Broadway: What Makes Some Run

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The current season, on and off Broadway, has been less distinguished for its successes—few and far between—than for the remarkable survival rate of plays that were none of them straightforward hits back when they opened. The formulas of pluck, luck or pure hokum involved were never the same, but together they make a fascinating catalogue of the remarkable methods used to make some shows run.

Keep It Cozy. Take the case of The Fantasticks, a shamelessly romantic bit of fluff with a first-rate score. After losing money the first nine weeks, it managed to set up a love affair with its audience, kept everything cozy and intimate in a 150-seat, off-Broadway house. Fans of the show began going back again and again; one critic comes back every anniversary. So an initial investment of $16,500 has quietly turned into a $262,000 profit, and last week The Fantasticks went larking into its sixth year, just 515 performances behind the alltime off-Broadway champ, The Threepenny Opera.

Another method, especially for a huge, not particularly good musical, is lavish promotion. For Baker Street, Producer Alexander Cohen primed the pump with $50,000. He stationed red-coated, busy-topped actors on the sidewalk in front of the box office, filled the lobby with Sherlock Holmes memorabilia, and transformed the theater facade into a brick house with cutouts of second-story men and assassins climbing ropes and ladders. Result: during Easter week, Baker Street set a Broadway grossing record of $103,210.

I Had a Ball started out as a musical. But when the show began coming unstuck, Comic Buddy Hackett simply stuffed the play in his hip pocket and forgot about it. He now scatters nightclub-style monologues throughout the show, and after the final curtain, in between ad libs, puts on his fellow actors and clowns away to his heart's content. Everyone has such a good time that in its 20th week the third-rate show took in a respectable $50,000-plus.

Break Out Champagne. Frank Gilroy's The Subject Was Roses is first-rate, but when it opened a year ago, it seemed a cinch for lilies within the week. It was by an unestablished author, had no big-name director or stars, was starting in late season, and had only a scrawny $165 advance. But just because the odds seemed so overwhelmingly against it, Roses became a cause. Publisher Bennett Cerf took a personal ad to praise it, Harry Belafonte distributed promotional roses, and the box office slowly built just enough to keep Roses in bloom. Then two weeks ago, the New York Drama Critics Circle called it the best drama of the year and the cast broke out champagne. That Saturday night the house grossed $4,800, largest ever. Last week it won the Pulitzer Prize, and between them the two awards have hypoed the box office 100%. "Good Lord," said one playgoer, "it's as if it just opened."