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In Broadway seats, few guys among the dolls



NEW YORK » More men are steering clear of Broadway, and not even this spring’s ultimate bro show – "Rocky," the new musical about the beloved boxing underdog – has found a way to fill seats with them.

While men have been hanging back for years, their current scarcity, at a time when overall Broadway attendance is down, is particularly stark. Only 32 percent of audience members last year were men, or 3.7 million, compared with 42 percent (or 4.2 million) in 1980.

This season is not providing any relief. New York Yankees fans skipped the baseball-themed "Bronx Bombers," which flopped fast. John Grisham guys passed on the adaptation of "A Time to Kill," which closed after seven weeks. Among musicals, "Big Fish" was all about dads, and "First Date" sold shot glasses to underscore its dude appeal, yet both shows were strikingly poor sellers.

Women drive Broadway sales, though successful shows often depend on them to wrangle their husbands or boyfriends.

That might be the Achilles’ heel of "The Bridges of Madison County," a new romantic musical based on the enormously successful book and film. Producers have taken out emergency loans to keep running, in part because the show has proved so unpopular with men.

"It’s always been a holy grail on Broadway – to have a show that universally appeals to men and women," said Michele Groner, the lead marketing executive for "Rocky." "Women are the low-hanging fruit. Trying to appeal to men is an increasingly scary challenge." (The attendance problem is mostly with straight men; gay men are widely considered by producers and group sales agents to be a reliable Broadway demographic.)

While a night out at the theater used to be a staple for cultured American men, fewer shows are grabbing them these days. One possible reason: The golden age of grown-up musicals like "South Pacific" and "Guys and Dolls" has given way to spectacle-laden shows aimed at moms and children. And while families may have turned "The Lion King" and "Wicked" into billion-dollar blockbusters, men often feel either dragged along to such shows or grateful to be left home with the remote control.

"When my wife and three girls invited me to ‘Mary Poppins,’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’" said Bert Miranda, an insurance executive who was visiting New York with his family recently, recalling their last trip from Jacksonville, Fla.

The Mirandas spoke after seeing "Rocky," one of the big-budget new shows of the season. Producers believed that highlighting the show’s central romance in ads – with the tagline "Love Wins" – would attract women, while wide swaths of men would want to see a favorite hero. But "Rocky" has been struggling at the box office, grossing $799,879 last week, or 53 percent of the maximum possible amount – barely enough to break even.

To bolster attendance, "Rocky" is now making a powerful push for men. The musical’s ads now feature the word "Knockout!" – used in some theater reviews – and television ads are running where the guys are: Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, "Saturday Night Live," Comedy Central, ESPN. The show is also pursuing a social media campaign using catchphrases from legends from football and baseball. While "Rocky" executives don’t have hard numbers by sex, they have noticed men attending together without women – an unusual sight on Broadway – and guys pumping their fists, trading high-fives and cheering Rocky during the climactic title fight, in which a boxing ring slides into the audience.

"Some are in Hugo Boss suits; some are in sweatpants," Groner said of the men. "But we need more of them."

Because Broadway producers do not disclose show-by-show breakdowns by sex – their trade organization releases the overall annual figures – there is no Top 10 list of shows for men. But according to Broadway marketing executives and group sales agents, recent musicals that have drawn strong numbers of men include "The Book of Mormon," "Jersey Boys," "Rock of Ages," "Motown the Musical" and the Monty Python-inspired "Spamalot." Some plays with popular alpha-male stars – like "Glengarry Glen Ross" with Al Pacino – were solid sellers as well. (Some 80 percent of all Broadway theatergoers see musicals.)

Producers don’t have data on straight men versus gay men, but, anecdotally, they believe gay men show up in strong numbers to both musicals and plays.

"Gay men remain a core part of the Broadway audience, even as we’ve lost other men," said Kevin McCollum, a veteran producer whose musicals include "Motown" and "Rent."

By comparison, men and women go to movies in roughly equal numbers, and men pack sports events and rock concerts. The Metropolitan Opera said it had no audience data by gender; at the New York Philharmonic, 46 percent of audience members were men in 2012, compared with 40 percent in 2002.Among the Broadway musicals popular with men, "Rock of Ages" – a jukebox show built on 1980s hits – recently passed the five-year mark of performances "in large part because guys keep coming," said one of its producers, Matt Weaver. Designed to be "a musical for dudes," the show draws men, Weaver believes, because of their attachment to ’80s music and to sports-oriented promotions during games and the days before the Super Bowl.

"We also serve alcohol at people’s seats, which appeals to guys and to girls," Weaver said.

Michael David, one of the lead producers of "Jersey Boys," a jukebox musical featuring the hits of the Four Seasons, said his show pursued "an entirely new avenue of marketing" aimed at men once it became clear that the show was being seen in some quarters as similar to "testosterone friendly entertainments" like "The Sopranos." The show has a four-year promotional deal with the New Jersey Devils, for instance, that includes "Big Girls Don’t Cry" playing in the arena when an opposing player skates to the penalty box, and "Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You" accompanying a "Jersey Boys Kiss Cam" panning the crowd for kissing couples. In 2012, men made up 35 percent of the "Jersey Boys" audience – on the higher side for musicals, given that many shows fall under the 32 percent figure for all of Broadway.

Yet appealing too exclusively to men can backfire. The lack of men at recent sports plays on Broadway – "Bronx Bombers," "Magic/Bird" and "Lombardi" – surprised their producers, given the promotional support from the professional baseball, basketball and football leagues. (No leagues or teams put money into the shows, the producers said.) Tony Ponturo, a lead producer of the plays, said he and his partners were "taking a breath" before deciding whether to do another sports play.

"We had a lot of challenges, like getting our men from the suburbs to come during weeknights," Ponturo said. "It takes time to blow up the routine of a male who doesn’t normally go to theater. But we didn’t have the money to keep waiting."

For "Rocky," audience members like Miranda will be crucial to spreading positive word of mouth. Wearing a New York Mets hoodie – he grew up in New Brunswick, N.J. -Miranda said he would recommend the show to friends, especially because it borrowed "thrilling" elements from the "Rocky" movies – like Bill Conti’s theme and the song "Eye of the Tiger," which is blended in the show with original music.

"I’m big into baseball, big into the Jacksonville Jaguars, big into the outdoors," he said. "Not many of my friends see musicals either, but I’ll tell them that this one is for real."

Patrick Healy, New York Times

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