Has Broadway Become Reliant on Celebrity Draw at the Box Office?
November 9, 2017
By Katie Gainer
This week in Broadway news is dominated by reports of “splashy debuts” for singer-songwriter Jason Mraz and comedian-actress Amy Schumer in Waitress and Meteor Shower, respectively. The big stage first-timers brought in huge sales; on the other foot, we’ve seen a trend in shows faltering when its a big name exits a cast. This strong correlation in successes begs the question: is Broadway becoming reliant on celebrity?
Jason Mraz, who rose to fame with romantic pop hits like “I’m Yours” and “I Won’t Give Up” in the late 2000’s, joined Sara Bareilles’ Waitress for a ten-week engagement this week. Consequently, gross sales skyrocketed to $900,167; an over $170,000 increase from the week prior and an all-time high since the show’s opening in June.
The producers of Waitress, Fran and Barry Weissler, are the same pair that oversaw the revival of Chicago, notorious for guest starring not just famous actors but singers, sports players, and television personalities abound.
Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower opened for previews at the start of the month, and the star-studded cast features Keegan-Michael Key, Jeremy Shamos, and most notably, Amy Schumer. Schumer got her start on NBC’s comedy competition show Last Comic Standing in 2007, and quickly became a household name after writing and starring in two movies- Trainwreck with Bill Hader and Snatched with Goldie Hawn- as well as her own sketch show Inside Amy Schumer on Comedy Central.
Meteor Shower grossed $631,056 for just five shows, with an average ticket price of $162. Forbes points out that for a non-musical production in a small theater like the Booth, this is a staggering success.
The celebrity sales boost is no new trend to the Great White Way: Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe hiked sales for How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 2011, as did The Hangover‘s Bradley Cooper for The Elephant Man in 2014 and Panic! at the Disco’s front-man Brendon Urie for Kinky Boots this summer.
Bette Midler shattered box office records for her role in Hello, Dolly! this year but consequently, when Ms. Midler takes a vacation, sales plummet. Her first absence in July resulted in a drop of just shy of a million; another vacation last week ranked the show at this week’s highest gross drop of almost $1.5 million. Theater buffs have already begun to speculate the fate of Hello, Dolly! once Bette takes her final bow in mid-January.
Producers of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 had big shoes to fill when multiplatinum singer Josh Groban stepped down from his Broadway debut role as Pierre which, unsurprisingly, led to a half-a-million dollar hit. The role was taken over by Hamilton newcomer Okierite “Oak” Onaodowan – but not for long. When they found out they could score a three-week engagement with film and TV star Mandy Patinkin, producers quickly cut off their engagement with Oak. Sales effects aside, this turned out to be disastrous decision for the show. Cue a social media storm of criticism of the the replacement of a young, up-and-coming black actor with an older, white one; Patinkin dropped out and shortly after, The Great Comet closed.
And then there’s the Broadway behemoth that is Springsteen on Broadway…where to begin. Bruce “Working Class” Springsteen has managed to profit millions off of his fans with a brilliant marketing tactic that lets fans boasts their attendance at a concert and a Broadway show at once (if you didn’t Instagram your Springsteen on Broadway Playbill, did you even go?) The show’s run has already been extended once – and is rumored to be again – and has raked in over $11 million for its 25 performances thus far.
Although not created by and starring the artists themselves like Springsteen, a number of Broadway musicals have been written about the lives of various celebrities over the years. Let It Be, which follows the career and catalog of The Beatles toured the UK and currently plays to London’s West End, and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical has enjoyed years of success on the West End, Broadway, and touring the U.S. Jimmy Buffet-based Escape to Margaritaville, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, and The Cher Show are all set to open on Broadway in 2018.
The line between stage and film actors has long been blurred – but between sales numbers increasingly dependent on casting debuts and departures, the power of the people to close shows over a casting controversy, and entire shows based around the life and career of stars we know and love – all factors considered, is this the turn of a new celebrity-centric era on Broadway?