Being the first replacement of a leading actor in a hit Broadway show has to be the toughest job ever. You’re constantly compared to those who came before you, and there’s a good chance that you might end up closing the show (sorry Raven-Symoné, Corbin Bleu). But Broadway replacements don’t always lead to bad box office results (Sample Ad: “Chicago, now in its 15th year, welcomes Billy Ray Cyrus this November”). So what’s the big secret?
For one, it’s probably best if you don’t start by celeb-loading your original cast. Take Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, which employed so many celebrities, we thought they were trying to make a play version of one of those Valentine’s Day/ New Year’s Eve movies. Only on Broadway. For old people. Sales started off fairly strong for the show, but they didn’t stay that way. Tepid buzz has caused a steady decline in grosses since early May.
That didn’t stop producers from extending twice (now through September 9) – most likely in the hopes that their celebrity replacement cast would reignite the box office. Said cast started last week, with John Stamos, Kristin Davis, and Cybill Shepherd replacing Eric McCormack, Kerry Butler, and Candice Bergen, respectively. The results? Even worse than before. Grosses and capacity were at an all-time low of $547,947 (a drop of $89,014 from the week before) and 65.7% (a 12.2% drop from the week before). Don’t be surprised if sales drop even more when Elizabeth Ashley takes over for theater icon Angela Lansbury on July 24. Perhaps The Best Man should have stuck with that closing date of July 8 as originally planned.
So celeb-loading with A-list actors doesn’t work. What about with Broadway bigwigs? Christian Borle is an authentic Broadway-representative on SMASH, and he became a bona fide star with his Tony-winning turn in Peter and the Starcatcher. Borle left the show on June 30 and in his final week, grosses and capacity were both at an all-time high of $687,525 and 95.8%. Since Matthew Saldivar took over the role, sales have been on a steady decline. In his first week, grosses dropped by $166,917 and capacity by 15 percentage points. Last week, grosses dropped even more to $517,681 and capacity to 75.7%. The upside? Grosses are significantly higher than at the beginning of the run. But Borle’s absence is clearly making an impact.
If replacing Hollywood celebrities and Broadway celebrities both fail, then what exactly succeeds?
How about making the show your star? Like The Book of Mormon did. It’s a show that made Hollywood stars out of legitimate stage actors Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad. But when both leads left (within days of one another) to film their respective NBC sitcoms in early June, the show replaced them with – gasp – more unknown stage actors. Jared Gertner and Nic Rouleau, who had both been understudying the roles, got the main gig (Gertner’s since left for the Mormon tour, but another theater actor, Cale Krise, replaced him). Mormon could have easily cast a few former boyband members, or Idol castoffs, or Glee kids. Instead, they stuck with their opening night strategy: keep the buzz on your show, not your show people.
It paid off. The biggest show of the decade (so far) hasn’t slowed down. The show’s consistently at 102.6% capacity, where it’s been since the week ending September 25, 2011. Just this past week, the show broke the Eugene O’Neill Theatre house record for the 38th time, grossing $1,637,543. We’re guessing that they could cast us as Elder Price and Elder Cunningham and the show would still sell out.
Maybe that’s the secret. If you want a long-running hit show, focus on the book. And the lyrics. And the music. You know. The show. Because once you’re open, you can’t replace any of that. Unless you’re Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, of course…
Grosses are provided courtesy of The Broadway League. Click here to read this week’s complete list of grosses.