How ‘The Velocity of Autumn’ ran into the ferocity of Broadway economics


Stephen Spinella and Estelle Parsons take a bow during curtain call at the Broadway opening night for “The Velocity of Autumn.” After a relatively brief run, the show closed. (Andrew Toth/Getty Images)

Washington-based producer Larry Kaye didn’t break a leg on Broadway, but he’s now walking with a cane. Kaye stumbled in a hotel lobby recently while talking to a British producer interested in importing Kaye’s “The Velocity of Autumn,” last fall’s popular Arena Stage play about an elderly woman who booby-traps her apartment with molotov cocktails so her adult kids can’t ship her off to a nursing home.

Adding insult to injury, “Velocity” prematurely slammed shut last Sunday, a casualty of cutthroat Broadway competition and its own paltry box office receipts. Eric Coble’s 95-minute dramedy featured the same respected team that put things together in Washington, with Arena head Molly Smith directing Stephen Spinella and Estelle Parsons. On April 29, the remarkable 86-year-old Parsons even picked up a best-actress Tony Award nomination — her fifth, dating back to 1969.

Later that day, though, the slow-selling show posted a closing notice for May 4. After nearly two years trying to get to New York, “Velocity” barely lasted a month.

“The pillars on which you build your success on Broadway are completely different from anything we do here,” notes Arena managing director Edgar Dobie, who spent several years as president of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Company.

Three projects with early ties to Arena alighted on Broadway this season, and none of them faredwell. “A Time to Kill,” adapted from the early John Grisham novel, debuted at Arena three years ago, but last fall it survived less than two months at the Golden Theatre. “One Night With Janis Joplin” played Arena twice, and the company managed a modest tour of regional theaters before the show began what became a five-month stand on Broadway that ended in February. Last month, an off-Broadway run was abruptly canceled two days before it was scheduled to begin.

None of these shows were managed by Arena by the time they hit New York. In each case, Arena accepted “enhancement” money from commercial producers to aid and offset some of the not-for-profit company’s Washington expenses. Arena is due royalties if shows succeed on Broadway, but the company isn’t on the hook as a financial investor, Dobie says.

High hopes on Broadway

Just as “A Time to Kill” was spearheaded by New York producer Daryl Roth, “Velocity” was Kaye’s baby all the way.

Kaye is an attorney who got into New York producing when the two-character rock musical “Rooms” premiered at MetroStage in 2008 and ended up off Broadway. He signed on as a co-producer of such musicals as “American Idiot” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and created his own company, Hop Theatricals.

With “Velocity,” he saw a chance for his first credit as lead producer, with Broadway firsts for his pal Coble — they’ve written a musical together, and in 2000 Kaye directed a Coble comedy in Bethesda — and for Arena artistic director Molly Smith, brought in to direct after the show was produced in Cleveland. (It premiered in 2011 at the Boise Contemporary Theater, which just debuted another Coble script.)

He wanted “Velocity” to zip to New York straight from Cleveland but came to Arena when an appropriate (meaning small-ish) venue couldn’t be had on Broadway, where available theaters are always scarce and getting the right fit is a big part of the game. The play struck a sentimental chord with a lot of audiences here; talkbacks after the show were apparently extremely well attended, with people eagerly sharing their own experiences with aging parents.

“It was almost like group therapy,” Kaye says.

Parsons, whose character tenaciously and sometimes hilariously explains to her pony-tailed son the hazards of growing old, once asked Smith about all the murmuring in the audience. Smith told the actress, “They’re agreeing with you.”

Unusually for a show that had already announced intentions to move, Kaye invited Variety and the New York Times to review the show in Washington. “If they’re going to kill us, I’d rather know about it now than on opening night in New York,” he figured. “And good reviews could help.”

The reviews were mixed, with reservations about Coble’s setup but full praise for the cast. “I was very mindful that while we didn’t have huge national stars, Estelle and Steven had never been reviewed negatively by any major publication,” Kaye says.

At Arena, the show exceeded sales goals. Executives from the Shubert Organization, owners of most of Broadway’s play-friendly theaters (as opposed to the bigger houses more hospitable to musicals), expressed interest.

“They’re like air traffic controllers,” Kaye explains. “They know what shows are out there circling, but only they know, until they want to make a commitment to you and your show.”

Failing to take off

By December, it was announced that “Velocity” would get the 750-seat Booth Theatre, with performances to begin April 1. Kaye added producing partners, Coble tweaked the script, and set designer Eugene Lee eliminated the apartment’s cluttered attic (Parson’s character is an artist) and emphasized the oversized tree that Spinella’s character climbs to breach his mother’s barricade. The energetic Parsons, who Kaye says was hiking a mountain last year when he tried to reach her with news of the Broadway delay, added more infirmity to her portrayal of the aging artist.

After a week of rehearsals, Parsons and Spinella were back on stage.

