B’way churns while B.O. burns

Some closers amid soaring grosses

NEW YORK With so much gloomy news coming from Broadway — shows closing, producers panicking, directors tinkering — who’d have guessed that this season is heading for a happy ending?

Nearly two-thirds through the 1997-98 year, Broadway is breaking records and is well on its way to the highest total gross in its history.

Scoring its biggest weekly gross ever, Broadway took in $15,776,122 for New Year’s week (Dec. 29 to Jan. 4), a 13% increase over the previous record of $13.9 million set during Christmas week 1996 (Dec. 23-29, 1997).

The $15.7 million figure is a whopper even by holiday standards (ticket prices are spiked on New Year’s Eve), jumping more than $4 million over last year’s gross for the same holiday week.

The season-to-date total is $316,153,112, nearly 8% higher than the same period last year ($294 million). On average, ticket-buyers have been spending $49.09 on Broadway productions this season, a 2.5% hike over the $47.89 average for the comparable period last year.

Broadway owes its current financial heft to the combination of heavy-hitting newcomers (“The Lion King,” “Ragtime,” “The Capeman”), a couple of unexpected rainmakers (“The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “1776”) and a strong stable of holdovers from last season that continue to rack up good numbers (“Chicago,” “The Life” and, dispelling any notion that the blockbuster movie of the same name would steal business, “Titanic,” which set a house record at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater during New Year’s week with a sellout $782,287).

But the box office figures also reflect a larger number of productions on the boards: Broadway rang out 1997 with 32 shows, compared with 24 the previous year — a proliferation that, judging by a raft of recent closings, might be more glut than bounty.

By the end of January, the Broadway roster will be leaner by six productions than when the month began. One of the shows, the Kevin Kline starrer “Ivanov,” came to the end of its limited run at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater Jan. 4, while two productions, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Grease,” will have run out of steam after long, profitable runs.

Three of the closers, though, are recent entries that never found audiences. Neil Simon’s “Proposals,” set to close Jan. 11 after 76 performances and 11 previews, won’t recoup its $1.6 million cost. Neither did the musicals “Side Show” ($5 million) and “Triumph of Love” ($3.5 million).

The rash of closings is typical for post-holiday Broadway, as producers rush to cut their losses prior to inevitable downturns at the box office during the barren months of January and February.

At least two other recent productions are struggling: “Street Corner Symphony,” which even with an average ticket price of $21.81 sold only slightly more than half its seats during New Year’s week, and “Jackie: An American Life,” which filled less than a third of its seats.

“The Diary of Anne Frank,” meanwhile, has built a solid audience, and the nonprofit Roundabout Theater Company has extended its mainstage run of “A View From the Bridge” by two weeks to Feb. 15.

Two new musicals, one riding good word-of-mouth, the other dogged by rumor, are doing well in previews, at least financially.

Livent’s “Ragtime,” in its first full week of previews, grossed a hefty $900,402, making the tuner the biggest grossing show on Broadway. In part, that’s because it’s located in the second biggest theater on Broadway, the recently refurbished 1,813-seat Ford Center for the Performing Arts. Only the Gershwin Theater, at 1,899, is larger.

Meanwhile, Paul Simon’s “The Capeman,” despite widespread reports of problems that culminated with the recent hiring of director Jerry Zaks to troubleshoot, did in fact do decent business over the holidays. For the week ending Jan. 4, “The Capeman” grossed $647,988 of a potential $744,297, selling 86% of its 12,840 seats.

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