THE Broadway-bound productions of Disney’s “Little Mermaid” and “The NewMel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein” (yes, that is its official full name) both had their out-of-town openings on the same night, Aug. 23, roughly 1,300 miles apart.
In many ways the out-of-town experiences for these two shows — the biggest high-stakes gambles of the fall season, both based on much-loved movies, both with bankloads of money and some degree of franchise reputation on the line — have been even farther apart than that.
For one thing, the opening night of “Mermaid” in Denver wasn’t even an opening night, insisted Thomas Schumacher, the president of Disney Theatrical Productions: it was a “local press night,” which was fitting because the show has been mostly out from under the national — well, New York — microscope. The after-party was a cast-and-crew-only affair at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, where the show is playing.
Sure, a few members of the New York press took a look at “Mermaid,” which cost a reported $15 million, before or after the opening — however they could fit it in around their trip to Seattle. It was here that “Young Frankenstein,” which has been followed in the news media as if it were running for president, was having a bona fide out-of-town opening night. This after-party took place at a local landmark, the Space Needle.
So it was that two huge musicals were on their way to Broadway, and the Disney show, strangely enough, was the one with the low profile. So far.
A lot of things have happened this year for Disney Theatrical Productions: the closing of “Beauty and the Beast” after 13 years; the steady weeks of million-dollar grosses for “Mary Poppins” on Broadway and the demise of its struggling London counterpart; and the belated entry of “High School Musical” into the Disney theatrical catalog. There was also, of course, that “Tarzan” unpleasantness.
The day before the Denver premiere of “Mermaid,” Mr. Schumacher was eating lunch at one of the production’s three hangouts in town. He was candid: The show, scheduled to open on Broadway Dec. 6, needs work. That’s why Disney was in Denver. The last Disney show that opened in New York sans out-of-town tryout was “Tarzan,” and everybody knows what happened there.
“We were severely damaged by our inability to just do our work in those first few weeks,” Mr. Schumacher said of “Tarzan,” which closed in July after running for a little more than a year.
He also said that the affection for “Tarzan” the Disney movie did not run nearly as deep as the affection for “The Little Mermaid” does. Now, he said, he has the right project.
When a show has no excuses and high stakes, one would imagine that the bloggers, reporters and Broadway wags would be eyeballing it. But for some reason this had not been happening, and Mr. Schumacher is doing nothing to change that. “Why,” he asked, “would I want to make noise when I’m out of town?”
But in the age of high-speed gossip, a strategy of operating outside the spotlight would be futile were there not something else being spotlighted. Like Disney, the people behind the $16 million-plus “Young Frankenstein” — Mr. Brooks and his producing partner, the entrepreneur Robert F. X. Sillerman — have history hanging overhead. In their case it’s one show, “The Producers,” which opened to enormous sales and exceptional plaudits and closed six years later, a run that was long and lucrative but still left many wondering what had gone wrong. For a show that started so strong, it seemed a tad truncated.
Expectations aside, “Frankenstein,” scheduled to open on Broadway Nov. 8, has created skeptics on its own terms: for announcing that some tickets would be $450, for refusing to accommodate large groups and for conspicuously deciding to book the show into the cavernous Hilton Theater rather than the St. James, where “The Producers” played. The charge lobbed by industry watchers and some ticket buyers was that “Frankenstein” was a little too sure of itself.
Mr. Sillerman, over dinner at his hotel in Seattle a few hours before the opening, said the business aspects of “Frankenstein” had naturally been the focus in the press and on the blogs, since up to now it was all there was to write about.
“If we were six months into the run, and that’s all they were writing about, I’d feel differently,” he said.
He pointed out that “The Producers” had introduced the modern premium ticket (at $480) six years ago to much gnashing of teeth, and that now just about everyone on Broadway sells them, though generally at much lower prices. (Another wrinkle he didn’t bring up: While the producers of “Frankenstein” were accused of hubris when they moved the show to the Hilton, Disney quietly tried to negotiate a Hilton berth for both “Mary Poppins” and “Mermaid.”)
As for the “Producers” legacy and all the attention it brings, Mr. Sillerman said he wasn’t worried. “There’s no level of expectations we could set that this show couldn’t exceed,” he said.
As it turned out, the out-of-town reviews for “Young Frankenstein,” which did not sell out the 2,800-seat Paramount Theater in Seattle, were not all the exuberant ones that “The Producers” received in Chicago. But they were mostly good, running from lukewarm encouragement to raves.
The reviews for “The Little Mermaid,” which did sell out its 2,200-seat theater in Denver, were the shockers, and may have shifted the spotlight.
Local notices were mixed — skeptical to glowing — but the chief critic for Variety gave it an outright pan. What’s more, Variety’s criticisms, which focused on the show’s “over-stylized designs,” were not that different from the cavils in some of the other reviews; they were just stated more harshly. In other words, people agreed about what they didn’t like.
“It’s a distraction when you’re out of town and you get national criticism, but I can’t let it guide me,” Mr. Schumacher said by phone after the reviews were out, pointing out that “Beauty and the Beast” had received bad in-town reviews and had a pretty good go of it for 13 years. He said the elements of “Mermaid” that he and the creative team are working on are not, in many cases, the elements that were criticized in the reviews.
And as for the Broadway insiders’ starting to murmur about what’s happening in Denver — well, Broadway insiders are a tiny group, he said. “They cannot be the people I worry about.”