Assured by producers that their jobs were safe, actors skipped auditions for other musicals. Band members signed apartment leases. Investors wrote more checks for the show.
But when they all gathered together on April 8, for a final rehearsal of their musical, “A Night With Janis Joplin,” a theater’s worth of hopes were dashed. They learned that the show’s lead producers — who had moved “Joplin” from Broadway to the lower-budget Off Broadway — were canceling the run because of poor ticket sales, just 48 hours before reopening downtown at the Gramercy Theater.
According to five production members who were at the Gramercy that night, one actress reacted with cold fury about the show’s marketing. Another curled up in a ball. Crying silently was the show’s star, Mary Bridget Davies, who had earned critical acclaim as Joplin on Broadway and may nab a Tony Award nomination next week. The investors seemed calmer, although one later used a profanity to rue the “train wreck” that the production had become.
Mitch Wilson, a drummer, and the actress De’Adre Aziza performed in “A Night With Janis Joplin.” Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
The implosion of “A Night With Janis Joplin” — which had a budget of $3.9 million on Broadway and about $650,000 for the Gramercy — stands as one of the messiest of the theater season, judging by interviews this week with seven actors and musicians who were involved with the show.
But it is also an object lesson in making rosy assumptions about ticket sales in the unpredictable world of commercial theater. And to several of the actors and musicians, the show is yet another instance of producers’ toying with artists’ lives and careers.
“I guess it was naïve of me to trust our producers that I’d have a job because audiences would definitely come,” said Mitch Wilson, a drummer in the “Joplin” band on Broadway, who had signed on for the Off Broadway run. “I mean, shows close all the time — I get that. But what happened with ‘Janis’ was surreal.”
The producers — Daniel Chilewich and Todd Gershwin, who were relatively inexperienced in New York theater, and Michael Cohl, a lead producer of the recently shuttered Broadway musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” — declined an interview request. In response to written questions, they released a statement saying that they made the decision to scrap the Off Broadway run “in the best interests of our investors/co-producers” but with “heavy hearts for these talented actors and musicians.” They said they were planning a North American tour that would create jobs for many of them.
“A Night With Janis Joplin,” a bio-musical about this towering 1960s singer and the black musicians like Aretha Franklin who inspired her, opened on Broadway last fall with some momentum — out-of-town tryouts had sold well — and the blessing of the Joplin estate. (Joplin’s two siblings issued statements supporting the show’s producers this week.) But it earned mixed reviews, and ticket sales were uneven, a sign of limited appeal.
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Several actors in the Broadway run said they became worried that their producers lacked savvy, particularly about attracting audiences. One cast member, De’Adre Aziza, a Tony Award nominee for “Passing Strange,” said in an interview that she and others had urged the producers to reach out to black theatergoers by highlighting Ms. Franklin, Bessie Smith and other characters through television appearances and magazines like Ebony and Essence. These ideas mostly went nowhere, Ms. Aziza said. (The producers said in their statement that they had an “open-door policy” with the cast to hear their marketing ideas and hired a consultant with expertise in reaching black audiences.)
Ticket sales slid in January, for which the producers blamed the weather and the seasonal drop-off in tourists. The show’s landlord, the Shubert Organization, urged the producers to close “Joplin,” the producers said. But they became convinced that it could have a longer life Off Broadway, where shows can survive on smaller budgets, as musicals like “Avenue Q” and “Million Dollar Quartet” have.
Despite its declining ticket sales on Broadway, the producers said that they believed that audience enthusiasm for the show and the “unique nature of the Gramercy Theater” would attract a mix of musical-theater fans and concertgoers.
Yet the theater — on East 23rd Street — was in an area with little tourist foot traffic. And there was relatively little time to market the show’s move: It closed on Broadway on Feb. 9 and was scheduled to begin performances at the Gramercy on April 10.
“I was concerned there wasn’t enough time to sell tickets, but we didn’t want to lose momentum after Broadway,” said one investor, Alan Shorr, who put more money in for Off Broadway. “There was certainly a risk in moving to the Gramercy; it became about trying to quantify those risks.”
Mr. Shorr, who praised the lead producers, said he hoped to earn back some of his investment from the possible tour.
According to several actors and musicians in the show, one of the lead producers, Mr. Chilewich, repeatedly assured them that the Gramercy run was a certainty. But Ms. Aziza, for one, said she passed on the move to Off Broadway because she had become mistrustful of Mr. Chilewich — especially after learning that he was among a group of lawyers who pleaded guilty in 2005 to a felony charge of filing false documents with a state agency. Mr. Chilewich was subsequently disbarred; he said by email this week that he has always accepted responsibility for the improper filing and was now a member of the New York and New Jersey state bars.
“I would rather collect unemployment and raise my son on that then go back into that show,” Ms. Aziza said. “My main concern was the treatment of the actors by the producers. I feel they did not look after the actors and musicians properly.”
Ms. Davies, the show’s star, did not respond to requests for an interview. The show’s director and writer, Randy Johnson, issued a statement expressing gratitude for all involved.
Another actress, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear that other producers would not hire her because she was outspoken, said she passed up an audition for the Broadway hit “Motown: The Musical” because she had committed to “Joplin.” She was all the more angry, then, that the three lead producers did not appear at the Gramercy on April 8 to announce the cancellation themselves or apologize.
The actors and musicians took a half-hour to rally themselves and collect their belongings. Boxes in hand, several walked along 23rd Street to Chelsea and settled into the Dallas BBQ restaurant to commiserate over margaritas. They stayed a couple of hours, and a waitress even brought them cupcakes on the house.