In case you haven't heard, it's official: Harlem Song will run through the end of the year. The revue about Harlem's history got mostly warm reviews when it opened at the Apollo Theater in August, but it faltered at the box office shortly thereafter. With only seven performances a week instead of the standard eight, the show needed strong advance sales if it was to recoup its $4 million investment. When the stalling economy, in part, kept those sales from materializing, Harlem Song was operating at a loss of tens of thousands of dollars each week -- even after writer-director George C. Wolfe revisited the show and made minor changes to trim its budget.
Because of collective bargaining agreements with unions, producers cannot close a show without first posting a provisional closing notice to let company members know they might soon be out of a job. On October 28, after burning through approximately $500,000 in operating losses, the producers posted the notice: Harlem Song would close at the end of the week. But the resulting media coverage of the show's apparent failure -- including discussions about what that might portend for Harlem itself, as well as some very positive comments about how much audiences seemed to enjoy the show -- surpassed any publicity Harlem Song had received since its opening. Not surprisingly, the flurry of reports in local papers, on area television stations, and even nationally through an Associated Press wire story, got theatergoers' attention. Ticket sales picked up and by week's end the closing notice was taken down, with the understanding that it could go back up at any time.
Over the next two weeks, the closing notice was posted and rescinded twice more as lead producer John Schreiber worked to get additional backing. At the same time, press representative Carol Fineman told TheaterMania, company members rallied behind the show. "Everyone in the cast has a very emotional connection to the piece," Fineman said. "They feel it's more than just a show, so they and some of the crew have gone out in a grassroots way, to their neighborhoods and to their churches, to let people know about it."
With steadily increasing ticket sales making his task easier, Schreiber was able to raise an additional $300,000 -- enough to keep Harlem Song running until December 31. After that, Fineman said "the hope and plan" is to mount limited-run revivals at the Apollo every winter. But she said it "is so premature" to speculate on whether the revue would include different material, if Wolfe would direct the future editions, or any other possible changes. "For now," according to Fineman, "all the energy and effort is on getting the word out."
With strong word of mouth, ticket sales now covering weekly expenses, and an original cast recording set to hit stores this month, Fineman said the morale is "terrific," and the mood backstage at Harlem Song as joyful as anything center stage. To quote from the show itself, "Well alright then."
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