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Howard Sherman: Broadway’s The Prom landed ‘money’ reviews, so why haven’t sales taken off?

The cast of The Prom. Photo: Deen van Meer The cast of The Prom. Photo: Deen van Meer
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An entirely original Broadway musical – that’s to say, not based on a book, movie, play, or TV show and not using music previously written for another medium – is relatively rare these days. However, this Broadway season boasts, or at least boasted, two.

The first, Gettin’ the Band Back Together, already closed, waved its ‘completely new’ banner ostentatiously to no avail. What distinguished The Prom was the strong critical response. “A joyful hoot,” wrote Jesse Green in the New York Times. “With its kinetic dancing, broad mugging and belty anthems, it makes you believe in musical comedy again.”

In New York magazine, Sara Holdren wrote: “It’s big, silly fun, with a sly wink and a warm heart.” Time Out’s Adam Feldman called it “a sweet-hearted original musical,” and described the “appealing scrappiness of a party thrown by the theatre community for itself.” Peter Marks at the Washington Post labeled it “a sweet, razzmatazzy musical confection”.

These are what is referred to as ‘money reviews’, the kind of notices that fuel quote ads and front-of-house theatre displays, bringing in audiences, especially in-the-know New Yorkers who want to be among the first to see the next big hit. While the show has a Tony-winner in a leading role, it doesn’t boast widely known names, however, its director-choreographer has three other award-winning hits on Broadway, surely adding to its cachet.

Still, sales of The Prom haven’t really taken off. Save for the boost of the Christmas to New Year week, its grosses hover in the $500,000 to $600,000 weekly range. This is now considered low for a musical, and is far below the show’s earning potential. In an informal conversation, one of the show’s lead producers, Dori Berinstein said that the production had planned for the typically soft weeks of winter, when almost every show sees its sales decline and indicated that they were in it for the long haul. Recent weeks have seen the show promoted with performances on national morning and late-night TV programmes – prime opportunities for any Broadway show looking to build awareness. But the question remains: why hasn’t a show with such positive notices – with a few quibbles here and there – turned into a hit?

One challenge could be that, despite being told in as gentle and non-political a fashion as possible, its story of a teenaged girl who wants to bring a same sex date to her high school prom may be off-putting to some audiences that don’t want even the slightest hint of a positive liberal agenda in their musicals.

There was a great deal of online hubbub – for and against – over the show’s performance in the widely-viewed, nationally broadcast Thanksgiving Day Parade, because the final scene concludes with a chaste kiss between two teen girls.

Isabelle McCalla and Caitlin Kinnunen in The prom. Photo: Deen van Meer
Isabelle McCalla and Caitlin Kinnunen in The prom. Photo: Deen van Meer

This simple love story is wrapped in a brassy plot about has-been Broadway stars seeking to restore their lustre by making a cause of this teen romance. It would seem to be targeted right at people who love musical theatre and even send-ups of musical theatre. But perhaps it is aimed too much at insiders and filled with in-jokes that fly over the heads of the typical Broadway audience member?

And, are the almost dual plot-lines – one filled with glitter and camp, the other with simple earnestness – too hard to explain in a single, motivational sentence that makes audiences want to run to get tickets?

Even before it opened, the producers redid the show’s graphics, seemingly to emphasise its showbiz aspects. Yet the 11 o’clock number – the folky Unruly Heart – is the farthest thing from glitz and razzle-dazzle imaginable, and all the more effective for being so.

The Prom is mainstream entertainment, deserving of its place on a Broadway stage. If it blends two styles of storytelling – the brash and the gentle – like many of the most popular musicals, it is an appeal to the hearts of audiences, with a good measure of showmanship thrown into the mix. The soft-peddled messages are worth hearing – and even singing along with.

Perhaps as spring arrives and new tactics are deployed, The Prom will hit its stride and all of the elements that it has in place, which should make any show a hit, will coalesce in a way that yields a box-office take that it deserves.

This week in US theatre

Fiasco Theatre had a great success with their 11-actor Into The Woods, so they’re paring back another Stephen Sondheim musical – again for Roundabout Theatre Company – with Merrily We Roll Along, opening on Tuesday with six actors. Noah Brody directs.

First seen in New York at Second Stage Theater in 2011, Lynn Nottage’s By The Way, Meet Vera Stark returns to the city in a new production from Signature Theatre Company, opening Tuesday. The story of a black actor in two different eras of Hollywood, the new incarnation features Jessica Frances Dukes in the title role, and is directed by Kamilah Forbes.

After months of success way Off-Broadway at the tip of southern Manhattan, the National Yiddish Theatre production of Fiddler on the Roof transfers on Thursday to Stage 42 near Times Square. The principal cast returns for the new run, in a production directed by Joel Grey.

Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/

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