Coble says the play was essentially the same in Manhattan as it has been here and in Cleveland and in Boise, with only this slight difference: “In New York, every single line about real estate knocked ’em out.”

Audiences, Kaye and Coble say, were moved. But audiences were also unnervingly small.

“The needle wasn’t moving for ticket sales the way we’d like it,” Kaye recalls. “And we couldn’t figure out what’s going on.”

Kaye says he spent 20 percent of the show’s $2.5 million budget on marketing – namely, direct mail and television. But how do you sell a show about an angry septuagenarian who’d rather blow up her building than go quietly into an old-folks’ home?

“She’s going out with a bang,” went a tag line. Another, also trying to be lighthearted, declared, “One mother, one son, 100 Molotov cocktails.” Kaye and his ad agency fretted about making their pitch “too spinachy”: “You can’t say, ‘It will be really good for you to see this play,’ ” he explains.

Kaye’s mantra that “Velocity” is a word-of-mouth show wasn’t translating into sales. The show’s grosses slid from $135,000 the first week to a devastatingly low $84,000 the last week of April. Juggernaut musicals such as “Wicked” and “The Lion King” routinely pull in $2 million a week; comparing plays to plays, the new drama “All the Way,” with “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Johnson, is near the $1 million mark.

By the end of April, the average ticket price for “Velocity” was $20.77, the lowest on Broadway by miles. Kaye was having to “paper” the house – give away his tickets.

“Empty seat inventory doesn’t help you get word of mouth,” Kaye says.

Meanwhile, on came the late-spring crush of Broadway show ponies galloping toward the Tony Awards deadline: Daniel Radcliffe in “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” Denzel Washington in “Raisin in the Sun.” Neil Patrick Harris in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams in “Cabaret.”

“Broadway is an empty house, from ticket one,” Dobie says. At a nonprofit theater like Arena, the subscription base means that a third to a half of the seats are already sold for what is typically a four- to six-week engagement. With that running start, “Velocity,” like “Janis” and “A Time to Kill,” sold more than enough of its seats at Arena.

Cutting his losses

In New York, “Velocity” needed every advantage to get folks in the door. The reviews weren’t hit-making: a “wispy but amiable comedy-drama about the ravages of getting older,” declared the New York Times, with reservations about the “artificial whimsy” of the plot. “The play passes by breezily because Ms. Parsons is such fun to watch.”

Even a Tony nomination for Parsons wasn’t likely to set the box office on fire. Rather than take out loans to stay afloat until the awards in June, Kaye cut his losses.

Quick closings are a fact of life on Broadway, and no one is immune. David Mamet’s “The Anarchist” abruptly shuttered two weeks after its official opening in 2012, even with Patti LuPone and Debra Winger starring in the show’s only two roles. Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” had six weeks of previews but only two weeks of “regular” performances (after the official opening night) in 1981; his 1964 “Anyone Can Whistle” endured for a scant 12 previews and nine regular performances.

Closer to home, the 2012 Kathie Lee Gifford-penned musical “Scandalous” — titled “Saving Aimee” when it played Signature Theatre in 2007 — only managed for a month on Broadway after previews. The musical “Glory Days” premiered at Signature in January 2008, raced to Broadway that spring, previewed for 17 performances and closed after opening night. The drama “Elling,” now playing at the Washington Stage Guild, had three weeks of previews and then closed a week after opening in 2010.

That’s the life: Broadway hits can high-kick for years, and flops often get the rake right away.

Still optimistic

Did Kaye get a fast-track, hard-knocks lesson due to any first-time lead producer? He doesn’t believe so: “I think I was ready for it,” “I don’t view it as a failure of advertising,” and “We didn’t underspend,” he contends. But as to why “Velocity” hit the wall so swiftly: “It’s unclear to me.”

He’s still optimistic about getting a lot of the investment back.

“New York is New York, but the country is the country, and we have a chance to get this play out there,” Kaye says. He reports that dozens of U.S. theaters and a number of international troupes have inquired about the rights. With two characters, a single set, and a universal theme, he insists, “Ultimately, everyone will be doing it.”

How do you get an audience in New York?

“Nobody knows that,” Coble says, “or there would be several producers knocking it out of the park every year. And there just aren’t.” Showcasing movie stars, being based on a movie, being a musical: all help, he reckons, ticking off the standard ingredients on the Great White Way. “But none of those are guarantees.”

Coble adds that Kaye and Van Dean, whose Broadway Consortium shared lead producing duties, “were very straightforward all the way that this would be uphill.” Speaking by phone from his Cleveland living room, Coble talks about the play so sunnily you’d think it had just opened and would run as long as “Cats.”

The day the closing was announced, even hard-nosed theater vets may have empathized with Coble as he diplomatically posted on Facebook: “Feeling damned lucky. What a ride.”

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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