Every week the Broadway grosses tell us a lot. Others write weekly on the tidbits that can be mined from the data (which is nicely provided by The Broadway League); I cover them more rarely. But sometimes I feel compelled. This is such a week. The Broadway grosses have recently told me two things I want to share with you. First, Kathie Lee Gifford is not a very good salesperson. Second, not everyone in the world is going to see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, even though everyone in the world should be going to see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Scandalous, Gifford's Broadway debut as librettist and lyricist, grossed just $194,511 out of a potential $1,253,860 last week, up from the previous week but still abysmal. It is likely to close soon. If Gifford was not involved, the sad fate of Scandalous would not be noteworthy. After all, this is a show with no big film or TV stars in it and extremely bad reviews. It's in fact doing slightly better than Lysistrata Jones did this time last year. (These shows are not totally comparable because Lysistrata Jones was still in previews this time last year and had a great New York Times quote for its poster, but they are close enough.)
Gifford is the reason these grosses surprise me. Even with the poor reviews (at last glance, the rating on StageGrade, a Rotten Tomatoes-esque site for theater, was a D+), I thought Scandalous would do better than $200k on a holiday week. Gifford has been tirelessly promoting the show on her hour of The Today Show. I don't think I've ever seen anyone work harder for a show. Yesterday, when discussing the poorly received Liz & Dick, she even randomly threw out that while Scandalous "got some reviews that were less than thrilling," it was OK because "you can't believe the horrendous reviews Les Miserables got, Wicked, Camelot, Sound of Music, all kinds of them."
Not only is she constantly talking about it on air, she's going to meet with fans at the theater. One would think at least some of her audience would listen to her and buy tickets to see the show. I personally hoped her constant advertising would help get more people in the Neil Simon to see Carolee Carmello's genius performance. (Tony voters, please go this week if you have not already.) But nothing is working. The highest weekly gross figure for the show was less than $250k.
Now Gifford's audience may just not be theatergoers. It seems like they would be, but it's possible they are not. When Gifford was in Putting it Together on Broadway, she promoted it on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee (which was more popular than her current show) and not many of her fans responded back then either. And she was actually in that one!
There is another way of looking at this though -- and that involves considering the possibility that constant producer/writer advertising just doesn't help that much unless Oprah is doing it. Sister Act lasted longer than some thought it would, but I don't think that was due to Whoopi Goldberg's promotion on The View. As a matter of fact, I don't think the show saw bumps in the grosses after particularly long Whoopi promos. I know someone who bought a ticket to Priscilla because Bette Midler "told" them to, via a radio commercial of course, but that is a different situation, and also probably a rare one.
Free advertising from someone who truly believes in a project, and who has fans that respect that person and his/her taste, seems like an ingredient for box office success. But sometimes things don't work out as they should. It doesn't all add up. Why? I asked a few producers and got a range of not great answers. "Too much of a good thing," one remarked. "These people tell you to go to something new everyday, you can't always listen," another one stated. That said, they'd all kill for this type of free promotion. Who knows? Scandalous would probably be doing way worse without it!
Now onto a show that people are going to see, but should be even more popular, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The most Woolf has ever grossed in one week is $324,636 -- that is good for a four person play with no star names, it is just not amazing. I want to see a bigger number. I overstated a little -- not everyone in the world should see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway. It's not like Cirque du Soleil, so non-English speakers should probably skip. Also, people with very little attention span, those people should skip. Most other people, especially theater fans, should go.
All of you who are thinking, "I've seen this thing already so many damn times," I understand such a sentiment; I skipped Cyrano for just that reason. In this case though, I urge you to reconsider. This Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has changed how I look at the play. Tracy Letts's strong characterization of George coupled with Amy Morton's less theatrical portrayal of Martha changes the central relationship in such a dramatic way it is astounding. Now I am not overstating, I'm serious.
Additionally, I know some of you aren't going to see Virginia Woolf because you think it's going to be too intense, too heavy. It's three hours, I can't soft-sell that. I can say that there is a lot of humor in this play, you laugh a lot. It's a drama, no question, but it's not Copenhagen. It leaves you thinking, it doesn't leave you wanting to kill yourself. (There are those pieces that do, lets face it.) Go. I know it's not holiday fare; let's try to get it up over $400k anyway. If Glengarry Glen Ross (which is also produced by Virginia Woolf lead Jeffrey Richards) can make over $850k in five preview performances, $400k for a seven performance week is not asking that much. Buy a ticket for that possible alcoholic in your life. Buy a pair for your relatives that have a dysfunctional marriage. Go yourself and see the house of cards being carefully built and just as carefully knocked down.
If I didn't sell you on Virginia Woolf, maybe go see Grace and support a new work. We need those to do better too. The grosses are a reflection of what you are seeing and what is produced for you to see is a reflection of the grosses. This might be bad news for the reader out there who was hoping to produce a Billy Graham musical, but it's true.