“Lady Day” Recoups on Broadway

Continual Extensions, and a Financial Hit

microphoneLady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, the play with music starring Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday, has recouped its investment and will conclude its run having earned a substantial profit. Running at the modest sized Circle in the Square Theater since March 25, 2014, with its official opening on April 13, 2014, this production has been extended three times, and is now slated to run until September 21, 2014 (with a hiatus between September 1st to 7th). With a budget of $2.6 million, the play was performing only mediocrely at the box office until June, when Audra McDonald took home the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play. Since then, the show has taken in between 80 and 90% of its gross potential each week. The weekly grosses are lower than many other shows due to the small seating capacity of the theatre, but audience demand nevertheless allowed the show to enter profits.

Audra McDonald Draws in the Audiences

The critical response to the show was mixed, but reviewers unanimously lauded McDonald’s performance as Holiday at the end Actress singer Audra McDonald red carpet event black dressof her career. The plot piles in the more tragic elements of Holiday’s life, and some reviewers felt that this storytelling was contrived. However, McDonald – a favorite with theatregoers, Tony voters, and critics – was praised for her ability to tone down her magnificent voice to communicate the sadder period of Holiday’s career, and yet she still managed to convey a rich and expressive tone. The production, directed by Lonny Price, was nominated for one more Tony Award beyond McDonald’s, that for Best Sound Design of a Play (Steve Canyon Kennedy), which it did not win. The Tony committee deemed that the show was eligible for the award of Best Revival of a Play, which was controversial both because the play had never been done on Broadway, and because it is full of music. However, the committee felt it was best categorized as a play with music.

The Play’s History

Lady Day was written by Lanie Robertson with its original premiere in 1986 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. The play also ran Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in 1986, running for 281 performances. The Broadway production, produced by Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel, was originally scheduled for a 10-week limited engagement, but awards recognition and audience support allowed the show to continually announce extensions. With many weeks now left to go, the show will conclude its run significantly in the black.

Recoupment on Broadway This Season

Several other shows have announced recoupment this season. Most recently, Of Mice and Men starring James Franco ended its run having passed the line into profits. A Raisin in the Sun starring Denzel Washington, which won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play, also made back its investment, while also performing excellently both critically and in terms of awards. Furthermore, All the Way starring Bryan Cranston recouped its investment, having won the Tony Award for Best Play. Finally, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which is still running indefinitely after having won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, has already announced recoupment. This goes to show that in general, Tony Awards make a huge difference at the box office, especially for the four major awards (Best Play, Best Musical, Best Revival of a Play, and Best Revival of a Musical), as well as the Best Performance categories.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” Opens on Broadway

The Circle in the Square Theatre is one of Broadway’s more intimate venues, allowing the audience to get up close and personal with the performer in front of them.  In the case of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, which opened on April 13, 2014, the star is five-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, and the personal story is that of the timeless and beloved jazz singer Billie Holiday.  According to the largely positive critical response, this play with music is an engaging and compelling piece, in which McDonald guides her crowd through the journey of Holiday’s life – both musical and personal.  The play is written by Lanie Robertson, directed by Lonny Price, and the music was arranged and orchestrated by Tim Weil.

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The play was first produced at New York’s Off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre in 1986, and this is its Broadway premiere.  This bio-show recounts the songs that made Billie Holiday famous, as well as the tales that made her notorious.  Specifically, she was an alcoholic and heroin addict, who only found balance and solace through the deep bounty of her singing voice.  The fictional set-up is meant to recreate one of Holiday’s final performances, at a small, intimate bar in Philadelphia.  Fortunately, the Circle in the Square Theatre is able to recreate this venue better than many other Broadway houses might.  Still, The New York Times critiqued the show for its lack of believability, for Holiday often performed in a dark room with a spotlight so she could not see her own audience, and she would have never divulged such a personal tale as McDonald does in this portrayal.

This show follows in the tradition of biographical shows based off the lives of now deceased performers, delving into their tragedy as well as their timeless beauty.  For instance, End of the Rainbow, also a bio-play with music, ran on Broadway in the spring of 2012, with Tracie Bennett portraying Judy Garland with all her force and folly, including her timeless hits such as “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”  Furthermore, the spring of 2013 saw Nathan Lane playing the 1930s burlesque performer Chauncey in The Nance, exploring the ups and the downs of his life.  Time and again, producers rely on the familiarity of historical figures recreated by modern-day performers, banking on the double name recognition to move tickets.

Lady Day and Emerson’s Bar and Grill is just hanging on at the box office.  As it is only playing seven performances a week in a theatre with only 682 seats, the show already faces difficulty in competing with the other shows in terms of weekly grosses.  Even so, its weekly figures have been fairly low.  In the week ending April 13, 2014, the show grossed $366,156, which was only 58.73% of its gross potential.  This is about how well the show has been doing since it began previews.  It is scheduled to close on August 10, 2014.