Don’t invest on Broadway unless you love the show. There’s an 80% chance you’ll get little more back than tickets on opening night and a backstage tour. If you do see a recoupment, never mind a profit, it could be years after you attend that splashy opening night party.
But sometimes you catch the brass ring. Think Annie. Think Book of Mormon.
Think, most likely, the revival of Pippin which opened last night on Broadway.
Among those clinking champagne glasses at last night’s after party were Anna Roberts Ostroff and Alan Ostroff, founders of Infinity Theatre Company in Annapolis, MD.
One morning, a few months after investing in their first Broadway show, the revival of the iconic Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson musical Pippin directed by Diane Paulus (The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess), the Ostroffs woke up to the news that advance sales were nearly $5 million and that Broadway prognosticator Michael Riedel had predicted, just 3 days after the first preview on April 25th, that Pippin would take the Tony Award.
This week, with the opening night on Thursday, Pippin has sold 101% of its seats, making it as tough a ticket to get as Broadway hits Newsies, I’ll Eat You Last and Lucky Guy and outsold only by Book of Mormon.
How did this happen?
To begin with, the Ostroffs, though young, were experienced theater hands. They knew and understood Broadway, having followed their dream to establish a theatre company outside New York which could bring in some of the talented performers they knew. They found the ideal venue in Annapolis, MD and launched the Infinity Theatre Company in 2010.
Infinity, which operates only in the summer, staged a series of critical and box-office successes – The Fantasticks, My Way, Little Shop of Horrors, Sisters of Swing, and Dames at Sea. Dames at Sea, last summer’s main musical, was helmed by Broadway director Randy Skinner. Seeing it mounted, the Ostroffs thought it might be the perfect show to open in New York. This past fall, the couple began working with an entertainment lawyer to find a venue for their show, and he mentioned that an investment group for Pippin was about to close.
This piqued their interest. Pippin, marked by Bob Fosse’s iconic choreography, had opened on Broadway in 1972 and closed, after 1,944 performances, in 1977, making it one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history. No one had ever tried to revive it. Patrick Healy and Zena Baraket, in a recent New York Times article, surmised that “Fosse’s direction and choreography won Tony Awards and became so sacred that after ‘Pippin’ closed in 1977, no one tempted fate to remount the show on Broadway.”
Revivals revive; efforts to simply reproduce a smash show from another era are seldom successful. So before deciding to get involved, the Ostroffs dropped in on Pippin, then in development. They attended a performance at American Repertory Theater in Boston, and followed up with a meeting with Pippin producer Howard Kagan . “We told him our ideas for how to build out the show for Broadway, and found out we were all on the same page,” Alan Ostroff told us. Seeing the perfect opportunity to learn, make connections, and be involved with a musical they love, they took their seats at the producers’ table along with 36 other private and corporate producers.
“At the first preview, the show got a standing ovation.” Ostroff continued. “Everyone, it seems, who performed in Pippin in high school and college is coming back to re-connect their emotional relationship with the journey of Pippin. It’s the same Pippin, re-imagined to do it justice for today’s audiences. The second act has been strengthened. And the new, more rock inspired interpretation of songs like ‘Morning Glow’ and ‘Corner of the Sky’ become even more timeless than I imagine they were in the 70s.”
Pippin tells the story of a young prince – Mathew James Thomas (Peter Parker, Spiderman) – who attempts to find the meaning of his existence, with the help of a group of performers, led by the Leading Player, Patina Miller (Sister Act) in the role originated by Ben Vereen.
And what new element has Paulus added to the iconic musical? She has turned the original concept of touring players who guide young Pippin into circus performers and has blended her cast of musical performers with aerialists and acrobats from the Montreal-based circus troupe Les 7 doigts de la main (7 Fingers). In an NPR Morning Edition interview, Stephen Schwartz admitted he was skeptical when Paulus first shared the circus idea with him. “I didn’t really understand what she was driving at, particularly,” Schwartz said. “Um, I thought, well you know, ‘What’s the difference? So somebody will be on a trapeze.’ And I didn’t quite understand how theatrical this could become, and how exciting.”
As Fosse did in 1972, Paulus plans to hook the audiences right away with the opening number “Magic to Do” with her blended cast juggling, flying and hand walking. It’s all dazzling, Alan Oscroff tells us, including a performance later in the show by Andrea Martin (SCTV) which includes a surprising stunt which he wants kept tightly under wraps.
Will the critics follow the fans and give Pippin another record-breaking run? The first reviewer, NBC New York’s Robert Kahn, couldn’t hide his enthusiasm. “My advice is to judge this ‘Pippin’ based on how it makes you feel, once you’ve separated that from all the delightful noise,” he said, but noted that “It left me ecstatic and spent, and feeling like it’s time to attend trapeze school.”
We’ll know more about the critical response – and the box office – later. Meanwhile, the busy producing team of Anna and Alan Ostroff has magic of its own to do planning the future New York production of Dames at Sea and preparing to open Infinity’s summer season in Annapolis of Always…Patsy Cline (June 8 – 30) and She Loves Me (July 12 – Aug 4.)
Pippin is onstage now at the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., New York, NY. Details and tickets