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Howard Sherman: How Broadway play Indecent was saved from an early closure

Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson in Indecent at the Cort Theatre. Photo: Carol Rosegg
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The last-minute reprieve is the stuff of legal thrillers. It rarely applies to the fate of Broadway shows.

But on June 22, three days before Paula Vogel’s Tony-nominated play Indecent was to close, an announcement came that the production would not be shuttering as planned, but would instead run until August 6. This came after refunds had already been issued for any tickets sold for after June 25, meaning that the production’s additional six weeks would start with nothing in the till. Sales were essentially starting again, from zero.

Yes, the show had won two Tony Awards on June 11, for Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design and what was widely considered a surprise win for Rebecca Taichman, making her one of the still too few women to win for direction. But the crucial best play award had gone to JT Rogers’s Oslo (which closes this weekend), in a year when there was no consensus over which of the four deserving nominees in the category would eke out a victory.

Speaking on Monday this week, at the start of the show’s third week of its extended run, lead producer Daryl Roth described the initial closing announcement. “I knew that people loved it and the response was overwhelming,” she said, but “the numbers were not proving that fact to be true. We had come to a place where it was financially irresponsible to keep going.”

Then, she noted: “As soon as we announced the closing, the ticket sales went up dramatically. It was crazy, because I thought to myself, okay, this is proving the point that in fact people want to see this play. Now they think there may not be time for them to see it. We were selling out for those last two weeks. It was something remarkable.”

“I said to myself,” Roth continued, “I don’t want to regret this for the rest of my life.”

Roth went to her producing partners with the plan to go forward for another six weeks, saying she would personally cover any additional losses, and they supported her effort. With running costs of approximately $300,000 weekly, depending upon the advertising plan, the show had managed over $600,000 in sales in its final week, by far its best. In the first two weeks of the extension, it grossed $313,000 and $334,000, meaning that it is, more or less, breaking even.

Looked at solely from an economic standpoint, the extension isn’t about to have any significant impact on recouping the production’s original investment of $3.5 million, because Roth noted that there were already priority loans in place which had been made to keep the show running through its original end date. But it will keep the company employed well into the summer, and Roth said that the additional weeks would help to enhance the profile of the show for subsequent productions, revenues from which would, in part, come back to the Broadway company. Several productions have already been announced, including at major subsidised companies in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Boston, and it’s likely that number will grow when US theatres announce their 2018-19 seasons.

There’s something apt about the second life, albeit fleeting, for Indecent. The play itself is the story of a Yiddish play, God of Vengeance, which emerged from Poland to tour Europe triumphantly in the early decades of the 20th century, only to become infamous when charged as being immoral during its Broadway run, in particular for its inclusion of the Great White Way’s first lesbian kiss. The cast was arrested for their participation.

The play draws to a close amid the acting company’s darkening fate after returning home, as Europe draws inexorably closer to the Second World War. But Indecent begins with the scene of the acting company rising slowly from seats they’ve been in since the audience began filing in, with perhaps dust, perhaps dirt, falling out of their sleeves as they rise to tell their story once again, as we’re told they do nightly, ghostly, in an almost incantatory spirit.

While admitting her decision was “crazy” and “emotional,” it was Roth and her partners who stood up on June 22 and let the dust, the dirt fall from their sleeves, giving Indecent the chance to tell its story at the Cort Theatre 48 more times than it otherwise might have. It is a reminder that getting shows on to Broadway, especially plays, is about more than just dollars and cents. It is an act of faith.

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