B’way season hits another high note

NEW YORK — Broadway loves a happy ending, and the 1996-97 season offered a shipload. Receipts for the frame hit a record of nearly $500 million, attendance was at a 16-year high, a $10 million musical torpedoed by merciless jokes triumphed, and a Tony Award-winning play recouped its capitalization and will pay off its loyal investors.

The play? “Angels in America.” It closed on Broadway 2-1/2 years ago.

The long-in-coming solvency of Tony Kushner’s epic says as much about the lunatic economics of Broadway as any other fact or figure. The two-part “Angels,” which won a pair of best-play Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize, recouped the entirety of its $3.5 million investment only after the two-year-plus accumulation of royalties from post-Broadway stagings around the world.

So what chance does a $10 million “Titanic” have, Tony sweep notwithstanding? Or a $7.5 million (and Tony-free) “Steel Pier”? Even with record sums of money pouring in, profits on Broadway can seem as rare as an empty seat at “Rent.”

“You don’t expect to get all your money back in New York,” says Michael David, a producer of the Tony-winning musical “Titanic.” “Broadway is the tap-root for a lot of branches. We planned a tour from the beginning. You have to.”

As tap-roots go, Broadway just ended an impressive season, at least financially. For the theatrical year that ended June 1, paid attendance rose 9% over the previous season to 10,318,217; average ticket prices were up 5% to $48.40, and total ticket sales jumped 15% to an all-time high of $499,400,898 (Daily Variety, June 3).

And, of course, some shows do make money while on Broadway, though it can take more time than many productions can afford. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” recouped this season after opening during the previous one, yet both “The King & I” and “Victor/Victoria” remain in the red well into their long and popular runs.

Irksome economics

The reasons for the disparity between Broadway receipts and Broadway profits have been documented ad nauseam. High operating expenses, old theaters incapable of housing audiences large enough to support production costs and a dwindling core market combine to make Broadway economics more temperamental than any self-obsessed diva.

Success stories on the level of “Cats” — Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 15-year-old production that is living up to its “Now and Forever” claim by becoming the longest-running Broadway musical as of June 19 — seem like a leftover from a bygone era.

As “Titanic’s” David notes, “Cats” probably isn’t possible today. “The landscape has changed. For one thing, there are more people trying to be ‘Cats’ than there were then.”

Indeed. This spring virtually every one of Broadway’s 36 theaters was filled or booked: 38 new productions opened during the ’96-97 season (tying the previous season’s nine-year high). Playing weeks — the combined number of weeks each Broadway show operated — jumped to 1,346, a 17% increase over the previous year. (A small portion of all the statistical increases must be attributed to the fact that the 1996-97 season was a theatrical leap year, with 53, rather than the usual 52, weeks.)

Strong on the road

Nationwide, the theater industry remained strong despite a tiny 1% drop in road grosses from the previous season.

Grosses from touring shows reached $752,905,827, second only to the previous year’s $762 million record, even with that 1% slip — which was the first in nearly 10 years, mostly due to a weak autumn season that saw the early closings of two shows (“Funny Girl” and “Applause”) and disappointing business for others (“Sunset Boulevard,” “Death Trap”).

The nation’s interest in, if not exactly devotion to, theater was further evidenced by the sharp rise in Nielsen ratings for this year’s Tony broadcast June 1, proving that lots of free publicity and a well-liked talkshow host can incite at least some curiosity about a competition among tenants of a five-block chunk of Manhattan.

But for investors, Broadway virtually defines the phrase “risky business.” Consider the odds: Disregarding 17 nonprofit productions, the 21 new commercial productions this year included only one play (the $850,000 “Skylight”) that had recouped its modest capitalization by the season’s end, one musical (the $3 million smash “Chicago”), and a few limited-run not-particularly-legit special attractions (David Copperfield’s “Dreams and Nightmares,” the Walt Disney Co.’s concert “King David” and self-help guru John Gray’s lecture series).

The misfires

Shows that did not recoup included musicals “Once Upon a Mattress” and “Play On!,” and plays “Julia Sweeney’s God Said ‘Ha!’ ” “Taking Sides” and “Present Laughter.” Others, including some of the season’s more expensive musicals, are sure to follow.

Horton Foote’s “The Young Man From Atlanta,” for example, posted a June 8 closing notice after losing the best play Tony to Alfred Uhry’s “The Last Night of Ballyhoo.”

The $750,000 “Atlanta” will not recoup, but the Tony win for the $1.2 million “Ballyhoo” could be just the ticket that play needs for a run past summer and into profitability.

Bill Kenwright’s production of “A Doll’s House” will go black before going dark July 26. If Kenwright extends, he’ll have to replace most of the British cast — not including star Janet McTeer — due to transatlantic Equity rules. Another candidate for recoupment is Livent’s modestly budgeted one-man show “Barrymore,” though it will have to do so before Tony-winning star Christopher Plummer exits and the show closes in August.

Now if someone could just convince Plummer and McTeer to team up for a tuner, the sound of music might not have such a tough time at the box office.

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