Will Producers Drop Ball On New Year’s Eve?

Plenty of Broadway’s big musicals and even a couple of plays went clean on New Year’s Eve – and grosses shot up accordingly with holiday surcharges.

But empty seats at several shows prompted their producers to begin thinking about alternatives for the future, including an earlier curtain or forgoing New Year’s Eve performances altogether in favor of an additional holiday-week matinee. A lot of traditional theatergoers, they reasoned, just don’t want to be anywhere near the district at the same time as the crowds gathering to watch the famous ball drop.

Of course, such concerns mattered not a whit to folks who’d purchased tickets as much as a year in advance to the season’s big hits and the perennial holiday sellouts: “Show Boat,” “Sunset Boulevard” (with a $100 ducat, the top for the night) and “Beauty and the Beast” were packed to the rafters. So were “Carousel,” “Grease,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Cats,” “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon” (which sold all but one of its 1,761 tickets). Two 50-year-old plays also sold out: “An Inspector Calls” and “The Glass Menagerie.”

But “Damn Yankees,” at the Marquis (which fronts directly on the Times Square crowds), “Crazy for You,” “Passion,” “Tommy,” “Jackie Mason: Politically Incorrect” and “Blood Brothers” – each having enjoyed an otherwise exceptional week at the box office – had empty seats on New Year’s Eve, as did attractions brought in especially for the holidays, including Patrick Stewart’s solo “A Christmas Carol,” “The Flying Karamazov Brothers Do the Impossible!” and “A Tuna Christmas.”

“People do want to go out, but they don’t want to be anywhere near Times Square after around 9 o’clock,” said “Damn Yankees” producer Mitchell Maxwell. “We’ve got to get union concessions so we can have an early curtain on New Year’s Eve, say a t 6:30 p.m.”

While B.O. treasurers tend to blame any shortfall on the holiday premium, one of Broadway’s top general managers said the larger consensus is that the audience is as resistant to the location as it is to the price hike. And Boneau/Bryan-Brown partner Adrian Bryan-Brown, whose agency handles press for many of the night’s winners as well as losers, agreed, taking some of the blame himself.

“We gave bad advice,” Bryan-Brown said of the planning with producers and ad agencies. “I don’t think theater-goers want to be in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. There’ll be more midweek matinees that week in the future.”

This was producer Timothy Childs’ third New Year’s Eve with “A Christmas Carol,” and he says “it’s always the slowest night to sell.” But finding room for another matinee or setting an early curtain also presents problems, says Childs, whose slate also included the “Karamazovs.” Matinees may already have been added to make up for lost Christmas performances.

“It depends on whether you can find an intelligent place to put that performance,” says Childs. “And anytime you go to a nontraditional hour, you’ve got problems.”

Nevertheless, even for the shows that did go clean, times have changed; what used to be a sure bet no longer is.

“New Year’s Eve is not what it used to be, when you could put the tickets on sale at a premium and you’d sell out far in advance,” says Alan Wasser, general manager of “Les Miz,” “Miss Saigon” and “Phantom.” “That’s not true today. Our shows sold out, but they did a lot closer to the date.”

“‘Blood Brothers’ sold out every performance but New Year’s Eve,” said Philip Rinaldi, the show’s spokesman. “I was shocked, especially since last year it sold out New Year’s Eve. Maybe it’s the weekend, when people are doing other things.”

The fact that this year’s celebration fell on a Saturday night – a rainy one at that – also was raised by veteran general manager Joseph Harris, whose current shows include “Inspector” and “Jackie Mason.” With some help from the TKTS discount booth in Father Duffy Square, “Inspector” sold out, while about a third of the tickets for Mason’s show stayed in the rack. Plays, Harris says, will always have an even tougher time than usual on the weekend holiday.

“It does depend what night New Year’s Eve falls on,” Harris says. “People resist going to a serious play on what is supposedly a

happy night. It’s a tourist evening.”

“Tuna” producer Charles Duggan was unfazed. Noting that the show did about 90% of capacity that night, he said, “If you have a hit show, you should play New Year’s Eve.”

But the past year has already seen producers shake up the schedule, canceling unprofitable weeknight performances to add more matinees and setting earlier curtains for family fare such as “Beauty and the Beast.” They’ve also put cut-rate tickets on advance sale for the January and February doldrums, a tactic that appears to have paid off, if enthusiastic audience response is any measure.

All of the general managers and press agents contacted for this story whose shows failed to sell out on New Year’s Eve agreed that the time had come to look for better ways to take advantage of an all-important holiday period, rather than rely on old truisms.

“I tend to think of New Year’s Eve as another generation’s holiday,” notes Alan Wasser. “I don’t know anyone who makes a big deal out of New Year’s Eve.”

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