broadway, but have found it easier — and less expensive — to continue their runs in smaller theaters, with smaller budgets.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Downsizing has been happening everywhere from corporate ledgers to family budgets. Well, reporter Jeff Lunden has found two Broadway shows that have used downsizing to extend their runs.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) It sucks to be me...

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) No, it sucks to be me...

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) It sucks to be me...

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) It sucks to be me...

JEFF LUNDEN: Producer Kevin McCollum says it doesn't suck to be him. His show, "Avenue Q," has found new life and new audiences off-Broadway.

Mr. KEVIN MCCOLLUM (Producer, "Avenue Q"): How do you have a hit musical off-Broadway? You go to Broadway for six years, you win the Tony Award, is how you have a hit off-Broadway.

LUNDEN: "Avenue Q," the intimate satirical adult puppet show closed after a Broadway run of over 2,500 performances last September. McCollum and his partners then made the surprising announcement that they were going to move the production a few blocks away to a 499-seat theater off Broadway. It may be only a five-minute walk from "Avenue Q's" old theater to its new home, but McCollum says the savings are tremendous - from theater rent to advertising to salaries to smaller stage crews. And he says the budget isn't hindered by some of Broadway's built-in union rules.

Mr. MCCOLLUM: One of the things about our new theater is we don't have some of the Broadway work rules that says if you do work, you have to pay at least four hours for something that only take 30 minutes.

LUNDEN: These savings are so significant that McCollum thinks they can fuel another five years to "Avenue Q's" run. He estimates that his operating expenses have been cut by two-thirds and in just six months, "Avenue Q" has shown a profit.

That got some other producers talking, like Harriet Leve, whose four-actor stage version of Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" just finished a very successful two-year run on Broadway.

Ms. HARRIET LEVE (Producer, "The 39 Steps"): With the running costs being sliced in half, you really didn't have to do too much thinking to figure out, yes, we should do this.

LUNDEN: So, they've moved in next door to "Avenue Q" at New World Stages, a former movie multiplex in the Times Square area that's been converted into a small theater center.

Both shows have been able to recycle their Broadway sets and costumes, but Leve says there's another advantage to seeing "The 39 Steps" in a smaller theater.

Ms. LEVE: This new home of ours has a real intimacy and it just plays beautifully. I mean, it really feels like you're right there.

(Soundbite of play, "The 39 Steps")

Unidentified Man #4: (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #5: Come back, you.

Unidentified Man #6: Come back, you.

Unidentified Man #4: Excuse me. I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

LUNDEN: And smaller theaters means smaller ticket prices.

Ms. LEVE: On Broadway, it was about 116, and our top ticket price is about 89.50, so there's a difference.

LUNDEN: Gordon Cox, theater reporter for Variety, says until recently shows like "Avenue Q," which began life at the tiny Vineyard Theater off-Broadway, would have never moved to Broadway in the first place. Since upsizing shows for Broadway has been a trend, downsizing could become a trend as well.

Mr. GORDON COX (Theater Reporter, Variety): Small, quirky shows that in past years would have seemed a natural for off-Broadway, now that they are becoming more common on Broadway, this can open the door to them thinking about downsizing again.

LUNDEN: Producer Kevin McCollum says audiences have rediscovered "Avenue Q" off-Broadway only because the show's brand was built by its long Broadway run and Tony Award wins.

Mr. MCCOLLUM: If "Avenue Q" had stayed off-Broadway from the very beginning, we would have been closed by now.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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