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 â€œasses-in-seatsâ€ statistic â€” according to a report recently released by The Broadway League, a trade organization â€” 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 â€œGlengarry Glen Rossâ€ and â€œThe Heiress,â€ starring Pacino and Chastain, respectively, recouped before they closed. â€œLucky Guy,â€ 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 Loganâ€™s â€œIâ€™ll Eat You Last.â€ 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 â€” nearly $300 for a prime orchestra seat.
Meanwhile, Broadwayâ€™s bottom line is now being fed by a spring shower of splashy musicals: â€œMatilda, â€œ â€œKinky Boots,â€ â€œCinderella,â€ â€œPippin,â€ and â€œMotown.â€ The critical reception ranged from raves (â€œMatildaâ€) to pans (â€œMotownâ€). But again, â€œMotown,â€ 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 â€œIâ€™ll Eat You Lastâ€ and â€œAnn,â€ 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. â€œAnnâ€ took in just over $240,000, with an average ticket of about $55.00. The contrast is just as stark between the â€œcheapestâ€ musical on Broadway (â€œNice Work If You Can Get It,â€ with an $84.84 average ticket price) and the priciest (â€œBook of Mormon,â€ $207.13).
This means that going to Broadway has turned from a â€œhabitâ€ into an â€œevent.â€ 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 â€œevent,â€ either through spectacle (â€œSpider-Manâ€) 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 thatâ€™s not fail-proof. â€œOrphans,â€ starring Alec Baldwin, was a flop, as was â€œCat on a Hot Tin Roof,â€ starring Scarlett Johannson. It also means producers will rely increasingly on more brand names like the poorly-received â€œMotown.â€
The most depressing aspect of the season was the noticeable absence of a â€œsleeper,â€ a high artistic achievement that also managed to find commercial success. Past years have yielded hits like â€œNext to Normal,â€ about a loving family scarred by their bi-polar mother, and â€œOnce,â€ an intimate love story between an Irish busker and Czech immigrant. â€œMatilda,â€ a stunning adaptation of a dark Roald Dahl classic, scores the highest in moving forward the art form itself. Itâ€™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 â€œGiant,â€ â€œDogfight,â€ â€œHere Lies Love,â€ and â€œNatasha, Pierre and The Comet of 1812â€ are arguably far better than, say, â€œBring it On,â€ an inane musical about high school cheerleaders that is among this yearâ€™s Tony nominees for Best Musical. There is hope that â€œHere Lies Loveâ€ and â€œNatashaâ€ may transfer to Broadway. But those will be risky bets given the current climate.