Hits record $499 mil, with tic sales at 16-year peak

NEW YORK — Falling just short of the $500 million mark, Broadway box office hit an all-time high during the 1996-97 season.

The financial bonanza stands in dramatic contrast to the industry’s generally lackluster artistic output this year, and profitable new shows were few and far between; however, a roster of sturdy productions and the highest attendance figures in 16 years pushed industry income to the record level of $499,400,898.

Although box office figures for U.S. touring productions were incomplete Monday, Daily Variety estimates that the tally will reach at least $755 million, taking the combined Broadway-road grosses to an unprecedented $1.25 billion. The total would be a 4% increase over the previous season’s $1.19 billion tally.

The B.O. figure for the just-ended Broadway season (May 27, 1996, to June 1, 1997) reflects a 15% increase over the $436,107,774 total of the previous season, according to Daily Variety tallies. Paid attendance hit 10,318,217 tix, a 9% increase over the previous season’s 9,468,216 and the second-highest number in Broadway history (the all-time record was set by the 1980-81 season’s 10,822,324).

Daily Variety’s road estimate indicates a 1% drop from the previous year’s record $762,292,884. Though the drop is small, it marks the first decline in road grosses in nearly 10 years, a slip many in the industry blame on a weak autumn season that saw the abrupt canceling of two shows (“Funny Girl” and “Applause”) and disappointing receipts for various others (“Sunset Boulevard,” “Death Trap”).

Broadway saw 37 new productions, down by one from the previous year. Ticket prices, however, were on the upswing, setting their own record in 1996-97 with an average $48.40 for all Broadway productions. The figure reflects a 5% increase over the previous year’s $46.06 average.

Although the artistic merit of the Broadway season drew its share of brickbats, the production roster included a number of strong-performing carryovers from previous years (“Rent,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk,” “The King and I” and the ever-present long-runners from Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber). The “Chicago” revival that opened last November has contributed big numbers to the chart ever since, and the wildly popular “David Copperfield: Dreams and Nightmares” grossed more than $6 million in its limited run last December.

Of the season’s new musicals, only the $3 million “Chicago” had recouped its capitalization by the end of the season, and “Titanic’s” strong showing at Sunday night’s Tony Awards could spell financial hardship for Tony rivals “Steel Pier” and “The Life.”

By late Monday afternoon, the $10 million “Titanic,” which won five Tonys including best musical, had wrapped $290,935 in ticket sales for the day, more than triple its usual $80,000 Monday wrap. Although producers of the $7.5 million “Steel Pier” declined to provide figures, that musical, shut out of any Tony wins, apparently was up only about 25% over its usual $75,000 wrap, putting the total in the mid-$90,000 range.

Wraps for the $6 million “The Life” were expected to reach between $85,000 and $90,000 by Monday evening, up from $46,000 the previous Monday, according to producer Martin Richards. The musical, although garnering the most Tony nominations (12), won only two (featured actor and actress in a musical).

Triple take at B.O

The best wraps were for “Chicago,” which won six Tonys, including musical revival. Sales even outclimbed “Titanic,” with the figure by 6 p.m. Monday hitting $354,632, more than triple a typical Monday’s $100,000 take. And the touring production of “Chicago” got a similar boost from the Tony publicity: The road show wrapped $84,000 in D.C., compared to a typical $35,000.

The post-Tony period claimed its first casualty Monday: Horton Foote’s “The Young Man From Atlanta” (which lost the best play nod to Alfred Uhry’s “The Last Night of Ballyhoo”) posted a June 8 closing notice. The play, which last year won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, was financed at $750,000 and will not recoup its investment.

**cont

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more