BootLeg Betty

Bette Midler and Tom Hanks Brighten a Dismal Season

ArtInfo
MAY 31, 2013, 4:21 PM
Bette Midler and Tom Hanks Brighten a Dismal Season
By Patrick Pacheco

midler

Battered by Hurricane Sandy and a weak slate of fall shows, Broadway attendance plunged by 6.2 percent during the 2012-13 season, compared to the previous year. The proverbial “asses-in-seats” statistic — according to a report recently released by The Broadway League, a trade organization — was the worst showing for the Great White Way in eight years. Total receipts for the season was a flat $1.139 billion, slightly down from the year before.

Not surprisingly, marquee names powered tickets sales. Bette Midler, Tom Hanks, Al Pacino, and Jessica Chastain proved golden. Last fall, revivals of “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “The Heiress,” starring Pacino and Chastain, respectively, recouped before they closed. “Lucky Guy,” starring Hanks in his Broadway debut, is still going strong after returning its investment in record time. (It is a bittersweet triumph for the surviving family members of the late writer Nora Ephron, who always longed for a hit but who died months before rehearsals for the play began.) And Midler has had the last laugh after being snubbed for a Tony Award nomination for her acclaimed star turn as the late super-agent Sue Mengers in John Logan’s “I’ll Eat You Last.” On May 30, the producers announced that show, which has been a hot-ticket since it opened, recouped its $2.4 million investment in only eight weeks. Midler continues in the bitchy gossip fest only through June 30, which means that the remaining weekly grosses will be enhanced by the premium ticket price — nearly $300 for a prime orchestra seat.

Meanwhile, Broadway’s bottom line is now being fed by a spring shower of splashy musicals: “Matilda, “ “Kinky Boots,” “Cinderella,” “Pippin,” and “Motown.” The critical reception ranged from raves (“Matilda”) to pans (“Motown”). But again, “Motown,” due to its powerful brand, is having the last laugh. Its gross last week was over $1.3 million, with an average ticket price of $112.86.

What does this augur for Broadway? The news is not good. It appears that it is either feast or famine. As an example, take the solo shows “I’ll Eat You Last” and “Ann,” starring Holland Taylor. The weekly gross for the former was over $800,000 (for seven performances) with an average ticket price of a staggering $146.54. “Ann” took in just over $240,000, with an average ticket of about $55.00. The contrast is just as stark between the “cheapest” musical on Broadway (“Nice Work If You Can Get It,” with an $84.84 average ticket price) and the priciest (“Book of Mormon,” $207.13).

This means that going to Broadway has turned from a “habit” into an “event.” The high ticket prices are driving regular theater-goers away and tourists are not entirely filling the void. There is increasing pressure on producers to create an “event,” either through spectacle (“Spider-Man”) or star power. The receipts of the last season will only emphasize the need for a marquee name, and stars are attracted largely by the mounting of a proven product. Hence there will be more revivals. But even that’s not fail-proof. “Orphans,” starring Alec Baldwin, was a flop, as was “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” starring Scarlett Johannson. It also means producers will rely increasingly on more brand names like the poorly-received “Motown.”

The most depressing aspect of the season was the noticeable absence of a “sleeper,” a high artistic achievement that also managed to find commercial success. Past years have yielded hits like “Next to Normal,” about a loving family scarred by their bi-polar mother, and “Once,” an intimate love story between an Irish busker and Czech immigrant. “Matilda,” a stunning adaptation of a dark Roald Dahl classic, scores the highest in moving forward the art form itself. It’s a daring high-wire act that an inventive creative team managed to pull off. However, it was carefully nurtured by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which enjoys British government subsidies. After a tryout at their home base in Stratford, it transferred to the West End, claiming a record number of Olivier Awards, the equivalent of the Tony.

As usual, the most adventurous work being done here lies off-Broadway in the not-for-profit arena. Musicals like “Giant,” “Dogfight,” “Here Lies Love,” and “Natasha, Pierre and The Comet of 1812” are arguably far better than, say, “Bring it On,” an inane musical about high school cheerleaders that is among this year’s Tony nominees for Best Musical. There is hope that “Here Lies Love” and “Natasha” may transfer to Broadway. But those will be risky bets given the current climate.

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