NEW YORK -- With Broadway colonized by a floundering comic-strip superhero and its stages more than ever dominated by retooled screen properties, these are tough times for bona fide original musicals. But if one new show not based on an existing brand stands to break through this season, it's The Book of Mormon.
That impression was consolidated on opening night in early reviews as one major critic after another raved about the show. Read The Hollywood Reporter's review here.
Even before opening, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's satirical musical received the kind of ringing endorsement most producers only dream about. On a recent episode of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart became almost tongue-tied in his gushing enthusiasm for the latest venture from his Comedy Central stablemates.
If such influential support can help galvanize the South Park team's fan base, the show already will have succeeded where many others have failed -- in reaching beyond regular Broadway theatergoers. Young males are not exactly the core demographic for musicals.
Every theater season -- which runs June through May -- needs a powerhouse hit to galvanize theatergoers, draw media attention and spill a little of its glow onto other productions. With the future of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark now uncertain as that show goes on hiatus for an extensive overhaul, Mormon might just take that top spot. The show's robust sales during previews have been a strong indicator.
According to figures compiled by the Broadway League, grosses this season through March 20 stand at $843 million, ahead of $821 million for the same period last year. If Parker and Stone's scrappy newcomer becomes a breakout hit, it inevitably will help push season totals well over the $1 billion mark, a threshold officially crossed for the first time last season.
"Season to date, we're up in grosses by 2.7% and up in attendances by 1.6%, so we're on track for a terrific year," says Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League. "At this point, it will probably be the second-biggest year in the history of Broadway."
Lead producers on Mormon are Anne Garefino, longtime executive producer of South Park, and Scott Rudin, who worked with Parker and Stone on both South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Team America: World Police. They made the brave decision to bypass the traditional out-of-town tryout and open cold on Broadway.
The two other musicals that went the same route this season have demonstrated what a scalding process that can be for an untested show.
Despite its top talent pool, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown endured toxic word of mouth through previews that virtually killed the show by opening night. And the media circus that pitched a big-top tent around Spider-Man turned an unforgiving spotlight on that juggernaut's teething troubles.
By contrast, Mormon, which officially opened March 24, built terrific word of mouth through its month of previews, most surprisingly from within the Broadway community. The keynote of that buzz has been the affection and respect of the creative team -- which includes Tony-winning Avenue Q co-writer Robert Lopez -- for traditional musical-theater form.
Provided Tony voters are not clutching their pearls in shock over the show's torrent of profanities, Parker, Lopez and Stone seem likely to find themselves in the nominees circle during the upcoming theater awards season. Tony telecast exposure often can be instrumental in securing a boost for musicals as they head into the summer, when the flow of new productions takes a break. This year's Tony nominations will be announced May 3, with the awards ceremony scheduled for June 12.
The season's other original musicals to date, The Scottsboro Boys and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, scored with critics but failed to build audiences and closed quickly. And the remaining roster is crowded with movie retreads, among them Sister Act, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Catch Me If You Can.
That gives Mormon an edge among newbies to step out from the pack and win fresh Broadway converts. Teen and college-age audiences have turned out in hefty numbers through previews, resulting in a major rush for the student lottery allocation and a lot of hopefuls joining the cancellation line for each performance. Mormon also has more Facebook followers than almost any other show on Broadway.
"Book of Mormon has a very strong buzz about it, as do several of the other shows coming in," says St. Martin, citing Spring Awakening, American Idiot and Rock of Ages among productions that have helped introduce younger audiences to Broadway. "We've been in that trend now for a good three years. I think we're doing well because we do have such diversity."
The producers have not disclosed the capitalization for Mormon, but with a trim orchestra of nine musicians, no star salaries and a set without major mechanics, it is believed to be in the modest $7 million-$10 million range, with a weekly running cost estimated around $600,000. Grosses are expected to hit $1 million per week once the show switches post-opening to a full performance schedule, which means recoupment could be not too far down the line.